Solar Panel Possibilities

The sun … Source of (in effect) limitless free, clean energy! And isn’t it great that we have special gizmos called solar panels that can turn sunshine into electricity! These days I’m seeing more and more houses and other buildings with solar panels. And there seem to be an endless parade of ads urging homeowners to contact this or that solar company and find out how they can start producing free electricity for zero money down.

The conversion of sunlight into electricity by solar panels is called “solar photovoltaics.”

Although solar panels are touted as a way to get off of “dirty” electric-power sources such as coal and nuclear, there is no free lunch. The panels, as well as the batteries, themselves require energy to manufacture and transport. And they require materials such as heavy metals, the mining and disposal of which creates toxins in the environment.

In my book, I explain my decision not to have solar panels. Basically, my electricity use is so low (about 2% of the US average household’s when I’m by myself in the house, and less than 10% of the US average even when I have two housemates living with me) that getting solar panels would actually increase my household eco-footprint substantially.

However, I hear that a lot has changed in the solar PV world in the past few years. Solar panels and batteries have improved, and the panels have come down in price.

Up to this point, I have always concluded that solar panels would not improve my footprint. Still, out of curiosity, I have contacted a few solar companies over the past couple of years to explore the possibility of having panels. But, when I tell them my electricity usage, they quickly inform me it’s not worth it, I wouldn’t qualify for any rebates, etc.

But, although rebates are nice, I wouldn’t really be in it for the rebates.

This past Saturday at the farmers’ market, a solar company I’d never spoken with before had a booth. I had an extended conversation with the young man there, who was really interested in my low electricity use and is eager to look into my situation. He said it might turn out that it’s worth my investment.

My house does have a sun-drenched, south-facing roof in its favor. Potentially, it could generate quite a bit of power for the grid as well as for my household. The guy at the farmers’ market told me that in Florida, we are able to sell our surplus electricity to the power company. I had heard of other states where that’s allowed, but I did not know Florida was one.

Being able to sell surplus electricity is neat, but what’s really neat is the idea that a private individual can be generating electricity and feeding it to the grid, thus contributing, however fractionally, to an increase in the grid’s percentage of renewable energy.

Several fellow permaculturists around the state and the country have solar setups. One in particular, I really trust her judgment, so I plan to have a chat with her about her thoughts on the eco impact.

That nice guy from the solar company is coming soon to check out my place for solar-panel potential. I will let you know the outcome!

I have serious concerns about the eco footprint of the panels and associated stuff. But I realized it’s time for me to get a better grasp of these details, and I think a visit from a solar company is a great next step. And hey, if all goes well, it’ll be neat to have a sun-powered house!

A final note: I do not recommend “off-grid” systems. Off-grid systems require massive banks of batteries, and I want to minimize batteries because of their eco footprint. Also, off-grid systems, by definition, are not able to produce power for the collective use. Grid-tied is my choice, whether I stay with my conventional setup or end up getting solar panels. Of course, for some people living in rural areas, grid-tied may not be an option. But, I just want to caution against this romanticized idea of “living off-grid with solar panels” as some eco-friendly, permaculture ideal. It isn’t necessarily eco-friendly, and it’s actually more fragile and vulnerable than being grid-tied.

If you want to be really resilient, I recommend learning how to get by with little or no electricity. It doesn’t mean you have to live that way on a daily basis, but knowing how to do it is a great asset to your household and community.

Suggested action steps for anyone interested in solar PV:

• Contact every solar-power company that serves your area. All the ones I’ve talked to will come out and give a free estimate. There’s nothing to lose! Even if you’re an “electricity miser” like me, don’t automatically assume you’re not a candidate. Be sure and include the smaller, local companies in your search, as they might be more willing to take on a less-profitable job.

• Reduce your everyday electricity needs, so it’ll be more feasible to meet your needs with solar or other renewables. Even if you find out panels aren’t worth it for you, the benefits of needing hardly any electricity are enormous. Including that tiny bill; and also the peace of mind that comes from feeling less vulnerable to power outages since you don’t need electricity for every little thing.