Solar panels: making the switch

Issue 19 Words: Michael Green

As electricity prices increase, more people are turning to solar panels to reduce their reliance on the electricity grid.

There’s a basic fact that a surprisingly large number of people haven’t yet grasped about solar panels. “We still get queries from people who get solar photovoltaics mixed up with solar water heating,” says Mick Harris, managing director of eco-retailer EnviroGroup. “It’s really a matter of understanding what you want.”

It’s a simple point, but it underscores the most important thing prospective solar panel purchasers need to do – research well.

Your deliberations will be detailed, from the technology and rebates to installation issues and variable electricity charges. But don’t be put off – once the solar panels are in place, maintenance is minimal. For at least 20 years, you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the sunshine.

The common types of solar panels

There are three common types of solar PV panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film. Most of the solar panels sold in Australia are of the mono and poly kind. Thin film is much less efficient – it needs nearly double the roof space of other solar panels – but requires far less silicon to make and has less embodied energy. Lance Turner of the ATA adds that there is also a hybrid solar panel made by Sanyo which is a combination of crystalline and thin film technologies. “These perform particularly well,” he says, “but at a price premium.”

As well as the solar panels on the roof your system will need an inverter, which converts the DC (direct current) electricity produced by the solar panels to AC (alternating current) and feeds any excess electricity into the grid.

Tariffs, pay-back periods and selecting a system

Despite many cuts in government rebates (small-scale and renewable energy certificates) and feed in tariffs, household solar power has managed to remain an affordable option. A 2kWh system on average costs around $4,000 and the payback period varies from 5 to 18 years, depending on a number of factors.

When selecting a system, the amount of unshaded roof space facing north, how much energy is consumed in the home and how it is consumed and the amount you are willing to spend all need to be considered. Also to be considered are the warranties provided, using an accredited installer, and the cost of installation, which can be quite high.

If you decide to install a solar PV system, your electricity provider will need to be notified and it may be beneficial to shop around what the providers will offer.

Off-grid is also an option, although due to the batteries and other related equipment the cost is higher.

Image above by Nick Stephenson

More information about solar panels

Clean Energy Council consumer guide.

Solar electricity e-booklet from the ATA

The ATA's Solar Electricty booklet
This ever-popular booklet provides a thorough yet concise overview of what you need to know before choosing and installing your solar power systems.

Available as a PDF download. Cost $5.

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Cover of Issue 19
You can read more about Solar panels: making the switch in Issue 19 of Sanctuary magazine.

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Did You Know?

Refrigerators can cost anywhere from $80 a year to over $900 a year to run, so choose carefully.

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