Published on June 26th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans
The 5 Myths of Solar Energy
When you’ve been in the solar energy industry as long as I have, you often end up with a sense of déjà vu when you hear the concerns and objections people voice around the idea of utilizing solar/photovoltaic energy in their homes. In fact, it’s quite common to hear the same exact set of questions and concerns voiced by prospective solar customers, and so I’ve collected what I refer to as “The 5 Myths of Solar Energy.” All of these concerns and questions are quite natural when one is new to solar energy.
Without further ado, let’s set the record straight on some of these common misnomers about solar/photovoltaic energy in the home:
Solar systems only work where there is abundant sunshine. It won’t work for me.
The largest solar markets in the world are Germany and Japan (roughly 5 and 3 times the size of the US market). Latitude wise the most Southern portion of Germany is the same as the northern tier US states close to the Canadian border. The average usable sunlight in Japan equals that of Michigan and Illinois (hardly the Sun Belt). Solar electric power systems work anywhere that the sun shines. Of course, in areas where there is abundant sunshine like Arizona, a smaller solar system will provide as much power as a larger system located in Maine or Washington State for example. But, solar works just about anywhere and makes a difference on your utility bills and in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted through the burning of fossil fuels. If there is enough light to see your hand in front of your face then solar panels can produce electricity.
Solar power is too expensive.
Expensive is a relative term. Though the average price of utility power in the U.S. is a little more than $.10 per kilowatt hour (kWh), if you live in some of the most populous areas you could be paying quite a bit more. Residents of California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and other states can pay upward of $.35 per kWh at times of peak power usage ( when solar works best). Many of these same states have rebates and incentives to help buy down the cost of solar power and the Federal Government is offering a tax credit incentive of 30% that reduces your cost even more. Let’s take a look at what this means in dollars and cents. A typical 3 KW solar home system in California costs approximately $21,000.00. After state rebate your cost is $13,500.00. The Federal tax credit for this system is $2000.00. So your net cost is $11,500 or $3,800 per KW. This system should cover roughly 50% of the yearly energy use of the home. And the value gets better over time as utility costs rise. When was the last time your utility reduced its rates?
Remember that solar energy is a clean technology: no pollutants, no noise, no clean up. The alternatives (i.e. the power sources that most people are using, including natural gas, coal and nuclear), are not. Nowhere in the cost of electricity generated from these sources is the cost of clean up added in. Think about it: What would the price of your power be if the cost of cleaning up the air and water from industry power production were added into your utility bill? Would you still consider solar to be expensive if it were? Another point to keep in mind is that when you pay your utility bill, all you really get in return is… well, the right to pay next months bill. An average family in the U.S. will pay more than $100,000.00 to the utility company in their lifetimes. You own your home, so why rent your electricity?
Solar electric systems will destroy the aesthetics of my home.
Most people who make this complaint are thinking about older solar hot water systems which employ large panels that sit in plain site on the roof. While I think solar hot water systems are very useful appliances for any home, solar electric systems are much different. They typically use much less space and come in shapes and models that make them almost invisible. The newest solar electric systems can have black backings which make the panel look uniform, fit the contours of a roof with triangular panels, and have trim that blends the solar array into the roof like a skylight. Also, solar modules in the shape of roof tiles that are virtually unnoticeable are now available.
The bottom line is that solar module manufacturers realize that in order for solar power to be accepted as a mainstream energy solution it has to look mainstream.
Americans change homes on the average of every seven years. You can never recoup your investment on a solar system.
The latest data shows that not only will you make a profit on your investment but you will sell your home quicker if you have a solar electric system installed. And as today’s housing boom flattens out, ease of selling is becoming a more important issue. Most, if not all, remodeling or home improvement, programs — such as putting in a swimming pool or a new hardwood floor — return 95% or less of the initial investment. Solar systems (because every system comes at a discount — remember state and federal incentives — and people value energy savings as utility rates continue to rise) return more than the original investment. Think about it, if you were looking at two identical homes for purchase but the yearly utility bill of one was half as much as the other, wouldn’t you pay a little more (and don’t forget that increased amount is translated into a small increase in your monthly mortgage payment). That’s all without considering the value of doing something good for your family and the environment.
Solar power only works because of government incentives.
Yeah, so what? Do you think it’s a coincidence that we pay less per gallon of gas than motorists who live in two of our largest gas suppliers, Mexico and Canada? It’s a fact that every fuel source that we use is subsidized in some way. For example, in the Federal Energy Bill of 2005, the Nuclear Industry was granted freedom from paying for law suits incurred. In that case, the Federal Government pays, thus lowering the cost of making electricity from nuclear fuels. Subsidies for solar systems typically and historically feature fixed time of operation, diminishing year-on-year subsidy amounts, and a sunset when the subsidy ends and solar power — in order to successfully matriculate into a mainstream energy choice — must be available at market price or as we like to say, achieve grid parity.
Many new and emerging technologies have been subsidized to ease market entry such as hybrid vehicles, wind power, energy efficient lighting and water heater blankets. Once America wakes up to that fact and gives solar the same shake as other energy sources, we’ll be better off. More: Solar Myths