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Options for Solar Power at Home


Electric solar panel, home, exterior
Ross Chandler/E+/Getty Images

Homeowners have several choices when it comes to taking advantage of the sun’s energy to provide electricity.

Install a photovoltaic (PV) system

A solar power system uses photovoltaic (PV) panels to convert the sun’s energy into electricity. The panels contain dozens of solar cells which absorb sunlight, causing a phenomenon referred to as the “photoelectric effect.” This effect forms electric current that the panels capture in a circuit and then distribute to the home’s electrical system.

A well-engineered PV system in a location with good sunlight resources on the roof can potentially provide a large portion of the electricity required to power an energy-efficient home. In some cases, it can generate a surplus of electricity during daylight hours. This extra electricity might be sold to a utility and delivered through the electric grid to other customers in an approach called “net metering.”

Pros and cons of home solar

Install a thermal solar system

For homeowners who can’t afford a PV solar power system that generates electricity, another less-costly option that takes advantage of the sun’s energy is a thermal solar water heater. These systems can also be used to heat swimming pools and to provide hot liquid for radiant space heating, which can be distributed by panels on ceilings or walls, or by an in-floor tube system.

Solar water heaters share some of the same advantages and disadvantages as a PV system. One of the obvious differences is that the water heater must be connected into the plumbing system, rather than the electrical system. That cost would probably be factored into the contractor’s bid for installation of the water heater.

The other significant difference is solar water heaters don’t require the expensive panels of a PV solar power system. The several kinds of water heaters each have a simpler solar collector for capturing the sun’s energy, which is then used as a direct heat source.

Solar water heating systems for the home

Plan ahead with passive solar

Another approach to harnessing the sun’s energy in your home is to just let the sun do what it does by taking advantage of passive solar home design.

Homes using passive solar technology might have doors, windows, walls and floors built with materials that in cold weather can absorb the sun’s warmth and store it. Then at night the heat is released to warm the house. In warm weather these same materials reverse the effect.

Other passive solar devices, techniques and systems include engineered roofing, climate-appropriate ceiling and wall insulation and thorough air sealing. Features also include customized canopies or engineered overhanging eaves that shade windows from direct sunlight during the summer but are configured to allow sunlight in during winter.

Landscaping can also be carefully designed to serve as a valuable tactic for increasing a house’s energy efficiency.

Purchase solar power from a utility

The simplest option could be to get solar power from a utility. If you want to buy your electricity from a provider of solar-generated power, here are some tips:

Check with your current provider to see if a “green pricing program” is available. These programs give electricity consumers the choice of purchasing a part or all of their electricity from sources using renewable energy technologies. If you can choose this option, ask for details about the sources of renewable energy available.

If you live in a deregulated area with competitive market options, you likely have a choice of electricity providers that offer a renewable option. Check with your state utility commission or local jurisdiction for information. Or visit www.competecoalition.com to check if your state is deregulated.

Where can I get electricity?

California is among the deregulated markets and may soon take a giant leap forward in “distributed solar.”

A bill approved by a state Senate committee would allow California consumers to choose electricity from a local solar power generator and receive credit on their electric bills for that portion of electricity. This is similar to net metering, in which a home owner gets credit for any excess electricity that flows back into the utility grid from their standalone solar system.

The California policy was developed by an advocate who acknowledges that high costs puts home-based solar power systems out of reach for most consumers. Nevertheless, for homeowners who can afford it, a stand-alone system may make sense.

Where can I get electricity?

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