Solar energy is being looked upon as a clean way to maintain an energy grid on a national scale. Indeed, in Germany solar energy accounts for up to 1% of total electricity, with a view to increase that to one-quarter by 2050. But, solar power is also a viable option at the residential level. So, what is the history of solar energy, and what are some of the myths and barriers to its use in the 21st century home?
Writer and solar energy enthusiast Katherine Morrison touches on a solar energy overview to address these issues …
With a climate crisis looming and energy costs soaring, solar energy is finally getting its day in the sun. Though it has long been hailed as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, public perception has been that solar electric systems are ineffective or just plain too expensive. Now, however, that perception is starting to shift.
Thanks to technological advances and strong incentives in many states, installing a solar electric (PhotoVoltaic or PV) energy system has become one of the most cost-effective improvements you can make to a home, saving more energy than most HVAC, insulation or window upgrades – while costing less.
A Brief History of Solar Energy Use
- 3rd century B.C.: Ancient civilizations begin holding mirrors and other reflective surfaces to the sun to make fires. Roman bathhouses install south-facing windows to take advantage of the sun’s heating potential.
- 1200 A.D.: The Pueblo Nation in North America builds south-facing cliff dwellings to capture the heat of the sun during the winter.
- 1876: Scientists Evan Day and William Grylls Adams discover that solid materials could change sunlight into electricity, even if there are no moving parts or heat.
- 1891: Clarence Kemp patents the first solar water heater.
- 1908: The Carnegie Steel Company’s William J. Bailey invents a solar collector that’s similar to present designs.
- 1947: Passive solar buildings become more popular because of scarce energy resources after WWII.
- 1983: Solar Design Associates builds a 4-kilowatt powered, stand-alone home in the Hudson River Valley.
- 2000: A Morrison, Colo., home acquires the U.S. record for the largest solar residential installation, with a 12-kilowatt solar electric system.
- 2001: Home improvement stores begin selling solar electric systems for residential use.
Trends in Solar Energy Systems
As technology develops and more homeowners become interested in solar energy, the market continues to evolve, making home solar systems more accessible than ever. Solar module prices have fallen by two-thirds or more during the past four years. Now, as prices begin to stabilize, going solar is the cheapest it’s ever been.
Another interesting trend is the practice of solar leasing, which allows homeowners to convert without a large up-front investment. Solar leasing programs will buy and maintain your solar system for you and then sell you the electricity it produces as a service. Ninety percent of all solar customers use this type of option instead of purchasing their own systems and paying to have them installed.
Barriers to Residential Solar Energy
Although clean solar energy is becoming increasingly available to homeowners, there are still many obstacles to overcome before we can achieve a clean-fuel future. These include:
- Lack of knowledge. Many people simply don’t know about the benefits and cost savings, or they assume solar won’t work for them.
- Solar access. Not all homes are appropriate for solar, such as those with too much shading, small roofs or out-of-date electrical systems.
- Up-front cost. Not all homeowners can take advantage of financing, tax incentives or even solar leases.
Solar Energy Myths Debunked
Myth: Solar energy works best in warm, sunny climates.
Fact: Solar electric systems work well anywhere in the U.S., even in cloudy areas. The difference between the best and worst sites in the U.S. is only about 30 percent. The world leaders in solar energy installations, Germany and Japan, have less solar resource than almost anywhere in the U.S.
Myth: Solar energy is too expensive.
Fact: With strong incentives in many states and excellent financing options, going solar means lower monthly costs and better-than-market rates of return on investment.
Myth: Solar energy isn’t reliable.
Fact: Solar power is always backed up grid-power and can be augmented with batteries or generators where blackouts are frequent. In general, solar electric systems have no moving parts and are installed to last 30 years or more.
Myth: Solar power isn’t enough to significantly offset emissions.
Fact: Solar energy doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases or atmospheric emissions and can directly offset our dirtiest energy: coal-powered electricity. The amount of energy used to make solar panels is usually paid back within one to two years of solar production.
Solar energy – robust and viable
Solar electric systems are a robust and viable part of meeting our energy needs. Germany and Japan are on their way to deriving 25 percent of their energy from solar. The U.S. has dramatically more solar potential, so the future is bright!
Katherine wrote this piece on behalf of imagineenergy.net, a company who is passionate about sustainable, clean energy.