Using Solar Energy: First Steps

by Tony Summers, LEED AP

Solar power, photovoltaics and photocells are words that are starting to appear everywhere. Newspapers and trade publications are full of information about solar technology. Funding is available to help offset some of the costs of installation and the use of photocells. With technological advances and potential funding sources to make it more attractive, now may be the time to consider the sun as a source to supply energy for your business.

Do you envision your building dotted with solar panel arrays providing you with free energy? There are many questions a building owner needs to address before tapping into the growing solar power technology. Are solar powered photovoltaic panels right for your company? How many panels are needed on the roof? Will they blow away in a storm? Are there enough days of adequate sunlight to make it worthwhile? How much energy could be saved by switching to more-efficient equipment and lighting instead of investing in solar panels? It can be overwhelming to determine if solar powered technology is the way to go or if there is an easier solution.

As an owner, before getting involved in the technical aspects of “going solar,” some fundamental investigation needs to occur. What is right for others may not work for your business. Making an informed decision on how orif to use the technology for your benefit should be the first step.

There are different ways to obtain and use power from sunlight. Today’s most popular options are a stand-alone system, backup from a power grid, and net metering.

Stand-Alone System
A stand-alone system is great if your building is located off the power grid in a remote area and there is space for battery storage. As an owner, you will need to determine the initial cost of the photovoltaic panels, the space required for the battery storage, safety of the storage area, and ongoing maintenance for the life of the building.

Power Grid Backup
Another popular method is capturing solar energy and storing the energy in batteries while using the existing power grid as a backup. Again, one must be mindful of the costs of this type of system. In addition to the costs mentioned for a stand-alone system, there may be costs for additional safety devices plus compliance with the local electrical utility and costs associated with connecting to their grid.

Net Metering
An option that appears to be less complicated and complex is net metering. With this option, the owner does not need any type of battery system to store energy. The power that is generated by the photovoltaic panels is fed back to the local utility. This typically means that the utility is “buying back” electrical energy from the owner. This option generally is the simplest for most owners. The utility company may still charge fees for devices that they may require. Additionally, utility companies will generally buy back the energy at a lower rate than normally billed to the user.

No matter which option is chosen, the authorities having jurisdiction and local regulations or requirements may add additional costs.

Before making any capital expenditure decisions on whether to invest in photovoltaic panels, an owner must examine all of the options. Even before deciding which is the best use of photovoltaic panels, a quick look at current energy use and other ways to invest in energy-saving technology should be in order. By changing to more-efficient equipment, compact fluorescent or LED lights as well as checking for air leaks in the building envelope and installing better insulation, an owner may find a better return on investment.

* this blog post also appeared in ED+C magazine - view the article here.