Social Question

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

What facts can you share about solar power?

Asked by Pied_Pfeffer (22453 points ) April 26th, 2012

In a small town in England, where it rains with alarming frequency, the government is installing solar panels on the roofs of council homes (essentially government-funded housing for those that may not be able to afford proper living conditions.) There must be a reason why the government would invest the funds to install these solar panels.

Would these homes need to be connected to “the grid” in order to gain any financial benefit for the government to do this? Does the amount of power generated go down when the weather is usually hazy or raining? Basically, I want to know if the local council is mad or being financially savvy.

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47 Answers

josie's avatar

You pretty much made an important point, whether you meant to or not. The key word here is government.

SpatzieLover's avatar

Without an article to refer to, all I can add is that there are plenty of homes off the grid here in the Upper Midwest (where it’s cloudy, rainy, snowy & icy for many months of the year).

There are also several homes very near to mine that have a solar panel or two. They use these to power the water heater or one or two items in their homes.

My best guess is that since this is government funded, they are experimenting with cost savings options. Not all options save money up front. In this case, it may save them over the long haul.

Charles's avatar

Could be that despite the expense of installing solar panels, the long term savings is worth it if other sources of power are really expensive.

Salem88's avatar

Given my experience as a General Contractor, your local council is mad. The initial cost, labour, and maintenance will not be recouped in a climate mentioned for over 30 – 40 yrs. By that time, the solar panels will be obsolete and will be replaced by “new energy efficient units” never having saved a shilling/cent. Gotta’ have sunbeams to collect energy.

Cheers.

YARNLADY's avatar

As @Salem88 points out, the long term savings cannot be realized because of the improvements in the system, plus the system maintenance.

ETpro's avatar

If the whole Earth invests in solar, we can go totally off fossil fuels. Here’s an interesting solar fact. Every minute, the Earth receives enough energy from the sun to meet our energy demands for an entire year. That’s why upgrading to a smart grid is such a critical part of solving our long-term energy needs. One area may be cloudy and get lots of rain, but when the sun is blocked there, other points on the grid pick up the load.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@josie I have more faith in the local UK government than I do in my local US government. You might be right though. I hope that the local council has chosen this path because it will benefit both the person living in the establishment as well as the rest of the citizens.

@SpatzieLover I wish I could offer up an article that even alludes to what is happening. A search has netted nothing. I may have to approach a council member or attend a meeting to inquire. Electrical costs in this English town are expensive, but not as much as when I lived in apt. in the Chicago area in the early 1990’s. Despite that, if the cost incurred by the initial installment can be regained over time, I’m all for it.

@Charles That is what I hope. I just don’t know the answer. If a good portion of citizens rely on solar power, does it create a price hike for those that aren’t?

@Salem88 Thank you for your response. This is what I worry about. I’ve read that if a house is off the grid, meaning that they use batteries to store the power, it costs a boatload to replace the batteries when needed. If a house is on the grid, the power can go back into a ‘pool’ to be used by others. I don’t know whether this is true or not. I also don’t know if our power is supplied by the government. I think it is an independent company.

jrpowell's avatar

Well, I live in Oregon and my sisters ex-husband is a electrician and they had solar panels. They still do a pretty good job even when it rains for ten months. There was a reduction in their monthly bill. And during the summer they got a refund since they sold power back into the grid that they didn’t use.

He was interested in alternative energy but I doubt he would have went into it if he thought he would lose money. So I assume you can at least break even in the long-run. Maybe he factored in a increase in electrical rates over the next twenty years.

jerv's avatar

1) They do not always have to be on-grid, though if you have them off-grid, you won’t ever be paid for power that you return to the grid.

2) Power output does go down in less than full sun, though how much varies from panel to panel. They are often rated for both maximum output in full sun and average output under average conditions though.

3) Storage batteries are essential. Look at it this way though; the Sun does not shine at night. As basic as it may sound, some people forget about this potentially very expensive step.

4) Solar power is a hefty up-front investment that will generally take at least five years to pay for itself. The cells and storage batteries are quite pricey.

bkcunningham's avatar

What does off-grid and on-grid mean, @jerv? I thought I knew, but if you are off-grid how can you return power to the grid?

jerv's avatar

@bkcunningham Exactly; you can’t!
Still, there are some people that don’t hook their solar system up in in a way that allows them to sell power back, often because they don’t have a grid connection to hook up to anyways.

bkcunningham's avatar

I may be misreading your point 1. ...though if you have them off-grid, you won’t ever be paid for power that you return to the grid.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@johnpowell Thank you for that insight from a personal perspective. Oregon’s climate is very similar to this town in England.

@bkcunningham Thank you for the links. I read all of them, and it provides some insight as to why a government might get involved. It’s a shame that some countries are now backing off of their efforts. As the cost for solar panels drops and the system proves to be successful, I would think that this would be a benefit to all.

As for on-the-grid vs. off-the-grid, think of it this way. On-the-grid is similar to having a bank account. The money (electricity) is there unless you take out more than you have saved up. In the meantime, the company can use the money (power) generated and not used for other purposes. Off-the-grid is like keeping all money earned under a mattress in or in a mayonnaise jar buried in the back yard. The power is stored in batteries that no one else can use.

@jerv Thank you so very much for the information. I would like to consider solar panels as a viable alternative to the existing source of power. It just needs to be cost-effective in the long run.

ETpro's avatar

@Pied_Pfeffer China, Inc is pouring billions into Solar. Their subsidies helped ensure that our Solandra ended up failing ans serving as a poster child for the profits of perpetual petroleum cheerleaders. Time will tell who is right, but I know where my bets are placed.

jrpowell's avatar

@jerv :: What you need to push electricity back into the system and get credits is minor in the total cost. I believe it was under 1K.

JLeslie's avatar

If they are completely off grid, then they have not paid for connecting to the grid, so that expense is saved, I am not sure how much thay saves. It must matter how far they are from the nearest electrical lines. There might also be an expense if their grid is already very taxed, because to add more houses to the grid, they might need to upgrade the grid. Maybe that is weighed against expenses for solar panels and batteries? Just guessing here at the possibiltiies. I love the idea of being off the grid. It means once evrything is installed there is no more being dependent on the infastructure. The infastructure, whether government or private business, collects money every month from us, like how Gilette razors get you hooked and sell you blades for a fortune. Being able to sell back into the grid is a way to not need batteries though, which might be better environmentally? I don’t know. And, it is more fail safe than depending on decent weather and battery charges being enough.

Solar panels come in several varieties and some are good at absorbing light even on cloudy days.

ucme's avatar

Solar panels fitted on houses in england town is sheer folly, why it’s like giving a bicycle to a giraffe & expecting it to finish on the podium at the tour de france.

ETpro's avatar

@ucme Can you document that, or is it just argument by assertion?

jerv's avatar

@ETpro It’s the same logic that leads people to believe that it always rains in Seattle and the Sun never comes out here.

ucme's avatar

@those people up there…...a certain “poetic licence” was taken yeah, but that’s only because I felt like it & besides, there’s no reason to doubt the validity of a giraffe entering a cycle race now is there?

bkcunningham's avatar

@ETpro, can you document “1. China, Inc is pouring billions into Solar. 2. Their subsidies helped ensure that our Solandra ended up failing ans serving as a poster child for the profits of perpetual petroleum cheerleaders?”

tedd's avatar

@bkcunningham Actually I can back him up on that, having invested hundreds into the solar industry. The Solar Market saw an expected drop when the economy took a hit in 08/09. What no one knew would happen is that the Chinese government, which owns the entire Chinese solar industry, would subsidize “failing” companies in China. They are basically paying these companies to keep pumping out inferior products, and keep a major glut in availability, despite the fact that the market has shrunk considerably thanks to the economic collapse. The companies may lose _every _dollar they have (and in many cases they do just that)... The chinese government just gives them more. It’s lead to the downfall of at least 2 major US solar companies that I can list off the top of my head (Solyndra and Evergreen). The only reason First Solar (the worlds largest) has stayed afloat is their technological advantage, but even they have seen their stock drop like a rock, and there are major concerns whether they will survive.

Articles to back it up:
China responds to Solar Glut by upping production http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2155056/china-responds-solar-glut-upping-production-targets
Germany’s SolarWorld posts a 2011 loss, blaming solar glut and Chinese dumping http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2012/02/germanys_solarworld_posts_a_20.html

An excerpt from the next article… Despite leading the charge in solar-panel efficiency, First Solar has been unable to ward off the effects of the German government’s cutting of solar subsidies by 30% going forward as well as Chinese solar companies such as Suntech Power (NYSE: STP ) and LDK Solar (NYSE: LDK ) , which, thanks to subsidies, cheap labor, and low-lending rates in China, are able to undermine First Solar’s pricing advantage.
http://www.fool.com/investing/high-growth/2012/04/09/heres-why-first-solar-just-hit-a-52-week-low.aspx

The irony is all the conservatives in the US are screaming bloody hell that we’re subsidizing our solar industry. “Just let the free market do it!” News flash, China isn’t playing by those rules.. and failing to keep our industry alive is going to literally cede the entire Solar industry to China.

tedd's avatar

With regards to the OP:

It does sound like the panels they’re installing are largely pointless. They will definitely generate some appreciable amount of energy. But, given the climate you describe, it seems unlikely they will recoup their value in anything less than 10 years (assuming they’re of the best tech currently available). But on the other hand, it could be one of those “set the example” type of things. Also, if oil and coal continue to go up (or spike incredibly), the value of power generated by those panels will increase exponentially.

jerv's avatar

@tedd Ten years to pay for themselves sounds about right for a decent setup. Solar really is more of a long-term investment than a short-term money-saver.

bkcunningham's avatar

What does China take all the blame? Solandra’s executives must take the blame for taking a $535 million federally guaranteed loan, having twice the production costs for their solar tubes, not being able to raise private capital and being uncompetitive in the market place. There were many factors involved.

Judi's avatar

Do you know if it’s solar hot water or power? They are two very different kinds of solar.
My hubby is a contractor (he has a General and a Solar license) and I can tell you that either are a good investment. The solar may not be as efficient in cloudy areas but it still produces power.
There are 3 reasons to use solar. 1. Save money, 2.protect the environment, 3. Lower dependence on the utility company.
In ideal circumstances you will recoup your investment in 3–7 years. It might take a few years longer in your region. (im assuming utility rates are similar to the rates here in California.) Either way, it’s a good investment and good for the planet.

tedd's avatar

@bkcunningham You’re missing the point here. Solyndra was very competitive in the market. They had one of the best products there was. When they took the loan they were one of the best selling solar companies in the world. All things being equal, they still would be today. Unfortunately the Chinese government subsidized it’s failing solar industry. Even though the Chinese companies put out inferior products, they flooded the market because there was no failure. They could sell 1% of their production, and the Chinese government would continue to feed them funds and keep them afloat. The result was a glut, that no one could have expected unless they knew the Chinese Government would continue to fund it’s solar companies that are losing it money hand over fist. This lead to the failure of all companies who weren’t being backed by an unlimited supply of government money, namely the US companies.

Conservatives fear that government is picking and choosing the winners and losers… China’s government is already doing that… and we’re letting them!!! That is why they take the blame. Though I guess you could also blame conservatives who are too blind to realize China is basically ensuring the entire future of energy (once oil dries up) is made by them.

bkcunningham's avatar

I honestly appreciate you trying to help me understand this, @tedd. Please, don’t think I’m being difficult, please. So if Solyndra was “very competitive in the market,” and was “one of the best selling solar companies in the world” (which I can’t find anything to backup those claims) why would they need a $535 million federally guaranteed loan?

tedd's avatar

@bkcunningham The loan was to expand production. It was part of the stimulus package. The idea behind it was they give money to alternative energy companies so they can set up large scale plants. First Solar (who I’m invested in) received 3 such loans from the government, and has 3 power plants that will power hundreds of thousands of homes well underway across the country. The money was meant to just build panels (using existing technology) and build plants, hence putting people to work in production and building fields. Unfortunately Solyndra’s sales outside of that project tanked thanks to the Chinese glut. Who cares if Solyndra has a better product, when you can buy something from China for 1/10 the cost? So Solyndra had to lower their prices, and unfortunately it reached a level where they were losing money on every single panel they sold. The Chinese companies are all losing money on every panel they sell, even despite their clear advantage in labor costs, and the low prices they’re getting on raw materials from other Chinese Government owned mining companies. But the Chinese government continues to flood money into the companies to keep them afloat.

The only reason First Solar, the worlds largest solar company and arguably the only major one left in the US, hasn’t gone under is that they already enjoyed a huge price advantage in their production costs thanks to a technology they own the patent on. But unfortunately, the Chinese glut has virtually wiped out that price advantage that First Solar enjoyed for so long. Without either a turn around in the Solar Market (unlikely as oil is still king and the economic issues are not improving drastically enough), or some form of subsidy, First Solar will likely go under within a few years… basically ceding the entire solar industry to China and their inferior products.

It’s a bit of a Wal-Mart effect if you will.

An added sh*tty bonus is that the Chinese companies aren’t doing any research. They’re just using existing technology they acquired from us or the Europeans through various means. So when they own the entire Solar Industry, it’s not going to be continually improving like it was over the last 10ish years under US control.

Judi's avatar

You asked about the grid and I didn’t answer that part. Being “off grid” requires expensive and dangerous batteries that are not really feasible yet. (Unless you have no way of tieing into the grid.)
Usually you tie into the grid. If you are using more power than you are producing you take what you need from the grid. If you are producing more than you are using you put power back onto the grid and usually your meter runs backwards.

Judi's avatar

Just to be clear too, Solar Thermal is what people use to heat their hot water. It has nothing to do with electricity. It uses the sun to actually heat the water. The technology is so good that you have to mix it with cold water or you would burn yourself.
Photovoltaics is the process of creating electricity with solar power. Two very different things. (although they may look similar on the roof.)

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] This is our Question of the Day!

jerv's avatar

@Judi Not entirely true. Lithium batteries are expensive, rather touchy about charging, pricey, somewhat flammable, and cost quite a bit. However, I’ve seen setups using lead-acid batteries that were relatively inexpensive and no more dangerous than a wood shop. A little ventilation (though less than required for using wood stain) and you’re set if you use the sealed ones. And the older non-sealed ones that occasionally require refilling with acid that isn’t much more dangerous than laundry bleach if handled according to directions. I deal with more dangerous things every day.

bkcunningham's avatar

@tedd, thank you for the explanation. It was very easy for me to follow what you said. Again, thank you. You know what? It sounds like we should have given the money to First Solar. It sounds like the patented production technology really gives them an advantage. If China is a reality in the world, we have to deal with it and buck up. I was reading what has happened in Germany and the UK with subsidizing the panels. It looks as if the costs of the subsidies have really been more than the taxpayers can handle.

Judi's avatar

@jerv , and the technology keeps getting better. You still have the problem of space and cost, and maintenance. I know that it can be done more realistically. Look what they’ve done with cell phone batteries in the last 15–20 years!
I would LOVE to be off grid.
I’ve heard criticism of our Energy Secretary Steven Chu that he is focusing to much on battery technology to the exclusion of more urgent needs. I hope that focus pays off.

JLeslie's avatar

@Judi Is the solar to heat the water for the house? I only know about solar for pools.

Judi's avatar

@JLeslie , Yes. It is great and works well even in areas with not much sunlight. These guys have a lot of info about it .

JLeslie's avatar

@judi So it is basically a solar power hot water heater? I have always thought I wanted to get the instant hot if I ever built another house, instead of tradition water heaters, but now you just gave me an option I was unaware of I think.

Judi's avatar

@JLeslie , the ideal is solar with a gas tanlkess back up.

JLeslie's avatar

@Judi Gas tankless? I never heard of such a thing.

JLeslie's avatar

@Judi I just thought of something, can the heated water be used to heat the home? Radiant heat through the floors?

Judi's avatar

Yes!

jerv's avatar

@JLeslie Yes, many people do that.

@Judi I am well aware. Now, bear with me while I tell you about my childhood.

When I was just barely a pre-teen, I got into radio control cars. Not the cheap ines you see at Toys R Us, but the ones that come in a 500+ piece kit and cost more than I paid for the car I actually drive to work. At the time, the only battery packs they had were all NiCad (1.2 volts per cell), and most packs were six or seven Sub-C cells of a mere 1200mah capacity; good for ~15 minutes with a stock Mabuchi RS540 motor, but barely 4 minutes with a race-tuned Modified. Also, many people failed to exercise proper charge/discharge discipline, thus causing the battery pack to do what Nicads do and lose capacity do to memory effect.

About four years after I got into it, they came up with 1700mah Sub-C cells that cost 2–3 times as much and were a bit delicate; you couldn’t fast-charge them as quickly nor run a highly modified motor as with a 1200 mah cell because the amperage would overheat them and ruin the cells in a very exothermic manner. However, they would allow a stock/“superstock” car to run almost 50% longer between charges.

Not too long after that, they managed to solve the durability issues, allowing full fast-charging and use with even an 8-turn quad-wind drag-racing motor. Fifteen years later, I am running my RC-10T around the Hangar bay of the USS Constellation with a 2700 mah pack that is more durable than the old 1200 mah packs and cost about the same once you account for how much the value of a dollar changed in that time.

Of course, they were still NiCads and thus prone to memory effect; many people lost half their charge capacity within a year and couldn’t figure out why even when you told them. I had one that held 80% of it’s capacity after >20 years because I read the damn directions and did the proper cycling. Nowadays, for the price of an old 1200mah NiCad pack, I can pick up a 3000mah NiMH pack of the same size, weight, and voltage. And for the price of a first-gen 8.4V 1700mah NiCad pack, I can get an 11.1V 5000mah LiPoly pack of the same size/weight; that added voltage can make a modified-class rig go like a raped ape with flaming asshairs (modifying a car to do 30 MPH used to be impressive; some nowadays do >50MPH in stock, out-of-the-box form) and the added capacity allows it to do it for more than 4 minutes.

So, in less than 20 years, we had appreciable increases in capacity and durability while dramatically lowering the cost in dollars, space, and weight per watt-hour.

Judi's avatar

@jerv, you sound like the kind of guy who would be anal about battery maintenance. For them to be practical for the the average joe homeowner they would need to be pretty bullet proof and maintenance free. I think we might be getting there though!
Solar power really started with a bunch of hippies in Humbolt county charging car batteries so they could play music. There was no utilities out there (and still isn’t in a lot of places) so it was the only option. It’s come a long way since then!

ETpro's avatar

@Judi Ha! I take your meaning, but in defense of @jerv, being anal about handling of NiMH cycling keeps the cost of failure to do so from being ripped out of your rear.

jerv's avatar

@Judi I look at the number of people who own/use computers, compare that to the number of people who defrag their drives instal and update security software, encrypt their wifi with WPA2, etcetera, and note that whether or not the average person buys something is unrelated to delicacy, maintenance requirements, or technical abilities.

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