From: James and Morris Carey, Associated Press
Published August 14, 2007 09:29 AM

Harness the Sun to Save Money, Save the Earth

Are your electric bills going through the roof? A solution just may be up there too:The roof is a great place to install solar collectors that convert the sun's energy directly into electricity.


Solar water heating for home use and as means of heating pool water has been both an affordable and popular technology for many years. Now, harnessing the sun's power to create energy to power one's home is growing increasingly popular.


Photovoltaic (PV) systems convert sunlight directly to electricity. They work any time the sun is shining, but more electricity is produced when the sunlight is intense and strikes the PV modules directly (as when rays of sunlight are perpendicular to the modules). Best of all, PV allows you to produce electricitywithout noise or air pollutionfrom a clean, renewable resource.


Beyond the standard "vanilla" PV panels, recent aesthetic innovations include solar tiles that look like ordinary roofing and blend in with most popular styles, but they are also photovoltaic collectors that convert sunlight into electricity.


A typical energy roof uses about 300 square feet of surface. In a sunny climate, it produces many thousands of kilowatts of clean energy per year. Any excess power you have can be fed back into the utility company grid for a credit on your bill.


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Before you decide to buy a PV system, there are some things to consider:


First, PV produces power intermittently because it works only when the sun is shining. This is not a problem for PV systems connected to the utility grid, because any additional electricity required is automatically delivered to you by your utility. In the case of non-grid, or stand-alone, PV systems, batteries can be purchased to store energy for later use. Batteries are also an option for storing excess power even when connected to the utility grid.


Second, if you live near existing power lines, PV-generated electricity is usually more expensive than conventional utility-supplied electricity. Although PV now costs less than 1% of what it did in the 1970s, the amortized price over the life of the system can still be higher than what most people pay for electricity from their utilities.


State and federal tax credits and solar rebate programs help make PV more affordable, but they typically can't match today's price for utility electricity in most cases. This condition is rapidly changing as utility prices continue to increase, making PV a sensible and cost-effective alternative. Also, PV system reliability and durability are excellent, with a typical PV system lasting up to 30 years with minimal maintenance.


Finally, unlike the electricity you purchase monthly from a utility company, PV power requires a high initial investment. This means that buying a PV system is like paying years of electric bills up front. Your monthly electric bills will go down, but the initial expense of PV may be significant. By financing your PV system, you can spread the cost over many years, and rebates can also lighten your financial load. Many PV installation companies have teamed up with lending institutions that offer creative financing.


The price for a PV system depends on a number of factors, including whether your home is under construction and whether PV is integrated into the roof or mounted on top of an existing roof. The price also depends on the PV system rating, manufacturer, retailer, and installer.


The size of your system may be the most significant factor in any measurement of costs versus benefits. For example, a 2-kilowatt system that meets nearly all the needs of a very energy efficient home could cost $16,000 to $20,000 installed, or $8 to $10 per watt. At the high end, a 5-kilowatt system that completely meets the energy needs of many conventional homes can cost $30,000 to $40,000 installed, or $6 to $8 per watt. These prices are rough estimates; your costs depend on your system's configuration, your equipment options, incentives and other factors.


How do you identify solar electric system providers? Here are several suggestions.


-- Contact the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) at 202-628-7745 for a list of solar service providers. SEIA is the national trade association of solar energy manufacturers, dealers, distributors, contractors, installers, architects, consultants, and marketers.


-- Contact your utility company to see which vendors it might recommend.


Getting more than one bid for the installation of your PV system is always a good idea. However, make sure that all bids are apples for apples.


For example, a bid for a system mounted on the ground is usually very different from another bid for a rooftop system.


Similarly, some PV modules generate more electricity per square foot than others. Bids should clearly state the maximum generating capacity of the system (measured in watts or kilowatts). If possible, have the bids specify the system capacity in "AC watts" under a standard set of test conditions, or specify the output of the system at the inverter.


Also request an estimate of the amount of energy that the system will produce on an annual basis (measured in kilowatt-hours). Because the amount of energy depends on the amount of sunlightwhich varies by location, season, and year to year it's unlikely the contractor will quote a specific figure, but rather a range.


Bids also should include the total cost of getting the PV system up and running, including hardware, installation, connection to the grid, permits, sales tax, and warranty.


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For more home improvement tips and information visit http://www.onthehouse.com or call our listener hot line 24/7 at 1-800-737-2474 (ext 59).


Source: Associated Press


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