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Harnessing Solar Energy at Home

October 1, 2014 - 12:37pm

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Solar panels are a great way to produce clean energy at home! | Photo courtesy of Stefano Paltera, U.S. Department of Energy.

Solar panels are a great way to produce clean energy at home! | Photo courtesy of Stefano Paltera, U.S. Department of Energy.

My brother just bought a farm. Well, not so much a farm as 40 glorious acres of potential just outside of Winter Park, Colorado. Now that the land is purchased, you'd think it would be easy enough to start working away, but lots of questions arise when you're building a home and starting from scratch. One thing they know for sure is their desire to build a zero-energy facility. This means that the greenhouse, stables, and home will produce as much energy as they use.

In sunny Colorado, one top clean energy producer will be a solar electric system they plan to install. And, of course, being the sister I am, I was happy to help them research the process. Fortunately, Energy Saver has tons of information about installing and using solar energy at home.

Photovoltaic Cells

First, it is important to understand how solar energy is harnessed. Photovoltaic (PV) cells, or solar cells, come in many different shapes and sizes and are made of electricity-producing materials. When sunlight shines on a PV cell, the absorbed light generates electricity. Because PV technologies use both direct and scattered sunlight to create electricity, the solar resource across the United States is ample for home solar electric systems. The Energy 101: Solar PV video does a great job of explaining how a PV system can generate clean, cost-effective power anywhere the sun shines.
There are a variety of ways solar energy can be harnessed at home.

Thin Film

Thin film solar cells use layers of semiconductor materials only a few micrometers thick. This means that solar cells can also double as:

  • Rooftop or solar shingles
  • Roof tiles
  • Building facades
  • Glazing for skylights or atria.

Some benefits of solar shingles are attractively integrated into homes, serve a dual purpose, and are durabile. However, there are some current issues with commercial availability and they are more costly than standard home solar electric systems.

Solar Electric Modules and Solar Arrays

To produce enough power, PV or solar cells are interconnected to form panels or modules. These PV modules range in output from 10-300 watts. For more power, several modules can be installed to form a PV array. For home solar electric systems, the most common array design uses flat-plate PV modules or panels. These panels can either be fixed in place or allowed to track the movement of the sun.

Fixed arrays are suitable for many locations—including residential roofs—and do not need extra equipment or moving parts. They are also lightweight and less expensive, but because they are fixed in place, the angle is typically less than optimal and less energy per unit area is collected compared with a tracking array.

Understanding how solar power works is the first step in utilizing solar energy at home. This month, we will have several blogs dedicated to solar energy at home. These topics include passive solar energy, planning and installing a solar electric system, the financial benefits of solar energy, and daylighting, just to name a few!

If there are any topics you'd like to hear about, click on the "tell us" box on the top of the page or use #EnergySaverSolar on social media, and we will try to incorporate your questions in to future blogs!

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