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Solar panel recharging a batteryI’ve been learning about solar power. Prior to prepping, I didn’t know anything at all about solar energy. I’d guess that a lot of you are also in the dark when in come to solar. From what I’m reading and learning, I think we’d do well to begin looking into it.

Solar power has been around for a long time and it still hasn’t really caught on. I think my first encounter with practical solar power was with a small calculator that we powered by a photosensitive strip. I still use one of these on my part-time job a couple of times a week.

Solar power has come a long way from the novelty of being able to run a calculator with it. It has many practical applications that can benefit you now and could be a game changer for you if the power grid ever goes down. Let me share some of what I’ve been learning.

Effectiveness
Solar power works well, but it works better in some places than it does others. Solar panels work best when they are exposed to direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time. Not surprisingly, solar is a better option in Phoenix than it is in Seattle where the annual Rain Festival begins on January 1st and runs through December 31st. Another area of the U.S. that is not optimal for solar is the Great Lakes region (where your humble blogger happens to live).

If you live in a cloudy area, don’t tune me out just yet. You’ll see that there might still be a place for solar power in your energy plan.

Costs
Solar is still expensive. There are a number of reasons for that. First, it’s still in the developmental phase. New research is continually being done to make solar powered systems more efficient, more durable, more portable, and more economical. All that trial and error costs money. The other major factor in the cost of a solar system is the economy of scale. As soon as solar catches on and becomes more popular, mass production will begin in earnest. Build a few units costs a lot. Building thousands upon thousands drives the cost per unit way down. We’re not there yet, so the early adopters are bearing the brunt of the cost.

But your federal government wants to help you! Yeah, you’ve heard that one before. They’re here to help and you’re glad they’re here. But this time, really! The federal government offers a 30% tax credit on solar systems that help to power your home. Check this out from their website:

A taxpayer may claim a credit of 30% of qualified expenditures for a system that serves a dwelling unit located in the United States that is owned and used as a residence by the taxpayer. Expenditures with respect to the equipment are treated as made when the installation is completed. If the installation is at a new home, the “placed in service” date is the date of occupancy by the homeowner. Expenditures include labor costs for on-site preparation, assembly or original system installation, and for piping or wiring to interconnect a system to the home. If the federal tax credit exceeds tax liability, the excess amount may be carried forward to the succeeding taxable year.
http://energy.gov/savings/residential-renewable-energy-tax-credit

This 30% tax credit applies to solar-electric systems, solar water heating solutions, and fuel cells. Knocking 30% off the price of the hardware and installation can make solar energy much more attractive and affordable. And there may be other credits offered by your state or local governments. Contact your local electric utility for current information regarding your locale. If you want more info about these on-the-grid systems, a good source is Solar Sphere. They’ve got a ton of good information and some interesting looking products. They also have a lot of off-the-grid stuff.

solar educationOn-the-Grid vs. Off-the-Grid Systems
An on-the-grid solar system is one that is hooked into your home’s electric power utility. The solar power that you collect from panels mounted on your roof or elsewhere feeds into your whole-house electrical system. The solar power is used first, causing you to not draw as much juice from the electric company. Your electrical meter will visibly not spin so fast. If at any moment you’re generating more power than you’re consuming, the meter will actually spin in reverse as the excess energy is fed into the grid. At this point, the electric company is paying you for helping to supply energy for your community. How cool is that? While we’re on the topic of saving money, I think the tax credits mentioned above only applies to this type of on-the-grid solar application.

Off-the-grid solar products are those that are not connected into your home’s electrical system. These are portable, stand-alone units that vary greatly in size and capacity. The smaller models are self-contained units, but the larger ones have three main components: the solar panel(s) that collect the energy, a battery that stores the energy, and an inverter that converts the direct current (DC) power into alternating current (AC) electricity that most of our electrical appliances and gadgets run on.

Small units could be the size of a tablet computer and could be used for recharging an iPad or a smartphone. The batteries for medium-sized units would be about the size of a car battery and could power emergency or outdoor lighting systems, recharge laptop computers, or even run a TV for a couple of hours. Large units (think something the size of an ice chest) are sometimes called “gas-free generators” and can power more appliances for a longer period. A large unit fed by a nice array of solar panels could keep your freezer going for a long time.

The Non-Solar Solar Solution
Oddly enough, these solar batteries aren’t just charged by solar panels. You could charge them by plugging them into an electrical outlet and keep them charged until your power goes out or you need to take them away from a conventional electrical source. These systems are used by campers, salesmen in tradeshow booths who don’t want to pay the outrageous electrical hook-up fees charged at some venues, and people who need to do demonstrations or presentations where there is not convenient electrical outlet, etc.

It’s conceivable that you could have a use for one of these gas-free generators and never hook it up to a solar panel at all – just recharge it from your electrical outlet and take the generator out in the field with you. But if you’re going to use it outside, having one or more solar panels to help recharge your generator just makes good sense.

If you want to learn more about off-the-grid solar products, I’d start looking at Goal Zero. They are a leading brand with some very cool looking products.

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