Solar Power: Look Before You Leap
Going Solar Is A Very Costly Endeavor
by Damien Andrews
Ever since President Obama's presidential campaign, when he spoke of taking America into the renewable energy era, solar power and wind power systems have been enjoying renewed attention. Herein, we'll be confining the discussion to solar power, though many aspects of using solar power are identical to using wind power.
Some people consider augmenting their grid-provided electricity with solar power. Others consider using solar power to provide all of their electricity needs. Augmenting a grid system with solar power is much easier and less costly than using solar power as the only source of electricity. Both approaches are admirable, from a green perspective. However, at this point in time, neither approach is remotely feasible from a cost standpoint.
Currently, the average cost of a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity is about 12¢. Basically, a kWh is 1,000 watts used for an hour. Example: if you turn on a 1,000 watt light bulb for one hour, you've used 1 kWh of electricity. Your monthly electric bill will tell you a) how many kWh you have used and b) the current cost of a kWh. The cost of a kWh often varies during seasons of the year in many locations.
As an FYI, here are the watts used by a few common household items. Coffee maker: 1,200 watts. Washing machine: 1,000 watts. Microwave 1,000 – 2,200 watts. Hair dryer 800 – 1,500 watts. 220/240-Volt Electric clothes dryer: 3,000 – 7,000 watts. For a more comprehensive list visit: http://mymilescity.com/how-to-solar-power/common_wattages_chart.html.
Solar power costs and realities
At the heart of the solar power system is the solar panel. We'll go with one of the best and most powerful, the Sunsei 71015 SE-24000 400-Watt 16.5-Volt Solar Panel Generator. This solar panel costs around $3,000. It is capable of generating 400 watts, but only under utterly ideal (laboratory) conditions. If you mount it perfectly, it will actually generate something more like 320 watts for 4 hours per day on bright sunny, days. The rest of the day, it will generate much less power. To make the cost of this solar panel relative, one must use 25,000 kWh (25,000 x 1,000 watts) to pay for this unit. If the unit produces 2,000 watts per day, it will take 12,500 days, or roughly 34 years, to pay for the solar panel
The solar power panel will require a mounting system. Something low-end will cost around $100. If you want your solar panel to track the sun to maximize its generating power, you'll spend $300 and up. The rack or stand for the solar panel will likely go onto your roof, and thus require either a highly skilled handyman or a professional – add $150+, depending on the variables involved.
Now you'll need a controller. Add $50 to your solar power project for this item, which will itself consume some of the power generated by your solar panel, thus reducing the usable electricity generated.
If you can't get a controller that matches the voltage of your solar panel, you'll need an inverter. A small, one, for just the single solar panel, will cost about $100. This item also consumes generated power to operate.
Now you'll require an electrician, so that everything is wired to code. A simple solar power wiring job will cost $500±. More complex jobs will raise the costs significantly. The further the electrician must run the wires you'll be buying from him, the greater the cost of parts and the work performed – and the more electricity will be lost in the wiring itself.
Finally, the solar panels will require regular cleaning and maintenance. On many roof applications the homeowner can do these things, otherwise they must be hired out to technicians experienced in these matters.
If, and 'If' is a big word here, your new solar power system can actually generate 2,000 watts of useable electricity per day (365/24/7) • 2,000 watts ÷ 24 hours = 83.3 watts per hour, you'll be able to run one 75 watt light bulb all day. Of course the generated power will fluctuate during the sun's journey across the sky, and your solar panels won't work 24/7. No matter how you break it all down, or use the electricity generated by your solar power system, the electricity generated will be 2,000 watts (2 kWh), which costs you about 24¢ per day to purchase from your electric company.