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Hardscaping 101: Solar Panels Pros and Cons

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Hardscaping 101: Solar Panels Pros and Cons

August 24, 2020

If you want to reduce your utility bills—and your carbon footprint—solar power could be the answer. The initial investment can be expensive, but after you install solar panels on your roof, you’ll see a decrease in your monthly energy bills. Wondering how long it takes for the savings to outweigh the cost? Read on to find out (and learn everything you ever wanted to know about solar power but were afraid to ask:

Photograph by Susan Teare courtesy of JMMDS. For more of this project, see Garden Designer Visit: A Burst Color in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Above: Photograph by Susan Teare courtesy of JMMDS. For more of this project, see Garden Designer Visit: A Burst Color in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

How does solar energy work?

Mounted on a roof, solar panels can convert energy from the sun into electricity by using photovoltaic technology: when the sun’s rays hit the panels, semiconductors turn the energy into electrons of direct current (DC) electricity.

The DC power is fed into an inverter, which transforms it into alternating current (AC), enabling it to become a source of power for the electrical panel of your house.

Photograph by Allie Rowe. for more of this project, see Tiny Homes: Living Large in \275 Square Feet, Baby Included.
Above: Photograph by Allie Rowe. for more of this project, see Tiny Homes: Living Large in 275 Square Feet, Baby Included.

What happens after the power reaches the electrical panel?

A bi-directional meter measures the power your solar system produces. Excess energy flows into the grid, where it is managed on a comprehensive scale. Meanwhile, your utilities meter moves backward as your energy consumption reverses, creating a credit on your monthly bill.

 Photograph by Susan Teare courtesy of JMMDS. For more of this project, see Garden Designer Visit: A Burst Color in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Above: Photograph by Susan Teare courtesy of JMMDS. For more of this project, see Garden Designer Visit: A Burst Color in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Why go solar?

Solar power helps the environment. Unlike most of our electricity (which is generated by oil and coal, sources that create air pollution and add to the greenhouse gas buildup in our environment), sunshine is a plentiful—and free—resource; the expense lies in the initial investment cost of installing panels.

Photograph via West Coast Exteriors.
Above: Photograph via West Coast Exteriors.

How much does a solar energy system cost?

The cost of a photovoltaic system is an up-front investment; the exact amount depends on how much electricity you use and what percentage of that you would like your solar energy system to supply. The more electricity you require, the larger the system required (see chart below for a ballpark figure).

Government-funded solar incentive programs vary from country to country and even from state to state. Some solar-incentive programs pay you back over time based on the energy you generate. Other solar incentives are one-time payments of rebates or credits. To find out the incentives in your area, consult Wholesale Solar’s Solar Incentives by State.

Above: Photograph by Marion Brenner. Visible beyond the trellises and railings are two solar panels that provide energy to operate a fountain pump and outdoor lighting on a Paris rooftop. For more of this garden, see Secret Paris: A Tiny Roof Garden with an Eiffel Tower View.

How much sunshine do you need for solar power?

As one might suspect, a photovoltaic system creates the most energy in a sunny setting. Even so, living in Southern California is not a prerequisite (solar panels make use of all daylight hours, and in some climes they’re able to convert more energy than in others). The way to determine if you have enough sunshine is to compare your annual electricity use to the annual amount of sun you have in your area (calculate your area’s solar irradiance here). If your electrical energy needs are high and you don’t live in a sunny climate, at times a solar energy system will not generate enough power. When that’s the case, power is simply pulled from the utilities grid through your meter.

Feldman Architecture, a member of the Remodelista Architect and Designer Directory,  designed a flat roof with solar panels mounted at an angle to catch sunlight on top of a building on San Francisco&#8\2\17;s Telegraph Hill. The angle of the sun&#8\2\17;s rays changes during the course of a year. But changing the angle of solar panels to track the sun&#8\2\17;s progress is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking; most panels are mounted at permanent angles that will absorb the most sunlight as seasons change.
Above: Feldman Architecture, a member of the Remodelista Architect and Designer Directory,  designed a flat roof with solar panels mounted at an angle to catch sunlight on top of a building on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill. The angle of the sun’s rays changes during the course of a year. But changing the angle of solar panels to track the sun’s progress is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking; most panels are mounted at permanent angles that will absorb the most sunlight as seasons change.

Solar panels recap:

Pros

  • Good for the environment
  • Reduced utility costs
  • Lessens our dependence on fossil fuels

Cons

  • Relatively high initial cost
  • The amount of savings is not straightforward
  • Not traditionally aesthetically pleasing

Had firsthand experience with solar panels? In the comments section, fill us in on your finds.

Learn about the ideal roofing companion to solar panels In Hardscaping 101: Standing Seam Metal Roofs.

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