Editor's note: This interactive article is the first installment of the New Tech Press Collaborative Journalism Program, produced for element14 by Footwasher Media. It contains strategically placed links to videos, podcasts, discussions, articles and product lists throughout the narrative to give engineers a "starting point" for research or designing projects on the subject matter. We encourage your participation in making this a living document with your input and additional links to relevant material. By IdaRose Sylvester Senior Correspondent, Footwasher Media
By 2020, California plans to generate 20,000 MW from renewable resources, one-third the current usage and triple the current renewable power, with 60% from “localized” sources, generated at or near consumption, such as roof-mounted solar panels or on covered parking lots. Half the U.S. is legislating renewable requirements (and supporting incentives for homes and businesses. However, elsewhere in the world, the government solar incentives are decreasing as capacity comes online, reducing incentive to add supply.
As subsidies decrease, small generators (homes and businesses) will shoulder the burden in the coming years. And while investments are focusing on materials and processes that bring down solar panel costs, the cost of labor is unchanged and becoming a higher percentage of installation cost. Smarter investments might be made in technologies that drive installation costs down and open a market for Do-it-Yourself (DIY) installation. The current solar installation industry is not necessarily inclined to give away their business to their customers, making it preciously rare to find guides regarding what must be done to create your own solar power system.
With some thought, the DIY installation project can make the effort cost effective and accessible to everyone. By considering power supplement needs, return on investment should come within 5-7 years with a guarantee of 20 years of the panels, once you figure in tax rebates and other incentives. Local utilities require hiring of a certified electrician to make the grid connection, so, contact local utilities early for the requirements and approval process.
Adding solar to a site isn't just putting up panels and plugging them in. Solar power is generated in DC while most systems operate on AC power. That requires an inverter. Depending on the size of your installation you might want to consider micro inverters that can be "daisy chained" between or on each panel, or mini inverters that can be mounted to the side of the building. Larger installations could require single or a series of grid-tied ground mount systems. Cost, maintenance and monitoring are factors to be considered. Panels need to be three to 6 inches above the roof to allow airflow to cool the panels, which lose efficiency as heat rises.
Security is another concern. Napa Valley vintners have experienced continued theft of panels from their ground-mount installations, requiring significant investment in surveillance and locks on the mounting systems. That cost can be lessened with some imagination in what you use to construct the mounts.
Finally, panels don't keep themselves clean, so two to three times a year, depending on the dust and pollen levels in your area, you may need to get up there and hose the panels off to maintain efficiency. There are several options, from hiring a guy with a garden hose and a scrub brush to more high tech choices.
While you can’t go to “Solar Depot” or “Sol-Mart” and buy what you need, presently, there is enough information and technology available to help the ambitious DIYer pull it all together.
IdaRose Sylvester is a former IDC semiconductor industry analyst and is currently founder of Silicon Valley Link.