Solar houses are homes where the electricity supply is generated by sunlight. In most domestic installations, arrays of photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof convert the sun’s radiation into electricity. This is "going solar" and it seems like an ideal way to cut your electricity bills, reduce your use of fossil fuels, and contribute to a clean environment. After all, the sunshine is free and regular, isn't it? Think again. Solar energy comes with a string of unwelcome surprises.
Solar panel installation costs vary between $15,000 to $35,000 in the United States as of 2012, depending on the geographical location and the weather. The same number of panels will generate more electricity in sunnier states such as Arizona or California than in Minnesota or Montana. The payback period for this investment depends on any individual household's energy bills. If a household’s monthly electricity bill from the main grid is $100, it will take between 12 and 30 years for the investment in solar panels to pay back. This payback period could be shorter in states where energy costs are high. Renewable energy tax credits provided by the federal government for states such as California have helped to reduce some of the upfront costs.
Position and Weather
Once the solar panels are in place on a roof, they will receive electricity at most just between three and four hours daily. The panels must face toward the southwest or southeast to receive the maximum amount of sunlight. Not only do roof configurations vary from home to home, but they could be overshadowed by tall buildings, utility poles or trees that reduce the sunlight. Cloudy weather and air pollution reduce the amount of sunlight that can reach the panels. The solar energy system in a house must include a battery for energy storage. Batteries may need replacing every five years, adding further to the cost issues.
Aesthetics and Safety
Solar panels that are not an integral part of the design of a new home can spoil the overall look of a house. Racks of solar panels on the roof of an older house not only look ugly but can pose a safety issue if they detach and fall to the ground. This is a special problem for those areas subject to extreme winds.
Rare earth elements such as tellurium, indium, europium and neodymium are used widely in the manufacture of both solar panels and smart technology appliances for private, commercial and military use. At present, their production is dominated by China, which imposed export quotas on some minerals in 2011. A U.S. Congressional report in June 2012 warned of the vulnerability of rare earth element supply. Production of solar panels may be disrupted if the supply chains of these minerals slow down ahead of new mines being opened in other countries.
Based in London, Maria Kielmas worked in earthquake engineering and international petroleum exploration before entering journalism in 1986. She has written for the "Financial Times," "Barron's," "Christian Science Monitor," and "Rheinischer Merkur" as well as specialist publications on the energy and financial industries and the European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian and Latin American regions. She has a Bachelor of Science in physics and geology from Manchester University and a Master of Science in marine geotechnics from the University of Wales School of Ocean Sciences.