How Does Solar Power Work, Anyway?
You've seen the panels. And now you know about solar's incredible potential. Which means you probably have some questions. So let's get to it.
How do solar panels work?
A solar panel "works by allowing photons, or particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity," according to Live Science. That's a technical way of saying that the panel's photovoltaic cells convert the energy in sunlight to electricity (specifically, direct current (DC)). This DC electricity is then converted to alternating current (AC) by an inverter.
AC is the type of electrical current you typically use when you plug anything into a residential wall socket. If you have solar on your roof, the system's electrical panel sends power to your lights and appliances.
How long will solar panels last?
A long time. Like, a really long time.
Many home array solar panels are guaranteed for decades, thanks to warranties that typically cover 25-30 years. But because their parts do not wear out easily, solar arrays are well-known to continue producing clean electricity even beyond these lengthy timeframes.
"Unlike many other consumer goods, [solar panels] don't 'give up the ghost' at the end of their warranty period and need to be replaced, but continue to still produce clean electricity, although at a slightly less efficiency each year," Clean Technica reported.
"In fact, some decidedly old-school solar cells have been producing electricity daily for about 40 years or so, and are expected to continue to power homes and businesses for decades more."
A June 2012 NREL study investigating the "photovoltaic degradation" rates of about 2,000 solar installations over a period of 40 years found the median solar system lost just 0.5 percent of its efficiency per year. So, by the end of your 25-year warranty, the solar panels on your roof could still be operating at about 88 percent of their original capacity.
Is your '93 Camry still running near-perfect with very, very little maintenance (more on that below)?
(Psst … a quick note on the word "photovoltaic": It means "capable of producing a voltage, usually through photoemission, when exposed to radiant energy, especially light." Which is a very long way of saying "converts sunlight into electricity.")
What sort of maintenance is required?
Not too much, really. Your solar panels themselves can last for decades on end without much upkeep (maybe just remember to keep them free of debris, snow, etc.). But you will likely need to replace the inverter a few times throughout the life of your system.
Like the solar panels themselves, inverters typically come with a warranty—these can range from 5-15 years (and sometimes even longer). Unlike your panels, your inverter will not see its efficiency dwindle very slowly; instead, it may simply stop working and need to be replaced.
However, technological developments on this front are afoot! New "micro-inverters," which are installed or included with each solar panel, are quickly replacing the more-common central inverters that handle the output of all your panels at once. These micro-inverters can have a much longer lifespan (all the way up to 25 years) than a central inverter, and if one does fail, it won't shut your entire system down cold.
Do solar panels work on cloudy, rainy, or cold days?
We'll cut straight to the chase—solar panels work just fine when it's cloudy, rainy, and/or cold.
Are clouds and rain ideal for solar panels? Of course not. They are most effective in direct sunlight. But solar panels can still generate power when the sun is blocked by clouds—more than enough, in fact, to remain a viable source of electricity. Take Germany, for example. It's not particularly warm or sunny, but is nevertheless a world leader in solar energy.
As for winter, there's some even better news: Solar panels are powered by light, not heat, and because of the way the technology works, they're just as effective—if not more effective—in cooler temperatures as in hot ones.
How much does a solar energy system cost?
"In 2018, most U.S. homeowners are paying between $2.71 and $3.57 per watt to install solar, and the average gross cost of solar panels before tax credits is $18,840," EnergySage estimated.
That may seem quite expensive, but it also doesn't take into account the many incentives available to solar customers and the multiple new forms of solar financing that have emerged in recent years that can allow customers to put solar on their rooftops at little or no cost up front.
In addition, in the U.S., a 30 percent federal investment tax credit is available until 2019 (stepping down in the years beyond) and can offset the cost of your investment substantially, and many states also offer their own tax breaks and incentives to encourage home solar panel installation.
And, of course, looking at the straight upfront cost of the system and its installation is far from the whole story, at least as far as your bank account is concerned. Which leads us to our next question …
Can people really save money with solar panels?
Yes. Not only does a solar energy system add substantial value to your home the minute it's up and running, it often pays for itself—and then some!
"Twenty-year electricity savings from solar can be significant, ranging from the low end of $10k to almost $30k," according to EnergySage.
If you follow that math—and please keep in mind your savings will vary, depending on factors like your typical electricity cost, average sunlight in your region, and the scale of your system you install—depending on the final cost of your system after federal, state, and local incentives, in as little as seven-and-a-half years, your system will have paid for itself.
Few major purchases can claim such an impressive return on investment.
Looking at these numbers, the conclusion is clear: Solar isn't just the right choice for the planet—it can also be the smart choice for your wallet. Whatever fossil fuel companies may claim.
The benefits of solar don't end with lower power bills. Cutting carbon pollution? Check. Empowering communities? Check. Creating good jobs? Check and check.
And all that's before we even get to solar's part in transitioning to a clean energy economy and avoiding some of the worst possibilities of climate change. Like increasing extreme weather and the terrible—and terribly expensive—destruction that can come with it.
All Renewables Will Be Cost Competitive With Fossil Fuels by 2020 https://t.co/QectZLGqOF #renewables @350… https://t.co/9rc89HJlCz— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1516026187.0
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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World's Richest One Percent Are Producing More Than Double the Carbon Emissions as the Bottom 50 Percent
A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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