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solar panels mounted on postsUsing Solar Panels to Convert Solar Energy into Electricity
by Angela West

Photovoltaic solar panels may have been designed to power satellites, but their ability to safely and affordably generate electricity makes them a great solution for powering an off-grid homestead. Learn how to evaluate your site and what to consider before planning your solar panel installation.

Solar energy is a great option in many parts of the world, but it is important to evaluate the suitability of your site and plan your system properly. Solar panels only work if they receive direct sunlight. If your location is shaded or doesn’t offer an unobstructed view of the sun, your site isn’t ideal for solar power. For example, you need sunny skies and southern exposure if you live in the northern hemisphere.

As with any alternative energy system, you need to install a properly sized system for you needs. The upfront costs can be daunting, so it can be tempting to underestimate your needs. No one will be happy if the lights go out and the refrigerator stops working shortly after sunset. Honestly evaluate your power consumption before deciding on the sizing and capacity of your system.

Solar panels utilize solar energy to create DC (direct current) electricity. To operate at peak efficiency, the panels must be oriented toward the sun. Solar panels can be installed in a fixed position, or mounted so they can track the sun. Mounts that track the sun will allow your solar panels to generate more electricity, but they are expensive and will increase the amount of maintenance your system requires. Unlike other forms of alternative energy, it is easy to expand capacity because multiple panels can be connected to produce additional electricity.

solar power battery bank If your solar panel system is off-grid, then you will most likely need a battery bank. Battery banks are expensive and require regular maintenance, but they are the only practical way to store your electricity. The DC current from the solar panels can charge the batteries directly, or it can run through a charge controller. A charge controller protects the batteries from being overcharged and extends the life of the battery bank. Stored electricity can be used to power DC appliances, or it can be run through an inverter to create AC power. Power is lost during the conversion, but many modern appliances require AC electricity.

You can direct excess electrical production from your solar panels onto the utility’s power lines if your home is connected to the power grid with a feature called net metering. With net metering, a battery bank is not required -- the power grid acts as your supply. When you are generating more electricity than you are using, your meter spins backward. If you are
consuming more than you are producing, then your meter spins forward. At the end of a billing cycle you pay if you used more than you generated, and you receive a credit if you generated more than you used. Net metering regulations vary by state and each utility company has a different policy, but the principle remains the same.

Off-grid power systems tend to be expensive, but there are great incentives to buy and install solar panels now. Many states are offering credits and tax refunds if you install a qualified alternative energy system. These subsidies allow solar panel manufacturers to lower their costs as they reach greater production efficiencies, which should result in lower costs for consumers. Prices are already dropping and new solar panel production facilities are opening around the world. High oil prices and a growing environmental consciousness have inspired renewed interest in solar energy. Thin film solar panels, anti-reflective coatings, and other technologies hold the promise of delivering more efficient solar panels in the near future.

Remember to evaluate your electrical usage and look for ways to reduce it before planning your system. Look for state and local incentives and tax rebates that will help to offset the cost of your installation. Whether you are looking to power your off-grid homestead or support green energy production, there has never been a better time to consider solar power.