Big benefits for you and the planet
Across the globe, millions of people power their homes and heat their water with clean, abundant, renewable energy from the sun. Solar energy systems have been around for decades. But in the United States, their acceptance has been slow because of their high upfront cost.
Attitudes are changing, however. With concern mounting about carbon dioxide emissions, rising energy costs, and dependence on imported oil, having a power plant on the roof sounds awfully attractive. In fact, after tuning up your house to make it as energy efficient as possible, installing a solar energy system is one of the most powerful steps you can take to green your home.
What’s in It for You
Residential solar energy systems fall into two categories: solar electric systems and solar hot water systems.
Solar hot water systems, also called solar thermal systems because they capture heat, can provide hot water for kitchens, bathrooms, laundry, and other household uses. They can also be used to heat homes, pools, and hot tubs.
Solar electric systems, also called photovoltaic (PV) systems, convert the sun’s energy into electricity that can power buildings.
Not every household can benefit from a PV or solar hot water system. If your electricity or water heating costs are extremely low, or if you have too much shade on your roof or property, a solar energy system may not make sense.
But for many people, the energy savings from a PV or solar hot water system will eventually save money, after you’ve recouped the system’s initial cost. In addition, the system can lock in your energy costs, giving you a hedge against future energy price increases.
Although most solar homes still use some fossil-fuel energy, it is possible to meet your home’s entire energy needs with solar electric and solar hot water systems. And as plug-in hybrids and electric cars become more available, someday you may be able to run your car on the sun’s energy.
Solar energy systems may even increase the value of your home. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a solar energy system may add $10 to $20 to your home’s worth for every dollar in energy costs saved in one year. For example, a system that reduces energy costs by $500 per year might add $5,000 to $10,000 to the home’s value. An added bonus: solar panels can help extend your roof’s life by protecting it from ultraviolet rays and weather.
What’s in It for the Country and the Environment
A residential solar electric or solar hot water system can also be a wise investment in the country’s future and the planet’s health. By supporting solar energy technologies, you are helping to
Curb global warmingFossil-fuel power plants are the primary source of CO2 emissions in the United States. Boosting the country’s use of renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency could eliminate the need for nearly a thousand new fossil-fuel power plants over the next 20 years.
Improve public healthPollution from existing power plants contributes to more than 600,000 asthma attacks each year. Increasing energy efficiency and our use of renewable energy takes dangerous pollutants out of the air and lets us all breathe a little easier.
Enhance energy independence and securitySolar energy reduces our nation’s reliance on imported oil. It allows communities and homes to generate their own decentralized power, making it more difficult for terrorists or natural disasters to disrupt the flow of electricity. It also reduces demand on the nation’s strained electricity grid and decreases the need to build expensive new power plants.
Spur innovationThe United States, once a leader in renewable energy development, has fallen behind other nations in pursuing clean energy solutions. A growing market for PV and solar hot water systems will drive the renewable energy industry to find solutions for today’s most pressing problems and develop the technologies of tomorrow. Growing domestic demand also helps establish the United States as a global leader and exporter of solar energy technologies.
Create green collar jobs and boost local revenuesRoughly 60,000 Americans now work in the solar industry, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The organization predicts that by 2016, the boom in demand for residential and commercial solar installations will add hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs in research and development, manufacturing, construction, sales and marketing, and related fields. Solar energy projects also boost local tax revenues.
The Solar Industry’s Environmental Footprint
If you’re worried that the push for solar power will wind up blanketing the Earth with solar hardware, relax. In the United States, cities and buildings cover about 140 million acres of land. We could meet all our current electricity needs simply by putting PV systems on 7% of that area, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
While it’s true that energy and other resources like heavy metals are used to manufacture a PV system, after about three years the clean energy produced and the emissions reduced by the system more than make up for that initial expenditure. Compared with conventional power plants, PV systems reduce greenhouse gas and heavy metal emissions by at least 89%.
Dig in to the Details
To learn more about residential solar energy systems, check out these other Sierra Club Green Home articles:
“How Solar Electric Systems Work“describes how a PV system converts sunlight into electricity to power your home, and explains the components of a typical PV system.
“Is a Solar Electric System Right for You?” walks you through the process of evaluating whether a PV system makes sense in terms of where you live, how you live, and what you’ll have to pay.
“Buying and Maintaining a Solar Electric System” guides you in choosing a PV system installer, in managing the installation process, and maintaining your system.
“Solar Hot Water for Your Home” and “Solar Heating for Pools and Spas” will help you evaluate whether solar water heating is a good option for your household.
“Free and Low-Cost Solar Energy” describes low-tech methods of harvesting solar energy, from the humble clothesline to sophisticated architecture.