When you’re on a quest to erase your ecologic footprint, the installation of solar panels may be a great step towards living greener. Or it may be a completely uneconomical solution with real efficiency closing toward zero.
Why? Well, nothing is as simple as it seems, and this topic cannot be reduced to a simple debate of using solar energy vs. not using it. That’s why we’re going to take a deeper look at the problem.
Basics First; What Is Solar Energy?
Solar Energy is electromagnetic radiation (including infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light) emitted by thermonuclear reactions in the core of the sun. In a wider sense, solar energy is the source of all energy used by our civilization — with the exception of nuclear or geothermal energy, of course — as its indirect forms include hydroelectricity, ocean thermal energy, tidal energy and wind energy.
Solar radiation is also the key element of photosynthesis, which is the original source of the energy contained in biomass, peat, coal and petroleum. However, the term solar energy usually refers to the amount of the sun’s radiant energy harnessed by specific devices for a specific purpose, which is also the case of solar panels.
How Does It Work?
The purpose of solar panels is to collect solar radiation and actively convert its energy into electricity. Each panel is comprised of several individual solar cells, which work pretty similarly to large semiconductors and use a large-area p-n junction diode. When they’re exposed to sunlight, the solar energy is transformed by the diodes into usable electrical energy.
Photons striking the surface of the solar panels generate energy, which allows electrons to be pushed out of their orbits and released. Thereafter, electric fields in the solar cells pull these free electrons in a directional current, from which electricity can be generated with the use of metal contacts. The overall electrical output the solar panel can produce is directly proportional to both the quantity and quality of solar cells within the panel.
Are There Good Conditions For Using Solar Panels Up North?
That’s a good question. Contrary to popular myths (just like that of solar panels being inefficient in cold climates and so on), solar activity levels are quite high in Canada (also true for northern U.S., editor). In most of the populated regions of Canada, our sunshine radiation is no less than many other countries where solar products are very popular.
For example, Canada has 20 percent more sunlight strength than Germany, while Ontario is at the same latitude with Austria. In Germany, the usage of solar energy is more than 100 times higher in comparison to Canada, while one out of every seven Austrian homes has a solar panel system. Furthermore, experimental research shows that solar radiation in Toronto is comparable to levels measured in Miami!
Okay, Then — But Still, Is It Actually Worth It?
From the environmental point of view, going for renewable energy resource alternatives is always worth it. Unfortunately, there’s also the economic side of the coin that usually needs to be taken into consideration. So how can you make initial installation costs worth the investment?
Ideally, any solar products for your home should be installed by a reputable professional. You need to make sure that the installation and the quality of any home solar panel is high.
Being too careful with costs in the beginning is definitely not going to pay off in the long run: more expensive usually means more efficient, and the more efficient your panels are, the sooner your initial installation expenses will return. Plus, if you plan on selling your home someday, solar panels also provide additional value to your property.
In any case, doing the math is the key. The first step is determining your average daily usage. This value is expressed in kilowatt hours (kWh) and you can figure it out by simply looking back at your past electricity bills, which should show a total number of kilowatt hours used for the month.
Multiply the number by 1,000 to get the monthly watt/hours of electricity, then divide it by the number of days in a month to determine average daily usage. The next thing to do is to calculate how much electricity you’ll need.
How many hours of sunlight do you have available each day to power your solar panels? Use the lowest number of hours (on the shortest day of the year in your area) and divide your average daily kWh usage by the number of hours, and now you have the amount of electricity you need to power your home.
Next, calculate the installation costs. Different manufacturers charge different rates for their products. Take a look at their prices (usually $/watt) and multiply your kWh/hour of daylight to determine the total cost per watt.
ecoENERGY Home Retrofit Program
Does the price look too high? Don’t worry. The Canadian government still offers grants for private solar panels installations, and an extension of the popular ecoENERGY Home Retrofit program was announced on June 6, 2011.
To qualify for such grant, you will need a home energy audit before you start working on home improvements, as well a direct registration with the program before booking their evaluation.
An energy audit costs usually around $350+HST in Ontario. However, the Ontario government will send you a cash rebate of $150 as a part of the Ontario Home Energy Audit Program, which reduces the final expenses. During an audit, an energy advisor will look for your home’s energy leaks and show you how to fix them, and you will also be provided with your personalized Energy Efficiency Evaluation Report and a plan that can lower your energy bills.
The answer is definitely YES; solar panels usually represent a worthy investment. On the other hand, you need to meet two basic requirements: Don’t go for the cheap ones, as their efficiency is sometimes closing toward zero, and don’t waste energy unnecessarily.
No matter how green the technology you use, there is no need to spend more electricity than necessary. If anything, it saves your money!
-- Julie Kinnear is a Toronto real estate agent with about two decades experience and a green enthusiast. Her website is juliekinnear.com.