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Why Solar Power is Right for You

By DOE

What's the value of electricity when it's unavailable? To put this question in perspective, think back to your home's last power outage. Depending on what you were doing at the time, it was either a minor inconvenience or it brought your activities — such as cooking a meal, for example — to a standstill. Now consider the fact that Amazon.com loses $1 million per minute when a power disruption makes its Internet site unavailable. It's easy to see that reliability is key, whether you're feeding your family or fueling the U.S. economy.

 

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Photovoltaic or PV systems, originally developed for use in space — where repairs are extremely expensive, if not impossible — are highly reliable. PV still powers nearly every satellite that circles the Earth, because it operates reliably for long periods of time and needs virtually no maintenance. And to dispel a commonly held "PV myth," PV systems can generate power in all types of weather. On partly cloudy days, they turn out as much as 80% of their potential energy. Even on extremely overcast days, they can still produce about 25% of their maximum output.

PV systems are easy to maintain. They have no moving parts, so visual checks and battery servicing are enough to keep systems up and running. Because manufacturers test solar panels for hail impact, high wind, and freeze-thaw cycles representing year-round weather conditions, weather damage is no greater potential problem for PV systems than for other types of energy production systems.

 

Isn't PV expensive?

Although we've made great strides in reducing costs in the last 20 years or so, electricity from PV is not yet cost-competitive with electricity from an established grid. However, it really doesn't have to be! PV supplies electricity when and where energy is most limited and most expensive, making a valuable strategic contribution to our energy mix. Energy from PV doesn't simply replace some fraction of electricity generation; it displaces the right portion of the load. Once installed, PV systems can produce power continuously with little upkeep and minimal operating costs.

Consider these facts. Because PV cells use the energy from sunlight to produce electricity, the "fuel" is free. PV systems are usually placed close to where the electricity is used and usually require much shorter power distribution lines than those needed to bring power in from the utility grid. In addition, using PV eliminates the need for a transformer to "step down" the power from the utility line. Less wiring means lower costs, shorter construction times, and reduced permit paperwork, particularly in urban areas. All these factors make PV systems cost-effective over their useful lives.

PV has virtually no environmental impact.

Would you be willing to pay a little more for your electricity if you knew it was environmentally "friendly"?

According to a 1999 utility market research study (Farhar 1999), the answer for most of us is yes. When customers are aware that there are utility energy options, including PV, 70% are willing to pay at least $5 more per month and 38% are willing to pay at least $10 more per month—realistic costs for today's PV systems. And these systems have almost no impact on the environment.

Because PV systems burn no fuel and have no moving parts, they are clean and silent, producing no atmospheric emissions or greenhouse gases that have detrimental effects on the planet. Compared with electricity generated from fossil fuels, each kilowatt of PV-produced electricity offsets up to 830 pounds of oxides of nitrogen, 1,500 pounds of sulfur dioxide, and 217,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, every year, according to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Herig 2000).

These are serious numbers, and the potential of PV-generated energy to make such great strides in avoiding pollution will only continue to climb as the PV industry grows and expands.

 

PV is modular and thus flexible in terms of size and applications.

What if you could size your energy-generating system down to the kilowatt?

With PV, one size does not fit all. That's one of its main advantages. A PV system can be constructed to any size in response to the energy needs at hand. And a PV system can be enlarged or moved as these energy needs change. For instance, homeowners can add modules every few years as their energy usage and financial resources grow.

In urban applications, PV can eliminate the need for costly trenches in streets. PV can be an outstanding choice for urban areas where grid power is unavailable or grid connections would be very costly or cumbersome. Lighting, irrigation, median sprinklers, water pumping, school and hospital warning signs, communications, and emergency services are just a few of the many successful uses for PV in cities and towns.

PV meets the demand and capacity challenges facing energy service providers.

Can PV help prevent brownouts and blackouts?

The answer is a resounding yes. When demand for electricity is high, such as during a heat wave when everyone's air conditioner is running, utilities must fire up their "peaking" power plants to meet the demand for just a few hours a day. These peaking plants are expensive to operate, and the utility's electric distribution system must be sized to handle these high, albeit short-term, loads. When a utility installs grid-connected PV arrays, the PV-generated electricity is used directly to help supply a building's peak demand; this is often called "peak load shaving." Coincidentally for photovoltaics, the need to meet peak loads arises when the sun is shining the brightest!

Another important benefit of PV systems is that they can produce power near the point of use — a concept we call "distributed generation." Before the grid becomes overloaded, then, PV systems step in to provide electricity to individual homes and buildings. PV helps energy service providers manage uncertainty and mitigate risk.

But doesn't PV look really ugly on the roof?

Not anymore. State-of-the-art PV modules are now available in a variety of colors and styles, allowing designers to use them as aesthetic elements built right into roofs, skylights, awnings, entryways, and facades. Today's modules can even be specified to transmit a percentage — usually 80% to 90% — of natural light. Mixed with nontransmissive modules, these systems create a pleasant environment inside the building, helping to ventilate and heat the building at the same time.

When PV systems are properly integrated into a building "envelope," they don't just provide power and light, they contribute to the structure itself. This relatively new concept, called "building-integrated PV," is taking hold. Think of it this way — since a building has to have windows, why not have windows that produce power? It makes financial sense, too, because the savings on conventional structural materials often offset the cost of the PV materials.

 

 

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Why Solar Power is Right for You:  Created on June 15th, 2009.  Last Modified on November 19th, 2009

 

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About DOE

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) advances the national, economic and energy security of the United States, promoting scientific and technological innovation in support of that mission.

 

 

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