Durability, low maintenance and incentives make it worth considering
When many people ponder the idea of using solar power as an alternative source of energy, they conjure up images of na�ve New Age, Earth Day zealots who want some tofu in every pot and two electric cars in ever garage.
That's far from reality, but the acceptance and use of solar power in the private sector has been slow in coming. Whether it's lack of education toward the expense to install it, or the return on their investment that has consumers hesitant to explore solar power is unknown. But what is established is how it can save on energy bills and help reduce lethal emissions in the air.
The basic knowledge and components for a solar power system have been known for more than 160 years. In was in 1839 that the French physicist Edmund Becquerel first observed the photovoltaic (PV) effect - that is, the conversion of light into electricity.
Sometime in the 1880s, PV cells made from selenium, a by-product in copper refining, were able to convert light from the visible spectrum into electricity, but they were only 1 to 2 percent efficient. Selenium is still used today in light sensors for cameras.
The Czochralski meter, developed in the early 1950s, helps produce highly pure crystalline silicon. A silicon PV cell was produced in 1954 by Bell Telephone Laboratories that had 4-percent efficiency, which later was improved to 11 percent. Silicon is still the basic component of today's cells.
In 1958, the U.S. Vanguard satellite used a small PV array, which was less than one watt, to power its radio. Ever since, America's space program has been a large proponent of solar power.
The US Department of Energy funded the Federal Photovoltaic Utilization Program during the oil embargo of 1973-74. The program installed more than 3,100 PV systems, of which many are still working today.
After that, through the 1990s, interest in solar power waned, with many U.S. PV manufacturers selling their companies to German and Japanese corporations.
Technically speaking, the PV unit captures the sun's rays, which excites electrons in its 1/8-inch-thick silicon crystal material, and thereby produces DC powered electricity, which is then converted to AC by an inverter inside the house. The solar array on the roof should ideally be at a 30-degree tilt and face south (where ol' Sol tracks across the Jersey sky). Although facing toward the east or west is acceptable, it produces less output.
In 1997, President Clinton launched the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, with the goal of having solar power systems on one million roofs in the U.S. by the year 2010. The ambitious program will be achieved through the use of federal and state funding to help those in local communities, as well as federal agencies getting on board to utilize the systems themselves.
Should the goals be reached, it's estimated that annual carbon emissions will be reduced the equivalent of 800,000 cars, because the power produced by solar units will offset that of several coal burning plants.
While we're throwing around figures, it's also believed that just 40 minutes of the sunlight the Earth receives could supply the planet's power needs for one year. Enough solar energy is available in one day to provide the entire population of our globe with energy for 27 years. We currently utilize about one percent of this resource.
To encourage homeowners to use solar power - as well as small windmills, sustainable biomass technology and fuel cells - the Garden State probably has the best incentives in the country. The New Jersey Clean Energy Program may cover up to 70 percent of the total purchase and installation costs, depending on the size of the system. To get more information, go to njcep.com on the Web.
Basically, all the utility companies in the state pay into a pool that funds the program. The rebate you initially receive for your system, though, is just the beginning of the savings you'll realize. Over the life of a solar array, which is typically 20 to 25 years, you will rely less on electricity from the local power company. In fact, on days when your consumption is less than what the panels on your roof produce, you will "bank" that extra wattage - your meter literally spins backwards to shave off previous logged usage from the grid.
Eventually, the system will pay for itself in savings on your electric bill, plus you'll also have the satisfaction of knowing you're contributing to a cleaner environment. After the break-even point, you'll be putting money back into your pocket by saving energy costs, which will only rise in the future.
An example of what type of savings can be realized is provided by Thomas Matulewicz of GeoGenix (geogenix.com), a company that deals in solar and other renewable energy sources. He says a five-kilowatt solar power system will need 400 to 500 square feet of space on your roof and, on average, produces 500 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which has a monthly bill equivalency of roughly $50.
The total cost to install that size system is approximately $42,500. But with the state's rebate of 70 percent, along with tax incentives and other programs, your final cost might only be $4,000. Divide that figure with your monthly average savings of $50 and the system will be totally paid for in less than seven years.
There's not only flexibility in solar panel designs, but materials, as well. "We have a flexible material that we're using now that can be put onto a flat roof," says Matulewicz. "You can actually walk on it, dance on it - there's no glass, no damage.
"It's very lightweight, so for those buildings that have a roof problem, as far as a structural concern about weight, the panel is less than one pound per square foot. So it can be used in other areas where the rigid panel, which is much heavier, can't be used."
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