Solar energy is one of many green technologies that homeowners can utilize. Roof-mounted solar collectors can generate electricity, or they can provide heat for air or water. Whether you are interested in reducing your household's negative effect on the environment or you are just looking for a way to lower your monthly utility bills, solar is an alternative energy source that offers advantages over fossil fuels.
Solar panels use photovoltaic cells to generate current, which can then power lights and appliances in your home. The amount of electricity a solar panel generates depends on its construction, and most manufacturers rate their panels to indicate how many watts each will produce under ideal conditions. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that the average home would require 10 to 20 solar panels to provide power throughout the daylight hours. (See References 2)
You can also use solar energy to heat your home. You can create a trombe wall by painting a southern-facing wall black and mounting glass panels about an inch away from its surface. The dark wall will absorb more heat from the sun, and the insulating air chamber will force the heat to radiate inwards over the course of several hours after the sun goes down. You can also install an active solar system, which pumps air or water through roof-mounted collectors and then distributes the hot air or water throughout your home. (See References 3, 4)
The two main advantages of solar energy are emissions and generation cost. Unlike conventional power and heat, which often come from fossil fuels and produce pollution when used, solar produces no emissions whatsoever when generating either power or heat. Once installed, solar panels and collectors cost nothing to run, and will absorb and convert solar energy without moving parts or fuel costs. If your home is particularly energy efficient, you may even be able to sell electricity back to your provider during peak generation hours, further lowering your costs. (See References 1, 5)
While solar energy costs very little to operate and maintain, installation costs can be substantial. Photovoltaic cells and active solar heating systems can cost thousands of dollars, meaning it can be many years before your solar installation sees a net profit. In addition, solar cells only function when the sun's out, and many areas only receive a few hours of peak sunlight each day, requiring a backup power source or other method of generation to keep electricity flowing at night or during bad weather. Solar panels are also dependent on the strength of sunlight in your region. The amount of energy the sun provides in arid regions close to the equator can be twice what you can capture in northern latitudes, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (See References 6)
- Energy Savers: How Small Solar Electric Systems Work
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Solar Photovoltaic Technology
- Energy Savers: Indirect Gain
- Energy Savers: Active Solar Heating
- U.S. Energy Information Administration: Energy Kids: Solar
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Average Daily Solar Radiation Per Month
- Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images
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