That massive fireball in the sky is also an economical and renewable source of energy. Governments fund research projects about it; private industries compete for new technologies regarding it; and resourceful homeowners have found ways to put it to work. The sun has been around since, well, the beginning of time, and in recent years, it has become even more important, as mankind finally has realized the need to conserve resources.
"Fifteen years ago, if you used solar energy, people looked at you funny. Now solar has become socially acceptable and desirable," says Dan Lepinski, co-host of the radio show "energizeGreen." A solar energy and energy conservation engineer, Lepinski lived "off the grid" for more than eight years in Wisconsin, using only solar and wind power. Off-grid means the building structure is self-sustaining and doesn't rely on public utilities.
Raymond C. Wiley, director of Aide Solar USA, in Tempe, Ariz., explains what a solar panel is: "Solar panels are composed of several individual photovoltaic cells that are arranged in a gridlike pattern on the surface of the solar panel. Solar panels collect clean renewable energy in the form of sunlight during the daylight hours and convert that light into electricity at convenient direct current voltages for storing in a battery or being directly converted into typical 120- to 230-volt alternating current, which can then be used to provide power for electrical loads. Solar panels are typically constructed with crystalline silicon, which is used in other industries, such as the microprocessor industry."
Solar photovoltaic, or PV, technology has been around for more than 70 years. It was discovered by Albert Einstein. The majority of solar applications in North America are tied into the grid as supplemental or backup power. The net energy metering law in California actually permits residents with grid-tied systems to feed their excess solar energy back into the public electricity grid, which actually "spins your meter backward" and compensates you for the production of electricity by giving you credits. Storing energy by recharging batteries has provided backup power for scores of residents in the Gulf states during hurricane season, as well as helped to run homes when the sun is not actually shining.
The cost of the materials to install solar energy panels used to be a deterrent for many private homeowners, but increased interest in solar panels, which has led to increased production of them, has made it more economically feasible. "The return on investment for a residential solar system nearly doubled when the solar tax credit cap was lifted late last year. Now a homeowner can expect to recoup her entire investment within about five years, with the panels guaranteed to generate electricity for 25 years," says Ken Sobel, president of United Sustainable Energy in San Diego. "Residential solar has never been more affordable. Solar PV is a perfect fit for all Southern California homes. In fact, the highest solar rebates in the U.S. are found in New Jersey, a state not known for its abundance of sunlight.
"Solar PV has no moving parts, so maintenance consists of a simple washing of the panels with an ordinary garden hose. Solar PV panels protect the homeowner's roof, extending its useful life by up to 50 percent." Sobel is happy to encourage reliance on solar energy. "There are no negatives, such as chemicals or fire potential. There are many custom solar products that maintain aesthetic integrity. Solar panels on a roof are a "badge of honor" showing commitment to being socially responsible and green."
If you are considering solar energy for your home, Raymond C. Wiley from Aide Solar USA offers the following advice: "The Solar Energy Industries Association Web site (http://www.seia.org) is an excellent starting point for a basic primer of solar energy and its options. Solar Estimate (http://www.solar-estimate.org) is a free public service providing a convenient, trusted means for estimating solar, wind and renewable energy system costs, running payback and financial analysis, and accessing contractor, installer and other professional services in the renewable energy and energy efficiency fields. They also provide a directory of solar and wind original equipment manufacturers and distributors." Another good resource is your state's energy commission.