Van Life

Solar Cells, Green Energy Benefits and Solar Power Costs Explained

By on March 20, 2013

We became interested in solar power because we knew we’d need a sustainable power source for our gadgets, so that we could work from the road. But first we had to understand what solar power actually is:

Solar power: the long-term savings, the eco-friendly energy and the endurance as a power source make it an ideal alternative. Many people are unclear how, exactly, solar power works. What are the specific green energy benefits and are the costs evenly balanced by the advantages?

How Solar Power Is Harnessed

Solar panels are either solar cells (aka photovoltaic cells or PV panels) that use semi-conductors or a precision focus system that is based on lenses and mirrors. The process of collecting solar energy works like this:

  • 2 protective panels cover an inner sheet of (usually) crystalline silicon cells that hold electrons.
  • Photons, or particles of sunlight, mingle with the electrons. The electrons react creating movement.
  • The movement of the electrons can then be collected as an electric current and used as an energy source by an external circuit.

The Energy Benefits of Using Solar Power

The clearest benefit of solar power: it’s an endless source of reusable green energy. Sunlight isn’t a finite source, unlike fossil fuels. Solar cells don’t have greenhouse emissions, and they don’t add to air or noise pollution. Fossils do. Other perks include:

  • The average lifespan of a solar cell installation is 20 years. The first 10 years, it runs at 90% and the next 10 at 80%. It’s an investment that will save you money in the long-term.
  • Solar power is putting out the most energy when electricity is highest in demand (i.e. daytime).
  • Some experts predict that the popularity and the introduction of alternative materials could decrease the cost of a solar panel system by as much as 50% in the near future.

How Much Does Solar Power Cost?

The costs of installing a solar power system are constantly changing, but a general estimate for an average system can run from $18,000-25,000. That’s out of most people’s price range, which is why many installers offer one of two solutions:

  • Leasing solar cells from an installer for a fixed monthly amount. The leases typically run from 15 to 20 years, which is the lifespan of the panels.
  • PPA (Power Purchase Agreement) is an agreement where you pay only for the amount of electric power that’s produced. The monthly prices fluctuate according to the power supplied.

Finding the Right Solar Power System

The best bet for finding the right fit for you and your energy needs is to do your research thoroughly, the same way you would any large investment.

You might want to try a very basic, simple system to become familiar with how solar power works for you in particular. A few tips to help your search:

  • Leases have a lot of small print to wade through. Find out what you’ll be responsible for (panel maintenance) and what guarantees you have in the contract before signing.
  • Average systems run on a ‘per watt’ base, either 3kw or 5kw. There are other options available to explore, depending on your energy needs.
  • Micro-panel solar power could be an alternative, and can handle normal household energy usage. • Ask your local or state utility agency for a list of certified solar cell installers.
  • Look into the possibility of outside funding. Some states provide ‘solar incentives’ via the Department of Energy’s DSIRE Solar and it could help with costs.

Installing solar cells is a smart choice. The simplicity of the system, the green energy benefits and the long-term savings all point towards the same direction: solar power is a worthwhile investment. Having portable solar power on our Westy was one of the best decisions we’ve made for our life on the road. What are your experiences with solar power? Let us know in the comments below!

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