I’ve always had a bit of a keen interest in renewable energy. When I was about 13 years old I bought a science kit from a National Geographic store that allowed you to attach a small solar panel to a little unit that charged 2 AAA batteries. It took almost an entire day in broad daylight, but at the end of it I could play my Game Boy Pocket for a couple of days with electricity I generated on my own. I was rapt. I fell in love with Solar.
But now I am a big boy. Now I have a house. Now I have a big boy solar panel. It's awesome.
This post was originally published on December 3, at 4:45PM.
Solar pic via Shutterstock
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the tech, a standard solar setup is made up of two primary elements – a solar panel, which converts all that lovely free energy into power and an inverter, which converts that power to the same current we use in our electricity network. Each panel can generate a certain amount of wattage, for example, 260W. In my basic setup, I had six 200W panels linked up to a 1000W (or 1 KiloWatt (KW)) inverter.
Now, if you take a look at your last power bill, you’ll see that your utility has charged you in KwH. A KwH unit in its basic form is a 1000W device being run for one hour. For example, a PS4 runs at about 110W on average. Running that sucker for an hour will use about 0.11KwH. To make things simple, the amount of power solar panels produce is measured in the same way. But because there are so many factors that can come into play (How bright is the sun where you are? How many hours a day is it out? Is there any shading on your panels?) how much you will get varies.
Now I live in Sunny Queensland, so I’m in one of the areas where Solar is most beneficial. There’s lots of bright sun available and its fairly abundant. I would generate about 4kWH a day with my little system – that’s about 1/5 of the average 4 person household’s daily energy consumption. It doesn’t seem like much, but it makes a big dent. Think of all the things that you leave running during the day – pool pumps, computers, standby devices, slow cookers and washing machines – you aren’t paying a cent* for most of that. Once those panels are on your roof, you have free** power for life.
*/** - A $6000 system would take roughly 3-4 years to be paid off via savings on power bills. Likely less if tarrifs are frozen or increased.
Back in the gold rush days of the mid naughties, state and national governments in Australia couldn’t throw enough money at Solar. Realising that the key to meeting new stringent climate change targets lay in a public-private partnership of sorts with the general public, a huge number of rebates, grants and special “Feed in Tariffs” (FiTs) were introduced to spur interest. It worked.
Australia has more Solar PV on roofs than any other country as a % of the population. In 2008 there was 9.5MW of power generated on rooves, now it's 1328MW. A lot of this was due to very generous Feed In Tariffs – which is the amount the government would pay per KwH of the power you didn’t use. In some states it was as high as SIXTY cents per KwH – this would mean that if I didn’t use any of the power I generated with my little system, I would have made $249 a quarter.
As a result, many enterprising folks did the sums and realised that if they bought a much larger system, say, 5KW, they could make up to $19k a year. After a few years, the backlash from budget hits and new conservative governments stopped most of these inflated FiTs from proceeding. Currently, only Tasmania has a FiT above 10c/KwH – 27.7c. On the flipside however, the cost of installation has tanked since 2008. A 5KW system would have cost upwards of $20-25k back in 2008. Right now you can get one for less than $5000.
Is It Worth It?
Solar pic via Shutterstock In a word? Yes. More now than ever. Sure, you can’t make buckets of money off your excess power anymore. But this was never the point – since systems were so expensive, governments needed ways to encourage early investment. They also needed quick results. Such a large FiT meant that those who invested big early on could get a return on investment within a few years. It takes a little longer now, but the barrier to entry is significantly lower – such generous FiTs aren’t necessary.
But while the debate rages on to what a fair price for your excess power is, the benefits continue to exist. On a 5KW system, with the sun shining, almost everything you do during the day is effectively carbon neutral and costs you nothing. You could run your home server, set a timer on your washer/dryer, heat up hot water and clean your pool. On the weekends in summer you can enjoy guilt free air-conditioning. Got an electric car? How about free fuel for life?
The day I switched on my 5KW system at my new house, my power use plummeted. Granted, I work from home so I use more power during the day than most, but my daily 16KwH dropped to 5KwH instantly. I changed my schedule so my dishwasher, washing machine and hot water ran during 9 and 5. On top of this, every bit of that power is green as can be and emission free. You know where and how it was generated. No billions of infrastructure required for delivery.
But there are still disadvantages. Utilities have bumped up daily service fees to compensate for the lack of power used during the day, making savings even more difficult to make. If you live in a cold or regularly cloudy part of the country, solar probably isn’t going to be as efficient, making the return on investment much longer. At the most, your paltry FiT would probably only generate enough to cover your service free and a couple of KW on top of your night-time usage. As a result, you *probably* wouldn’t get a bill credit unless you used very little power.
On top of this – if you’re renting, solar is just not a possibility for you.
Owning a solar system is like being part of a rapidly growing club of people who are immensely proud of their investment. Sites like PV Output suck up all of the information your inverter (and smart meter if you have one) and publish very live stats, reports and graphs that show you exactly how much you have generated each day, how efficient your panels are and how the weather impacted your generation. I can even track it on my phone.
I’ve become infatuated with it. I keep it in a window and marvel as my panels still manage to produce power on the cloudiest of days, or even during a rain storm once. I compare to other PV setups in the area and smile as my system outperforms one a few suburbs over. I think about how incredible it will be once all this excess is captured and stored so I can finally break the love/hate relationship I have with my power company. Hell, track it yourself.
If you have a smart meter or a monitor you can also dump that information into the software for a much bigger picture – you’ll be able to see how much of the energy you created was sold to the grid, plus how much you bought from the grid and when. This information is super handy – not only is it a simple way of managing your power use, but it would also give you a great indictation as to whether a battery would be worthwhile or not.
In Conclusion, Solar Is Super Good
Solar uptake has slowed of late, mainly due to the financials not being as strong as they once were. But solar is still the absolute best way to make a huge impact to one of the most important parts of your everyday life – whether you care about the environment or your hip pocket.