Solar Energy

Solar Energy works in Wisconsin and Illinois, no matter what anyone tells you.  LED lights are a new development and are exciting but do not produce energy or serve as “distributed generation”.

Photo Voltaic or PV solar electricity has the greatest “sex appeal” in the industry.  For most installations the solar power is stored on the utility grid as a “battery” when it is not directly used.   Solar electricity comes from the sun lit panels as high voltage DC or direct current.  Solar power then uses an electronic inverter to make the usual household AC or alternating current that is used at any light or outlet.  Grid-tied systems only function when the utility power is up and running.   Modern invertors can also charge and draw power from batteries.   Battery systems obviously involve more cost and also involve maintenance and eventually replacement.

Solar Domestic Hot Water is the best-kept secret of the utility gas companies.  Rather than the annual use of gas or electricity that adds up, solar hot water offers a definite financial payback, instant energy savings, and a long term offset of energy, as well as substantial environmental benefits.   Conventional estimates suggest for family of four that a 3-panel array can supply about 75% of a hot water needs.  In my experience in Wisconsin, such systems really provide almost 100% of hot water needs in the summer and about 50% of the needs in winter.   Solar hot water requires a substantial and professional installation costing $6,000 to $12,000 and up.   Besides savings, incentives are usually available from the state and offer a 30% tax credit from the Federal Government.

A comprehensive solar site assessment can determine how effective the solar output will be and if an installation is possible at your property.    Around December 21st, the sun is at its lowest level of the year.   If your roof or ground area is sunny and not shaded for 4+ hours on that day, then you are a potential candidate for solar energy.  In the urban environment, you design a solar system at the necessary height to gain solar access.

If self analysis and tromping around in the winter snow is not your choice, then an analysis from Janesville Home and Solar using a “Solar Pathfinder” can generate annual solar exposure anytime of the year.

If you roof do not face south, there are two possibilities.   If the roof is fairly shallow like a ranch house roof, then other array directions may be productive because they capture so much energy from the dominant summer sun that is high in the sky that the annual solar electric energy captured may equal or sometimes exceed the traditional 45 degree, South facing solar PV array.   The second possibility is to construct a substantial rack for redirecting the array to face south.   Neale Thompson has designed and installed several such racking systems.

It is up to you to decide to invest for the future of energy independence.   The Federal 30% Tax Credit also applies to solar electric systems.   There is along term payback for solar electric systems of twenty-something-years in most cases.

Since there is no payback for cars, wide-screen televisions, hot tubs, motorcycles, etc, renewable energy systems often have a better Return on Investment or ROI and definitely help the environment and global concerns.   For example, solar panels on a roof absorb the sun’s energy rather than pass it on into the attic and into the house.

A recent analysis of the sale of solar electric equipped homes in California came up with some interesting results.   The study factored out foreclosed home sales and used a statistical average of about seven years until the sale.  Owners of PV equipped house generally got the full price of the installed PV system back at the sale of the home.  This is besides the obvious energy savings, state and utility incentives, and the 30% tax credit if applicable.   California does have higher utility rates but also has more sun.

The final issue is that Americans use about five times more hot water compared to people in other developed countries.    This is basically why installation of solar hot water in America trails the Orient and other countries.

In the early 1900’s, the area around Miami, Florida, had 60%-70% of the houses with “batch” type solar hot water heaters.  They were built as a black tank in a glass-covered box, yet they worked very well.  However, a very rare hard freeze damaged these systems.   Because the company that made these simple solar hot water heaters was also making the new natural gas conventional storage tanks at that time, the company decided to push the newer tank water heaters rather than fix or replace the solar heaters.  Such is progress.

It should be noted modern solar thermal hot water heaters in Wisconsin have to be freeze-protected by using glycol liquid in the system which safely transfers the heat to the regular hot water.  The alternative is called a drain-back system that has it own set of complicated rules.

There is a fascinating Italian company with a branch in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that sends a complete solar domestic hot water system to the job location on one specially designed tall pallet.   The panels are a smaller, unique size but the systems do work.