On The Sunny Side

By Paul R. Huard

June 20, 2008 4 min read

ON THE SUNNY SIDE

Solar power may be bright idea whose time has come

By Paul R. Huard

Copley News Service

Thinking about going solar so you can save money and save the planet at the same time?

The option is available to have a home powered by solar energy, but the choice is an expensive one. If you are willing to make the investment, solar energy can be the first step toward energy savings and less reliance on fossil fuels.

"Solar power allows ordinary homeowners the opportunity to use the world's most abundant energy source," says Brian Crowe, program manager for Solar Power in the Midwest, maintained by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

According to the Solar Power in the Midwest Web site, solar modules are comprised of multiple solar cells. The solar cells (also called photovoltaic or "PV" cells) capture energy from sunlight and convert it into electricity.

This conversion process occurs because of the special properties of the semiconducting materials (silicon) from which the solar cells are made. The silicon that makes up solar cells is a semiconductor material having properties of both a metal and an insulator.

When the sun shines on the solar modules they produce direct current (DC) electricity. This electricity is transmitted from the modules to an electronic inverter, which converts the DC electricity to alternating current (AC). The AC electricity is then transmitted to the home or building's distribution system to supply electric power as needed throughout daylight hours.

The excess electricity is diverted out to the power grid causing the electric meter to spin backward and produce credits toward the electric utility bill. During non-sun hours, utility power provides the electricity needed.

The cost of systems vary, but on average the purchase and installation of a home solar system can cost in excess of $20,000 or more.

Although there are many programs that try to provide financial incentives to switch to solar power, tax credits and rebates differ from state to state, and even city to city. To find out what rebates governments and utilities are offering visit www.dsireusa.org, a Web site set up by the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

In addition, there are questions of safety and adequacy that you need to consider before getting a system. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends that consumers use the services of a qualified and licensed contractor when going solar.

According to the DOE, you should ask the following:

- Has the company installed grid-connected PV systems? If not, has it installed grid-independent (or stand-alone) PV systems? Experience in installing grid-connected systems is valuable because some elements of the installation - particularly interconnection with the local utility - are unique to these systems.

- How many years of experience does the company have installing PV systems? A contractor who has been in business a long time probably understands how to work with customers and to compete effectively with other firms. Additionally, the contractor will probably be aware of the latest code and permitting issues surrounding the installation of PV systems.

- Is the company properly licensed or certified? PV systems should be installed by an appropriately licensed contractor. This usually means that either the installer or a subcontractor has an electrical contractor's license. Your state electrical board can tell you whether a contractor has a valid electrician's license.

Local building departments might also require that the installer have a general contractor's license. Call the city or county where you live for additional information on licensing.

? Copley News Service

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