Solar Power, an Alternative Power Source

·5 min read

Solar power has become a leading form of lowering electrical costs and going off-grid by not relying on the local power company. Local resident Ken Mack has gone off-grid not only here in Saskatchewan, but also in Tennessee where he also owns property.

But what do we know of solar power and its benefits to having installed in your home?

For those who do not understand the technology, a solar panel is a panel or a photovoltaic panel made of solar cells that collect solar energy and are an essential component to converting light into electrical energy and usually made up of crystalline silicon.

Solar panels are categorized as polycrystalline, monocrystalline or thin-film; the first two categories which is the most common type of solar panel, while the third category thin film is made of amorphous silicon.

Solar cells produce electricity by collecting the energy that the Earth receives every day in the form of sunlight, or more specifically in the form of photons. Most typical commercial solar solutions convert energy at an average of between 3 - 17%.

If we could break the sunlight into the smallest possible pieces we would get photons. Photons practically are the smallest energy packets of sunlight.

The top layer of solar cells has an anti-reflective coating which helps them collect as much light as possible. Right below there is the main layer of a solar cell which is basically sandwiched between two silicon layers. These two layers are specially treated so that the upper layer has a surplus of electrons and the bottom layer has a shortage of electrons.

What is needed for the extra electrons to move from the upper to the bottom layer is a little bit of extra energy and that energy is provided by the photons.

When the sunlight hits the solar cells, the solar panels are exposed to light and an electric current is generated.

The more sunlight that hits the solar panel, the more electricity is produced; this means that during cloudy, rainy or snowy days when sunlight is reduced the energy will be less produced than during sunny days.

Solar panels definitely do not generate electricity during the night but you can store excess energy collected during the daytime in collection batteries.

It is important to place the solar panels somewhere where the sunlight can hit them directly and not be instructed by sources of shade, like trees or other obstructions.

In order to have a complete system that will produce electricity for your home, you need the following components: solar panels, solar panel mounting structures, an inverter, an electrical panel with the necessary switches and circuit breakers, DC and AC electrical cables and a power metre.

Now, let's break down these individual components. Solar panels generate electricity when they are exposed to light, more specifically they generate DC electrical current, but in order to use the electricity produced by the solar panels, we need to have AC electrical current or alternating current which is the type of current used by your home and by the power grid.

We need an inverter that converts the DC electricity generated by the solar panel into the alternating current (AC), the solar panels are connected to the inverter in “strings” or series in order for the AC electrical current to be distributed to the grid.

In order for the AC electrical current to be distributed to the grid or to the house, an electrical panel with the necessary switches, circuit breakers and wiring must be installed. A power metre is used to measure the electricity produced from the installed photovoltaic system.

Many modern systems have handy apps for your phone so you can see how much energy you are producing.

Generally, residential solar systems are separated into two main categories: off-grid and on-grid. In the case of an off-grid system, the electricity generated by the solar system will be used to cover 100% of the electrical usage of a home as the house is not connected to the electrical grid or the power company at all; this can be accomplished by using large batteries that will store any extra electricity produced during the day.

The main disadvantage of an off-grid system is its cost. The use of batteries increases the costs by about 20 to 30% compared to an on-grid system.

In an on-grid system, a house where solar panels are installed is connected to the main power grid. Electricity generated by the solar panel can either cover the electrical needs of the house or when you produce more electricity than needed, it is sent to the power grid.

How much you actually save depends on a number of factors, most important of which includes how much electricity your house or business uses. A typical solar setup is aimed to offset 70- 90 % of your costs, but that also has many factors.

There are great online tools that you just plug in your address and it calculates how much electricity can generate and how much money you can save on your electric bill.

The installation of the solar panel is very important and the correct angle of the panels may vary, but Ken Mack has found with experience that a 90-degree panel is easier to maintain and doesn’t lose much sunlight; you can always add additional panels to offset this difference.

There may also be tax credits or incentives in your area to help offset the installation cost as well.

To sum it up, here are some pros and cons of a solar system. Pros include a truly renewable energy system that reduces your electricity bills and provides insurance against rising electrical costs, as well as low maintenance costs, financial incentives from the government, quiet operation and they emit zero pollution; also they have a long service life and reliability in operation. The cons include the initial cost, weather dependency and energy storage systems can be expensive.

Gary Horseman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Four-Town Journal