As concern for the environment grows, so does interest in solar energy. To harness the sun's power as a free and renewable source of energy, homeowners must invest in solar panels and related components. Although these systems are expensive to install, they go a long way toward reducing your carbon footprint while also lowering your utility bill.
Solar panels are made of photovoltaic cells, which absorb the sun's energy and convert it into electricity. The direct-current (DC) electricity exits through a wire into an inverter. There it is converted into alternating current (AC) electricity, which is compatible with the utility grid. The resulting energy can be used to power lights, appliances, and electronics. Unlike traditional power sources, however, solar systems are a renewable energy source that creates no harmful pollution.
How many solar panels a home will need depends on typical power usage. The panels are typically installed on rooftops or an area that receives direct sunlight for most or all of the day. In addition to panels and an inverter, installation might require special batteries to store power, which is essential for homeowners who choose a stand-alone system not connected to the utility grid. Given the complexity of planning and installing solar panels, it's best to hire a professional early in the process. Search for a solar equipment dealer online or ask your utility company for recommendations.
The initial investment in solar power is very high, from $5,000 to $40,000, equivalent to paying years of an electric bill up front. After installation, however, your monthly power bill will go down substantially or completely, depending on the size of your solar-power system. Solar panels can last 25 or more years and have almost no maintenance costs.
To make solar power more affordable and appealing to homeowners, most states now offer net metering programs. In these systems, when a homeowner's solar panels generate more power than they can use, the excess goes to the utility grid and the owner's meter runs backward. These systems, along with government rebates and tax incentives, can help offset the costs of buying and installing solar panels.