EcoMyths: Is Solar Power Practical Yet for Homeowners?

July 30, 2013

Kate Sackman

(AP Photo/Duncan Mansfield)
Stephen and Libby Smith in front of their solar-powered Knoxville, TN home. The $55,000, 36-panel system is turning their electric meter backwards with extra power sold to the Tennessee Valley Authority grid. The Smiths' 7-kilowatt system is the largest residential solar system in TVA's Generation Partners program.

My home faces south with tons of windows, so we get really warm on a typical sunny day. Does that mean I am harnessing solar power? If I wanted to install solar panels, would it save me energy and money? On Worldview today, host Jerome McDonnell and I explored these very questions with Dick Co, managing director of the Solar Fuels Institute and environmental chemistry professor at Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research (ANSER) Center.

Dick walked us through the basics of solar power for homeowners as well as some truly “cool” solar-harnessing technology to make fuel (yes, liquid fuel) for practical use in the near future. But first, he helped us explore the virtues of solar. Of course, sunlight is free, in the sense that it does not have to be mined, and it’s abundant. Dick said each year we receive a whopping 120,000 terawatts of energy from the sun, but the world’s population uses only 16 terawatts annually. That’s a pretty good ratio. Also, once installed, there is no harmful waste or byproduct from producing solar power. In addition, studies show that going solar may increase your home value.

Dick confirmed that my house benefits from passive solar home design, which can be done a lot more effectively if the home is intentionally designed to absorb sunlight during the day and release the heat at night. Of course, you can install solar panels on your roof, known as solar photovoltaic (PV) cells. They can be installed on a tracking device that follows the sun. Finally, there is active solar heating. This process uses a solar collector to heat water or air for later use.

We also explored the costs to homeowners and the various state subsidies that make converting to solar affordable. Some people produce so much solar power that they actually get a rebate from their local utility for returning energy to the power grid!

To read more about this myth, listen to the podcast of today’s show, or go to the EcoMyths Alliance website to read more about the costs and benefits of home solar production.