Frequently Asked Questions about Solar

Find answers to your questions about solar energy in Utah.

How Does Solar Work?

ACell-Module-Array: Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels are composed of solar cells that convert sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity. The DC electrical charge is then converted into alternating current (AC) electricity by a power inverter so that it can be used for your household electricity needs. Many cells are assembled to create a module (also called a panel), and many modules can be linked together to form a solar array.

A: A kilowatt is a measure of electrical power that is equivalent to 1,000 watts. Kilowatts and watts both describe a rate of energy transfer; a watt is defined as one joule per second. Your electrical bill charges you for electricity in terms of kilowatt-hours (kWh). One kilowatt-hour is a unit of energy that is equivalent to one kilowatt of power expended for one hour of time. For example, a hair dryer that is rated at 1,000 watts (1 kW) and operates for one hour will use one kilowatt-hour of energy.

A solar panel's output depends on its size. A 100 watt panel left in the sun for 1 hour will produce 100 watt-hours (or 0.1 kilowatt-hour) of electricity. If you have a 1 kilowatt solar system and 5 peak sun hours per day (an approximate average for Utah), then your 1 kilowatt solar system will produce 5 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day. After a derate factor is applied for to account for certain system losses, an average 1 kilowatt solar PV system in northern Utah will generate, on average, 1,400 kilowatt-hours a year.

1 US Department of Energy, "Photovoltaic Basics." Energy Basics. <http://www.eere.energy.gov/basics/renewable_energy/pv_systems.html>

A: Solar is a fuel-free energy resource, which means it is an infinite and inexhaustible resource with no volatile fuel costs. Solar is also a emissions-free energy resource that avoids polluting our air and water. After the up-front initial cost, solar provides immediate energy savings and greater energy stability. Solar also reduces line losses on the grid and provides energy to the grid during the daytime, when energy is most expensive and in high demand.

A:US DOE Diagram The majority of solar PV cells are made from crystalline silicon. Silicon is the second most common element in Earth's crust (after oxygen) and, by mass, is the eighth most common element in the universe. In addition to crystalline silicon cells, solar panels can be made of cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide, gallium arsenide multijunction, thin film silicon, and other materials. The most common type of installation uses a flat-plate module which contains silicon cells encased in an encapsulant material for protection and sandwiched between a transparent glass or plastic cover and a metal, glass, or plastic backing to provide structural support. The entire module is usually encased in a metal frame.


»Learn more about solar technologies.

A: Solar panels have an expected lifespan of at least 25 years (there are panels installed in the 1970s that are still generating power), and they are typically warrantied for 25 years. They are generally made with tempered glass that is rated to withstand a direct vertical impact of a one-inch diameter hail stone traveling 50 miles per hour.

2 US Department of Energy, "Flat-Plate Photovoltaic Systems." Energy Basics. <http://www.eere.energy.gov/basics/renewable_energy/flat_plate_pv_systems.html>

A: Most solar cells and modules are made of crystalline silicon, which use wafers of purified silicon. Purifying and crystallizing silicon are the most energy-intensive parts of the manufacturing process, but other parts of the process that consume energy include cutting the silicon into wafers, processing the wafers into cells, assembling the cells into modules, encapsulating them in glass and frames, and the overhead energy used by manufacturing facilities. The PV industry generally uses "off-grade" silicon from the microelectronics industry that is then recrystallized. While producing energy with photovoltaic (PV) cells does not emit pollution or use energy resources, producing the panels themselves does consume energy, which, depending on the energy source, produces pollution and CO2 emissions.


According to a 2004 National Renewable Energy Laboratory study that analyzes several different panel technologies, it takes 1 – 4 years for the energy savings accumulated by producing electricity from solar to equal the energy cost of producing the panel. Solar panels generally have life expectancies of 30 years, so 87% - 97% of the energy produced by the panels is clean energy (i.e. no pollution and/or greenhouse gas emissions). This 2004 NREL study assumes 1,700 kilowatt-hours per square meter of solar insolation, and in northern Utah we receive more sunlight than that (from 1,800 – 2,000 kWh/m2), so solar panels will "pay back" the energy used in the cost of their production more quickly than estimated in this study.


Solar technology has improved even in the years since this study was conducted, and production efficiencies have driven the "energy payback period" down even further. A 2010 study estimated that the energy payback for monocrystalline and polycrystalline cells is 1 to 2 years, assuming 4.7 peak sun hours per day (Utah receives over 5). In 2011, one solar company began offering a solar panel that generates the same amount of energy used to create it in one year (assuming 1,700 kWh/m2 per year of solar insolation).


»More Resources:
NREL: What is the energy payback for PV?
Mother Earth News: Dispelling the Myths of Solar Electricity: Energy Payback

A: Utah has a tremendous and largely untapped solar resource, and the potential for solar development is widespread across the state. The technical resource potential varies for each type of solar technology and application, for example:

»Concentrating Solar Power (CSP): According to the Utah Renewable Energy Zone Task Force Report, Utah's technical potential for CSP is about 826 Gigwatts (GW) - or 826,000 MW. This represents 16,500 technically potential 50-Megawatt sites, covering appriximately 6,371 square miles of land. This amount of concentrating solar potential could generate over 1.5 million Gigawatt hours per year (GWh/yr) - equivalent to the annual electricity demand of over 150 million average Utah homes.

»Rooftop Solar Photovoltaics (PV): Utah's technical potential for roof-top solar PV (in 2010) is approximately 5 Gigawatts (GW), or 5,000 Megawatts (MW),1 which could produce 7 million megawatt hours of electricty per year (MWh/yr) - enough to power over 720,000 Utah homes for a year.

Solar and My Building

A: Solar PV systems convert sunlight directly into electricity using semiconductor technology. Solar thermal systems, also known as solar hot water, use the sun's light to directly heat water and/or space for homes and businesses. There are several solar-thermal system configurations which employ the sun's energy to heat water; the most appropriate for Utah's climate, where freezing temperatures are common, is a closed-loop, active, solar hot water system. Closed-loop solar thermal systems use the sun to heat a heat-transfer fluid in the collector. Heated fluid is pumped from the collector in the bottom of the solar storage tank into a heat exchanger where heat energy is transferred from the fluid to potable water. Heated water is then held in the storage tank ready for use, with a conventional system providing additional heating as necessary.


»Learn more about solar PV, solar thermal, and passive solar technologies and applications.

A: Solar panels work best when they are installed facing south or west. If you have a large area of roof that faces either south or west and does not receive significant amounts of shading, your home is probably suitable for rooftop solar panels. Fire code does mandate that there is a minimum distance between solar panels and the edge of your roof for safety purposes, so you can not cover 100% of your roof space with solar panels. If you have a flat roof, or you do not have optimal roof space due to shading issues, you will either need to mount the solar panels on an angled rack or use a ground- or pole- mounted system located on an auxiliary structure (like a garage) or in a sunny part of your yard. If your roof is very steep, some contractors may charge an extra fee to install solar. Most buildings can accommodate rooftop solar installations, as long as you have some sunny, south- or west-facing roof space. To get more information about your site, contact a solar contractor.

A: There are a number of factors related to your roof that can drastically affect the suitability of solar on the roof of your home. Some of these include: orientation (north, east, south, west), pitch, shading, and others. Living in the northern hemisphere, it's ideal to have a roof that faces due south, isn't very steep or flat, and is free of shading from things like trees and chimneys. It's important to understand these unique characteristics before installing solar panels on your home. Of course, a solar contractor can help determine the suitability of solar on your home.

»Learn More:
solarstats.com: What makes a roof "good" for solar?

A: The size of your system will depend on your current energy usage, the level of energy efficiency of your home or business, the available usable roof space, your budget and financing options, and the percentage of your energy consumption you want to offset with solar. It is recommended that you first take steps to make your home or businesses as efficient as possible before (or in conjunction with) making your solar investment. »Simple tips to conserve energy

Use the Solar Simplified calculator to estimate what size solar system will work best for you. You will need to know how much electricity you currently consume (by consulting your energy bill - learn how), how much of your electricity usage you would like to offset with solar, and what your budget for solar is. Solar is modular and your solar array can be sized to accommodate your budget and your goals for reducing your home's energy bills. Use the SolarSimplified Calculator to estimate your production and savings, and speak with a qualified installer to help you determine the most appropriate solar system size for your home (or business).


If you want to heat your water or space with solar thermal, you should consult a qualified solar thermal installer to determine the appropriate system size. To size your solar water heating system you will need to consider the size of your household, the number of hot water applications (sinks, showers, bathtubs, etc.) you have, and the amount of water each person uses. Generally you will want to size your system similarly to the hot water heater tank you will be using in your home, but seek out a professional assessment before making any investment decisions.

A: A well-situated 3.3 kW solar PV array in Utah will produce approximately 4,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. The average Utahn uses around 9,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, and a 6.4 kilowatt system would cover 100% of usage. Use the Solar Simplified Calculator to learn more about how much energy a given sized system could produce. Keep in mind that the production of a solar array depends on many factors, including location, tilt, and materials. When you are ready to learn more, consult a qualified solar contractor.
A rough estimate of the water heated by a single solar thermal collector system (4 ft. by 6.5 ft.) is 60 gallons. A double collector system of 9 ft. by 6.5 ft. can heat 80 gallons. To heat a 120 gallon tank, you will need a triple collector system which will be roughly 12 ft. by 6.5 ft. Systems can be chained together to fit your needs. If you have a swimming pool or another special application for which you would like to utilize solar hot water, please speak with a licensed solar thermal contractor.

»Learn more aobut solar hot water heater sizing from the U.S. Department of Energy.

A: Like many other home improvement projects, solar installations require a permit to ensure the system is safe and meets all applicable codes, standards, and local requirements. The permitting process differs across jurisdictions, so be sure to inquire as to your local standards before getting started on a project. A solar contractor will make the process a snap, filling out and submitting forms to your local building department for you.

A: There are no moving parts in a standard rooftop solar panel, so there is not much that will break or malfunction under normal conditions. Solar panels should be sprayed down periodically (usually in the spring or summer) with warm water to prevent dust and pollen build-up (the thin film of dust blocks a little bit of light from hitting the panels, reducing the amount of electricity they make). Ensuring that your solar panels are free of debris will help them operate at their maximum potential. Large amounts of snow can block solar radiation to the panels as well, so if you live in a snowy area your winter production may be decreased if you aren't able to remove the snow. As solar panels are black and tilted at an angle, the snow will usually melt fairly quickly. Depending on roof height and access, homeowners may be able to use a snow rake on an extending pole to remove snow from the panels.
Most panels have a 25 to 30 year lifetime, and solar inverter lifetimes range from 5 to 15 years (though micro-inverters and some string inverters have 20-25 year lifetime). Depending on the inverter, you may need to replace the inverters once during the life time of the panels (costs for replacement vary depending on the inverter). Solar panels and inverters are usually covered by warranties for the lifetime of the product, so if you need to replace a panel due to manufacturing defect it should be covered by the warranty. If you need to replace a component of your solar system due to damage, the solar contractor should be able to replace that specific component (panel, inverter, etc.) individually.

A: Solar panels operate perfectly well in the winter, especially if you have good sun exposure and many sunny days a year (which Utah does!!). Winter weather actually offers some advantages. Photovoltaic panels, like other electronics, work best in the cold. Too much heat actually reduces the output of silicon solar panels. Winter means fewer hours of daylight, but most homes use much less electricity in the winter (i.e. no cooling needs). As for snow removal, you will want to speak with the contractor about any recommended solutions for removing snow, depending on where your system is located and how steep your roof is. One viable solution is a "roof rake" to get rid of some of the snow. With some of the panels exposed, current will start to flow, creating some heat on the panels' surface that should melt the snow. On many days, the heat of the sun and the panels themselves will take care of any snow.

A: If you can't install solar on your roof, you may be able to install solar on a pole-mount system in your backyard, or on an accessory structure like a garage, shed, or patio shade. If you are a renter or live in an apartment, you probably won't be able to install solar at this stage.

A: You can install solar on your roof as a "do-it-yourself" project, but you will need to go through the permitting and approval process as specified by your local permitting jurisdiction. Your installation will need to be approved by professional engineers, building officials, and inspectors. In order to interconnect with Rocky Mountain Power you need to receive a government inspection.

 

Connecting to the Grid

A: A grid-tied system is a solar PV system connected to the utility grid, which allows homeowners to receive electricity from both the solar PV system and the utility. This type of system is made possible ieth a net metering arrangement with the utility (see above), which allows homeowners to receive fair credit for the electricity they produce. However, a grid-tiedsystem will not continue to provide power during a utility power outage. Due to current regulations and equipment requirements, grid-tied solar PV systems are designed to shut off when any change to the incoming power source (from the utility) is detected. This is a safety measure.
A grid-tied system can have power during blackouts with the use of battery back-up systems. Systems with battery backups allow you to keep using electricity generated by your solar panels when the grid goes down (the electricity produced from the solar PV system is stored in the batteries, for later use). Battery backups are made up of banks of deep-cycle batters that are charged by both the panels on your roof and by the grid. Battery backups decrease the efficiency of your solar system overall because some of the power you generate must be diverted to charge and maintain the batteries. The batteries also have to be maintained and replaced periodically. The system and the batteries can be customized to cover a certain amount of electricity from key appliances it the home (i.e. refrigerator, lights, stove, etc); the system doesn't need to be sized to cover the entirety of the home's electricity usage (as the system is typically used for emergency back-up). However, battery back-up systems are typically more costly than a standard grid-tied solar PV system.
An off-grid solar system does not connect to the utility grid at all. As such, the solar PV system must be sized to cover the entirety of a homeowner's electricity usage. Almost all off-grid systems require a backup energy source for times of high energy use or low solar production.

A: All investor-owned and cooperative electric utilities in Utah (municipal utilities are excluded) are required to allow residential customers to connect renewable energy systems of up to 25 kWs to the grid to the grid and to credit them when excess electricity is generated. Look up net metering policies and interconnection policies for your utility's net metering rules.If your utility doesn't offer net metering, or if the net metering program does not adequately value the solar energy you provide to the grid, you can work with your Municipal City Council or Rural Co-op Board of Directors to request that a program be offered and/or improved to allow for distributed solar.

If you are a Rocky Mountain Power Customer: In 2009, improvements to Rocky Mountain Power's net metering tariff required that customers are given credit on a kWh-to-kWh basis for any excess electricity they produce in a month. The credits roll over month to month within the annualized billing cycle, which begins April 1st and ends March 31st. Any unused credits expire at the end of the billing year, as such a system should be sized appropriately so as not to generate much electricity beyond the annual usage of the home (a solar contractor can assist you in determining your peak usage months and size your system accordingly)
Savings will vary annually; you should expect to see higher solar electricity production in the summer and lower production in the winter. For example: If you produce 180 kWhs in June and only use 160 kWhs in that month, you will have 20 kWhs which "roll-over" as a credit on your bill in July. Those credits continue to roll forward until the end of the annualized billing cycle: March 31st (at which point, any unused kwh credits will expire; you will start again with a 'fresh slate' on April 1st. In a month where you use more electricity (kWhs) than you solar panel produces, your bill will still reflect any kWhs generated by the solar PV system, such that your net bill will reflect the kWhs you used (i.e. the kilowatt-hours that weren't provided by the solar PV system).


»Learn More: Net Metering and Interconnection.

A: Unless it is specially configured, a residential solar power system will not provide power during a power outage. When an outage occurs, utility workers may be picking up downed lines or handling electric cables. When the power is out, they are generally safe to handle, as there should be no electrical current running through them. If the system on your roof is still generating electricity, however, it could create a safety hazard. When the grid goes down, your utility company will temporarily turn your system off until the grid comes back online. A 2008 study done by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory indicates that in the Mountain West region, there is a total of less than two hours (117 minutes) in an entire year that customers experience interruptions to their electrical service. There are more than 8,760 hours in a year, which means that power outages only result in a loss of grid connectivity for 0.0002% of the time. Additionally, less than 1% of these outages last more than 10 minutes.

A: It is possible to have your house stay powered during blackouts, just as it is possible to take your house completely off of the grid. Systems with battery backups allow you to continue using the energy generated by your solar panels during a blackout, but they are more costly than a simpler system. Battery backups are made up of banks of deep-cycle batteries that are charged by both the panels on your roof and by the grid. Battery backups decrease the efficiency of your solar system overall because some of the power you generate must be diverted to charge and maintain the batteries. Batteries also must be maintained and replaced periodically, adding costs to the system. They add significant complexity to the installation of the system, and therefore add significant cost increases, but they are an option for those who are interested.

Cost & Financing

A: The cost of solar depends on the application, technology, size, and available residential and/or commercial incentives. Four factors that help keep solar costs low are economies of scale, competition in the marketplace, module and inverter prices (which fluctuate with supply and demand), and strong policies and programs to promote solar energy. Fortunately, Utah's solar industry is growing and costs have come down 40-50% over the past two years. With available incentives and historically low prices, investing in solar today can be extremely cost-effective. Financing options are available to help offset the up-front cost of solar. The other important thing to remember is that solar is a fuel-free, clean, and inexhaustible resource that is not subject to fuel volatility, carbon risk, or limitations of fuel availability – solar provides price-stable and secure energy for decades to come. To learn more about the cost of average a grid-tied, roof-mounted solar PV system in Utah, use the Solar Simplified calculator to estimate the cost of putting solar PV on your roof. When you are ready to receive an estimate, contact a qualified solar installer.

A: There are many financing options available to help defray the initial upfront costs of residential solar. Don't forget to check with your local bank or credit union to see if they offer home improvement financing that could work for a solar installation. You may also be interested in energy efficiency as an initial first step and smart investment for your home that will save you money and energy.  Investing in energy efficiency now means that when you are ready to go solar, you will be able to install a smaller system and still meet your energy needs.

A: There are several financing options available to help homeowners defray the upfront cost of a solar installation.

»Learn more about solar financing options.

A: Currently, the following incentives are available for residential solar PV. Your solar installer will help you determine your eligibility and complete the necessary paperwork to apply.

»Learn moreabout solar incentives.

A: Unfortunately, this figure will vary widely is no easy answer to this question. The time it takes you to recover your investment will depend on the technology you select, your energy efficiency and usage habits, your current and future electricity rates, the system size and configuration, and available incentives.Depending on your usage and the size system you put in, you could see a return of 3-7% on your investment in the first year – a very good rate. Overall, your return on investment varies depending on how much electricity you use and what size system you install, however with current solar system costs, assuming you undersize your solar system and can take tax credits, most homeowners will recoup their upfront investment well before the 25 year life expectancy of the panel is reached. Solar is one of the few things consumers can purchase that does provide a financial return on your investment; imagine what the ROI would be for your car that you fill with gas every week! One of the biggest benefits of solar is the fact that it is an inexhaustible, clean, and price stable resource that will last well over 20 years. Investing in solar today helps you mitigate the future risks, fuel volatility, and uncertainty, while also improving your self-reliance and energy independence. Use the SolarSimplified Calculator to learn more about your particular situation.

A: Community Bulk-Purchase programs allow community members to come together and negotiate volume discounts on solar installations.

»Learn more about past community solar projects in Utah, or how to start a project in your community.

 

 

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