One of the things I’ve been looking into is alternative energy options. I think it’s a great idea to have a backup solution – such as a generator – if the grid goes down, but what I’ve really been wondering is if having a primary system to use, with the grid as a backup to that, is an even better idea. So began my search.
I had two primary questions. First, are such systems practical and reliable? If a solar panel can’t power your lifestyle on a cloudy day, then how much of an advantage is that?
Second, do the economics make sense? In other words, is the money you save over time, combined with the extra reliability in the case of an extended power loss event, more than the cost of setting up such a system?
The first question, it turned out, was answered very straightforwardly. While optimum conditions are bright, sunny days, panels will generate about half output on partly cloudy days, and as little as 5 to 10 percent of maximum in dark overcast conditions.
This isn’t as bad as it sounds. In off-grid places, the panels charge batteries, which compensate for dark days. In on-grid places, the grid electricity makes up for any shortfalls, and during optimum conditions any extra electricity is sent back to the grid while reversing the meter.
So reliability checks out. But what about price?
Well, that’s quite a different story. A full bells-and-whistles professional installation will probably run you at least $20,000. If your electric bill is $50/month, it would take you 40 months, or almost 4 years, to make up the initial cost. That’s not actually that bad, especially if you take out a second mortgage to finance it at a low rate. You may even be qualify for tax credits, reducing the cost further.
I realize, however, that this is not an option for everyone, so I kept looking. This is when I found a few different make-your-own solar panel guides.
They are all DVD courses that promises quite a bit, but the primary idea is that you can set up your own solar panels and wind turbines to create more electricity than you need, for a fraction of the cost of a professional installation, and the electric company will send you a check for the extra power you send them.
It sounds too good to be true, right? That’s exactly what I thought.
Now I have to admit my limitations here. I’m not exactly a handyman. I can fix a leaky sink or running toilet, and on occasion I might even surprise you. In a pinch I could make quite a decent shelter in the woods. But to evaluate a video course’s merits on building a solar power electrical system? No, that’s beyond my ability.
So I found a friend, Jason, and had him check it out for me. Jason is an electrician by trade, and way more handy than me, so I figured this would be a fun project for him.
This is what happened when I interviewed him afterwards:
Me: What were your initial thoughts about the program?
Jason: Well, I don’t deal with solar panels normally, and wanted to figure out how they worked, so I thought this was a good opportunity to do that. The marketing video was really good.
Me: What did you think about the DVD videos?
Jason: The video quality wasn’t very good. It’s pretty much a guy talking into a camcorder he set up on a tripod, and he edited the video himself. And he is terrible at showing you how to do it. There’s one part where he’s teaching you how to make a straight cut, and he screws it up. Then he says that’s okay because it’s not important to get it perfect anyway. Well, if it’s not important, why are you showing me?
Me: Does his process work at least? Would you be able to build your own panels and save lots of money using it?
Jason: Maybe. But his finished product is ugly. If you live around people, you wouldn’t want your neighbors to see this thing on your house. And it doesn’t take into account the time to build one of these things. I figure it would take me 2-4 hours to build the first one, and a bit less once I figured it out. For someone not as handy it could be considerably longer. You probably need 10 of these, at minimum, for a standard house – it’s definitely not a weekend project like he says. So, how much is your time worth? Plus it leaves out the fact that you will need a professional to connect it to the grid.
Me: Would you recommend it?
Jason: No. Not to anyone I like, anyway. There’s no way I would build the panels he shows you. A better option would be just to buy larger, more expensive panels to start with. You could still save probably half price off a professional installation just buying those and having a professional come in for the finishing touches. There’s a lot of markup in a full professional install.
Me: What about the wind turbines?
Jason: It’s a really long program. It’s like 6 hours long. Plus the guy started to annoy me. I didn’t get through it all.
Me: Last question: Is what he says about getting paid by the electric company for sending them extra electricity true?
Jason: Yes. It’s called ‘net-metering’, and it works. I’ve actually had a few business opportunities come up based around it. Unfortunately, some electric companies have started putting caps in place so that you only get paid for a certain amount of overage, then any extra that you send them is free for them. I’ve heard of some companies that have stopped sending checks altogether. So it’s a nice bonus, if you can get it, but to expect a check every month is probably just a dream.
So there you have it. I hope this helps you think about an approach to solar energy. I know I didn’t get into the environmental benefits of such a plan, but those are hard to quantify, especially next to numbers that make so much sense, such as expenses and savings.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section. Jason has a family, so getting answers might take some time, but I will do my best. If there are any other alternative energy topics you’d like me to look into, leave that in the comments also.
PS: After looking into it further, it seems all of these might be made by the same guy. Beware of anything that sounds too good to be true.