Text by Emily Kathleen Alberts
Photo from Baseline Solar
Solar energy is a fairly mature and stable technology, and it’s been used since the 1950s for things like satellites and space exploration. The first spacecraft to use solar panels was the Vanguard 1 satellite, launched by the United States in 1958.
Solar panels are kind of like sandwiches, two slices of silicon to be specific. The “grain” in this silicon bread would be the smaller units called photovoltaic cells. To work, these cells need to create an electric field (think magnets/positive and negative poles). To separate the opposite charges, manufacturers seed phosphorous into the top layer of the silicon sandwich – producing more electrons and a negative charge — and boron into the bottom layer, producing fewer electrons and a positive charge.
This field is now the meat of a sandwich, and once created, a photon of sunlight can enter and knock an electron free. (Oops, mustard on the shirt!). The plates for the nice sandwiches would be the metal conductive plates that collect these free electrons and transfer them to wires where they can flow like any other source of electricity.
Though solar energy has been around for decades, the industry has experienced a huge boom in recent years, thanks to improvements in the technology and reductions in cost. Commercial, residential and industrial solar energy have all rocketed skyward. “The cost of equipment is half of what it was when I started in 2010,” says Patrick Feucht of Baseline Solar, a Blacksburg-based company.
He has helped install rooftop solar panels, ground mounted panels, solar water heaters, and solar-powered water pumps for farm use, so farmers can get water to their livestock. “Most of the solar installs out there are systems that are connected to the electric grid,” Feucht adds.
These “grid-tied” systems produce energy that is either used immediately at the house if it’s needed at the moment or fed back into the grid to be used down the street where someone else needs it. The solar panel owner gets the credit for producing that energy so that later, when the sun goes down, that credit can be used.
To bank credits in this way, the utility company puts in a special meter that will count in both directions, and when the meter turns backwards, the solar user gets a credit for putting energy back on the grid. It is a one-for-one credit ratio, so for putting 10 kWh (kilowatt hours) on the grid, a solar user gets 10 later. This process of “net metering” is a great system because there is no need for storing the electricity somewhere. It is used where it’s needed.
People are looking for ways to reduce energy costs by installing energy-saving appliances and connecting their homes with apps to turn off lights and set the thermostat remotely, so it makes sense that solar panels are gaining ground. Though there is an initial investment upfront, the eventual payout can be huge. Bryan Walsh started Solar Connexion, also in Blacksburg, in 1993. He says that more and more home designs are taking solar energy into consideration, with south facing roofs that have minimal dormers, few obstructions and a 30-degree pitch. “Newer construction consumes two-thirds or even half of the energy of homes built 20 years ago, so there is enormous potential for solar to offset energy bills. The general rule of thumb is for a two-story home with a south facing roof surface area, filling 50% of it with solar panels can create 100% of the power for the house.”
Though staunch environmentalists might long to be completely off the grid, batteries are a costly necessity. “It’s a tradeoff between budget and battery capacity. Believe it or not, it often makes more sense from a fiscal and environmental standpoint to just have a generator for periodic power outages rather than a battery bank,” Walsh explains.
Ready to go solar? In most cases, it only takes a week to install the panels. Of course, the initial legwork of creating the contract and securing permits takes a little longer. Both Feucht and Walsh have solar panels on their homes. Thanks to the extension of the federal solar tax credit of 30% for both residential and commercial systems, the solar industry continues to grow in the New River Valley and across the nation.