Generate your own electricity the sustainable and environmentally-friendly way with solar power.
In a country that gets as much sun as Australia, it's no wonder that household use of solar power is becoming increasingly popular. Though they were once seen as too expensive, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems are now an affordable choice for Aussies who want to reduce their power bills and generate their own environmentally-friendly electricity.
There are many benefits to installing a solar power system in your home. Australia has the highest solar radiation per square metre of any continent and solar power is a sustainable option that collects free energy from the sun and converts it into clean electricity. It's also a great way to reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding more traditional forms of energy powered by fossil fuels.
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Once installed, solar systems can be expected to last for 20 years or more and they require little in terms of regular maintenance. Best of all, the electricity they generate is free, so those increasingly expensive power bills can be a thing of the past.
Solar power technology is far from a modern development, with efforts to harness the sun's energy recorded as far back as the 7th century BCE. Then in 1839, French scientist Alexandre-Edmund Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic which explains how sunlight can be used to generate electricity.
Further discoveries and inventions followed, but it wasn't until 1954 when three scientists from Bell Labs in the United States developed the silicon photovoltaic cell that significant progress was made. This was the first solar cell capable of providing efficient power with real-world applications.
As technology advanced, solar power gradually became a viable option for generating electricity. Today, more than one million Australian households have solar panels installed and that number will continue to grow as prices come down. The Federal Government's Energy White Paper released in November 2012 projects that by 2035 solar PV systems will provide 17 per cent of Australia's energy and 29 per cent by 2050.
How do solar panels work?
Solar PV panels are usually fitted on the roof facing in a northerly direction and at a certain angle to maximise their exposure to the sun. The panels contain PV cells, also known as solar cells, which convert the sun's energy into direct current (DC) power. There are no moving parts involved and the solar panels are usually connected to the main power supply through an inverter so the DC electricity can be transformed into alternating current (AC) electricity suitable for everyday household needs.
image courtesy of vpe-solar.com
How much can I save with my own solar power system?
According to the Clean Energy Council, the cost of solar panels has been falling by about 45 per cent per year. However, installing a solar PV system is still a significant investment, which is why there is government assistance available to help cover the cost (read available assistance section below for more information).
Since solar systems let you generate your own electricity, over time the money you save on power bills will help you pay for your initial investment - this is known as "payback". Payback times are influenced by a number of factors, including the size of your system, your energy consumption patterns, your eligibility for government assistance and even the weather.
According to Living Greener, the average Australian house consumes around 18 kilowatt hours (kWh) per day, meaning a 1-2kW solar system displaces an average of 25-40 per cent of your average electricity bill and could translate to a significant saving. To get a more accurate savings estimate, use your electricity bills to add up your annual consumption or find out how much energy your household consumes each year.
Type of system and supplier
According to the Clean Energy Council, before choosing the right system for your situation, you need to ask yourself why you're installing solar power in your home.
Before you start
- Do you want a system that will partially offset your energy consumption for 5-10 years before requiring a system upgrade?
- Or do you want a system that will completely offset your household's electricity use for the next 25 years?
To work out what size system you require, study your electricity bills. From these you can calculate your average daily electricity consumption and the average amount of electricity your solar PV system needs to produce to meet your needs. The unshaded area available for the panels installation along with how much you are prepared to spend will also need to be taken into consideration.
Getting quotes from several accredited installers will give you the chance to compare costs and discuss any questions you may have. Another important decision to make is whether you'll need a grid-connected system, which interacts with the main power grid, or a stand-alone system that has its own electricity storage. If you live in an area where connecting to the main electricity grid is not possible, or where connection costs are expensive, stand-alone systems are a viable option.
However, these systems are more complicated and expensive. They involve more components and require more maintenance and you'll also need a battery bank installed in accordance with Australian Standards to store electricity.
If you want a grid-connected system, it's up to your electricity supplier to agree to connect you. Some companies let you feed the excess electricity your system generates into the electricity grid and then take the payment for selling your electricity off your power bill.
Grid-connected systems also require an inverter to convert the DC electricity produced by the solar panels into AC electricity for everyday household use. The Clean Energy Council has a list of all grid-connect inverters that meet Australian standards. Check with your installer to ensure you're getting the right inverter for your needs.
Be aware there may be additional costs involved, including a new fuse box or a grid-interactive electricity meter. Also, check that your installer/designer is on the Clean Energy Council's list of accredited installers as this could affect your eligibility for financial assistance, rebates or insurance.
Tips for installing a solar system
Make sure your panels meet Australian standards. The Clean Energy Council has an up-to-date list of all solar panel and inverter models that meet Australian standards.
Decide on a budget and location to install the panels. Solar PV panels come in different wattages and the main factors to consider when buying are how much you want to spend and whether the panels will fit in the space available. Each solar panel is approximately 1.6 metres long and 0.8 metres wide. A 1.5kW solar panel system requires around 12m² of roof space, though this will vary depending on the type of panel you use.
Think about the panel placement. Your installer will also take into account the best position and mounting options for your panels so they get the largest amount of direct sun. Fixed panels should face north for maximum efficiency and, if on a grid-connected system, the inverter needs to be located as close as possible to the panels to minimise power loss in the cables that connect them.
Think about the future. Shade is the enemy of solar systems, so make sure there are no trees or buildings likely to block the sunlight that gets to your system in years ahead. You might want to ask your installer to ensure bypass diodes are incorporated in the system. These allow some electricity flow around the panel if it becomes shaded or damaged.
Finally, get a system design and specification from your installer and make sure you also ask about the period covered by any warranty. The Clean Energy Council's Consumer Guide to Solar PV features a wealth of information to help ensure your solar installation goes smoothly.
Financial assistance is available to take some of the sting out of the cost of going solar. Small-scale Technology Certificates (STCs) offered as an incentive to install renewable power can save you thousands on the cost of a new system.
Additionally, find out whether an electricity feed-in-tariff is available where you live. If it is, find out the amount you will receive for any electricity you generate and feed back into the grid and whether you will be offered a gross or net feed-in tariff.
Under a net feed-in tariff, you receive a premium for any solar energy you generate that goes back into the grid. Under a gross feed-in tariff, you are paid for every unit of electricity your system generates, regardless of whether your use it or it is fed back into the grid. Apply to your electricity retailer to receive a feed-in tariff.
How to maintain your system
Once installed, solar PV systems require relatively little maintenance. Your installer will outline any safety procedures and show you how to monitor the system.
The panels will require occasional cleaning in order to maintain efficiency and if you're doing any gardening, don't plant any tall trees which may grow and shade your panels in the future.
Your inverter should have a data display so you can monitor how much energy your system is generating. If you'd like more detail on how your system is performing, there are monitoring systems available that let you keep a close watch on power generation and act immediately if it stops working. Remember if anything goes wrong with your system, contact your installer rather than interfering with the system yourself.
Once your solar PV system is in place, you can rest safe in the knowledge that you'll be powering your home in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly manner. And best of all, you'll be saving money along the way.