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Solar 101: Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Solar Energy

Solar energy is the future of energy, allowing you as an energy consumer to not only be energy efficient but also save money. Solar energy is one of the main clean and sustainable energy sources that benefits both the consumer and world we inhabit.

 

So, what should you know?

 

What is solar energy?

Solar is the most abundant source of energy we have available to us on Earth. The energy from the sun is more than 10,000 times what the world needs in terms of energy, at any given time of day. It is a form of “renewable energy” or “clean energy” which is energy that comes from natural sources that are always available. In recent years, scientists have studied solar energy as a power source for homes and businesses–it now accounts for more than one-eighth of the energy sources used across the United States. 

This 1/8th includes the energy that has been used to grow our crops, dry foods, and keep us warm, but now it can be used to warm your water and power your homes and businesses.

How does solar energy work?

The US government’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy states that “the amount of sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface in an hour and a half is enough to handle the entire world’s energy consumption for a full year.” Solar energy is derived from the sun. Solar energy comes from the light emitted by the sun—electromagnetic radiation—that reaches the Earth’s surface. Through the installation and use of solar panels, sunlight and solar radiation is converted into power that our technology can use. The heat radiation from the sun triggers a reaction that produces electricity for use.

Does solar radiation have any negative affects to our Earth?

There are no negative effects from the sun’s radiation with the use of renewable energy. On average, 70% of the radiation emitted by the sun is absorbed into the Earth while the other 30% is reflected back into space. However, greenhouse gasses emitted from burning fossil fuels (a non-renewable energy source) trap the sun’s radiation, causing the temperature of the Earth to rise. Earth’s average global temperature that covers the entire surface depends on how much energy we receive from the Sun and how much returns into space, and as a result of non-renewable energy, Earth has experienced an approximate 1℃ global change in temperature.

How is solar power produced?

Solar radiation is captured through photovoltaic (PV) cells in solar panels where it is then converted into electric energy. Solar panels used to capture sunlight and radiation consist of 60 or more solar cells, and comes in two main types—monocrystalline or polycrystalline—with a marginal difference in wattage. Both cell types serve the same purpose for the solar system, but monocrystalline solar panel cells are made from a single crystal of silicon while polycrystalline solar panel cells are made from many melted silicon fragments. Monocrystalline panels -considered the premium of the two- have higher conversion efficiencies and are sleeker looking. Polycrystalline cells are the cheaper option, but they have slightly lower efficiencies and look less aesthetically pleasing to some.

In order for the conversion of sun radiation to electric energy through the solar panels to successfully occur there is a complex process that consists of the following elements—solar panels, PV module, wiring, inverters, etc. The PV module is the core of the solar cells, when light from the sun hits the conversion module, each cell produces direct current (DC) voltage. DC and alternating current (AC) wiring are responsible for switching the power on/off and from the inverter. The inverter is responsible for taking the DC from the solar and/or batteries and turning it into AC for use in a building or on the grid. Batteries are sometimes installed to store the electric energy chemically to be used when the sun is not hitting the panels, like during the night-time. Finally, solar controllers are used to regulate the energy current into the batteries. Solar energy is made possible through the work of each of these components.

How much does solar power cost?

The prices of solar panels are ever dropping. What you should expect depends on the system size and federal solar tax credit, with a 10-kilowatt ranging from $17,650 to $23,828 and the average price per watt ranging from $2.40 to $3.22. The cost depends on how much energy you want to generate, depending on whether you’re planning on fueling solar electricity through your home or business. The below chart depicts the average cost for solar panels depending on the size of the system:

System sizeAverage solar panel system cost before tax creditsAverage solar panel system cost after tax credits
2 kW$5,620$4,159
3 kW$8,430$6,238
4 kW$11,240$8,318
5 kW$14,050$10,397
6 kW$16,860$12,476
7 kW$19,670$14,556
8 kW$22,480$16,635
9 kW$25,290$18,715
10 kW$28,100$20,794
12 kW$33,720$24,953
15 kW$42,150$41,588
20 kW$56,200$41,588
25 kW$70,250$51,985

The solar tax credit reduces your cost by 26% simply for installing a solar energy system, saving you thousands of dollars for going solar. Costs can depend on your state, so it’s best to compare prices with various providers in your area to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

What can solar energy be used for?

The sun makes plants grow, causes the wind to blow, and affects the temperature across the globe. It can also power your household appliances, your cell phone, and your air conditioning. Solar can be used to:

  1. Provide electricity for homes and businesses – a solar system installed on rooftops can power the entire establishment.
  2. Heat your water – solar panels absorb heat and then transfer it into a water tank. This can be your home water or even your swimming pool.
  3. Heat your home or business – solar space heating systems paired with forced hot air systems can heat homes.
  4. Provide light within your home or business (one of the most common uses) solar lighting is present in homes, streetlights, and road signs.
  5. Charge portable batteries – portable solar PV chargers can be used for charging your portable electronics such as your cell phone.
  6. Power your method of transportation – solar power has been used to power buses, trains, and airplanes. Though not widely available, solar-powered cars are in the works. In 2015, we worked with UAH to solar power some of their golf carts.

With the potential to power your everyday necessities, solar energy has the potential to power your future.

Why isn’t solar power more widely used?

Solar energy is not a new concept, but even just a few years ago, it could be expensive to implement and not readily available to many people. However, now, many families across the U.S. and the rest of the world have converted to using solar energy as their primary source of energy. Solar energy is becoming more widely used as time progresses and prices continue to drop.

The advantages that come with using solar energy include:

  • We can’t run out of solar energy, making it a renewable source that we will always have available.
  • What you pay for energy will drop, how much depends on the size of your solar system.
  • You can generate electricity and heat, making its uses diverse.
  • Maintenance is cheap and easy. It’s as simple as cleaning the panels a few times a year.
  • Improvements are consistently being made to current solar energy systems in the industry.
  • Solar panels typically last for about 25 to 30 years, or even more.
  • Solar energy is more optimal for the environment.
  • While solar energy may cost more starting out, there are tax credits that lower the prices.

The disadvantages that come with using solar energy include:

  • The upfront or initial cost can be high—paying for the panels, inverter, batteries, wiring, and installation.
  • Solar energy is dependent on the weather, and you may need batteries to smooth out your production or save it for later.
  • Adding battery storage makes a system more expensive.
  • You may need more solar panels than you have available space.
  • There is some pollution that comes with the initial manufacturing process of the solar panels.

Who can benefit from solar energy?

Everyone can benefit from the use of solar energy. You don’t have to live on a sunny beach to benefit from the energy that the sun provides for us, nor will you be without if you live in a cloudy region. As long as solar energy systems are properly manufactured and placed, the risks fall far below that of the non-renewable energy the world uses now.

What is the reality of solar energy?

Solar energy has proved to be abundant and is becoming more popular as years progress. Solar pollutes far less, is energy efficient, and saves money. There are many misconceptions about using a solar energy system that have caused people to avoid it, but with our help and determination to teach you about renewable energy, we can move past those misconceptions and implement a clean energy future.

 

Sources:

Electric lines in the ice and snow

Alabama’s Lessons From Texas

This article by our Chief Operating Officer, Daniel Tait, was originally published in Business Alabama.

What happened in Texas in February was a tragedy, with millions left without power amid freezing temperatures for days.  A recent opinion piece by Mr. George Clark of Manufacture Alabama discussed what a similar situation could mean for Alabama. While it’s true that better energy planning is needed, Mr. Clark missed the mark on the right solution for Alabama and left out key tools (cleaner and cheaper tools) to address Alabama’s energy needs.

As Mr. Clark noted, almost all energy sources had troubles in Texas, although not all suffered equally. Some government officials and other vested interests (mainly fossil fuel advocates) immediately jumped to conclusions, blaming the power outages on renewable energy sources, namely frozen wind turbines. It has since come to light that the main cause was actually frozen gas pipelines and instruments.  Gas and other fossil fuels like coal were especially hit hard with supply issues. Upwards of 40% of the Texas’s gas, coal, and nuclear fleet went offline at times. At its peak, about 30 gigawatts of mostly gas generation in Texas failed because of the cold temperatures. Wind power also had some outages, but not nearly on the same scale. In fact, ERCOT, Texas’ grid operator, reported that wind power was “the least significant factor” in the blackout. Furthermore, wind turbines can and do operate reliably in sub-zero temperatures if they are properly winterized, and wind turbines operate fine in much colder places, such as the northern Plains.

Texas relies heavily on gas for its energy supply, just like Alabama. Unfortunately, the recent disaster highlights the inherent risks associated with gas plants, gas supply, and an overreliance on gas. Many of the gas plants that went offline in Texas could not receive the gas they were promised, even if they had firm delivery gas contracts. And, as this goes to press, Alabama Power is currently proposing a massive expansion of their electric generation capacity with mostly gas. But gas, as we are seeing in Texas, is not the panacea many utilities claim it to be.

So, what can Alabama do to help protect us from a similar catastrophe? While we won’t know the full story until Texas authorities investigate further, Alabama can and should take immediate steps to prepare. While electricity outages are always a possibility, we can reduce the likelihood of occurrences and impacts by investing in more energy efficiency, having more robust demand response programs and reducing barriers to renewable energy in our state.  Alabama is woefully behind in deploying these lower cost resources that do not require the massive expenditures (and accompanying rate hikes) that a new gas plant requires.

As the least cost energy resource for customers, ramping up energy efficiency would lower bills for customers across the board. Energy efficiency is especially important to reduce peak stress on the grid in Southern states where much of our home heating comes from electricity–more efficient homes and businesses hold on to heating and cooling for longer periods and save energy and money year-round. But energy efficiency is also a public safety issue. If power goes out for a prolonged amount of time as it did in Texas, Alabama needs buildings that can keep people warm and safe. Unfortunately, Alabama Power ranks last in the nation in energy efficiency offerings among utilities. Utilities often oppose stringent energy efficiency standards and building codes in an attempt to sell more electricity and build more centralized power plants. While that may be good for utility profits, it’s not good for Alabamians or our businesses.

Furthermore, stronger and more robust demand response programs – which reduce or shift your energy usage – can help utilities manage load to keep the grid running when power plants go down and demand for electricity is still rising. Demand response programs can compensate residents for things like dialing back the temperature on their thermostat or shutting down a water heater during an emergency.

Finally, Alabama utilities and regulators have gone out of their way to block renewable energy sources in this state.  Look no further than the Alabama PSC’s recent decision, and Alabama Power’s increase in a “standby charge”, to keep taxing the sun for small scale solar producers in the state. Or the Alabama PSC’s recent decision to not allow 400 MW of solar plus battery storage. Smaller scale solar and energy storage projects can help us mitigate energy usage in record-breaking storms. These local sources of reliable and cost-effective energy are almost nowhere to be found in Alabama, even when compared to our Southeastern neighbors, and it’s critical to bring these sources online and scale them as quickly as possible. Neighboring states like Georgia are doing it, and they are creating jobs and stimulating the economy in the meantime. Utilities often oppose renewable energy resources, despite the myriad benefits for customers, because of the threat to their business model.

Preventing a disaster like Texas from happening in Alabama will require better planning and investing in lower cost resources such as energy efficiency, demand response, and renewable energy resources. Alabama should take heed of the tough lessons Texas learned: more gas plants are not a failsafe solution and banking on last century’s technology for a historic weather event can result in unprecedented failure.

Energy Efficiency: Georgia Power vs. Alabama Power

You might think that there isn’t much difference between the utilities within each state’s borders (I know I didn’t). We give them money, and in return they make sure we have working electricity. Seems simple enough, right? How much more could there be?

As you may have guessed since this is an article and not a single paragraph, there’s a lot more to it than that. But, rather than compare every single utility within each state, we’ll focus on the differences between Georgia Power and Alabama Power which are both owned by Southern Company.

Specifically, we want to examine the differences in terms of how much money each company spent on energy efficiency compared to how much energy they are saving through those programs. But first, a little background information.

Each year, most utilities spend money that is supposed to go towards incentive programs that help customers save energy.¹ Most utilities channel a portion of the money that we pay them into energy efficiency programs, often being forced to do so by regulators because they don’t normally like selling less of their product. These programs exist to incentivize consumers to make upgrades on their homes and businesses, which is much cheaper than building a new power plant.

But not all utility energy efficiency is created equal and we have to take a look at the reality on the ground.

As of 2019, Georgia Power spent $16.5 million dollars, through various programs, on residential customers if they invested in cleaner energy efficiency for their homes. For commercial customers, Georgia Power spent $24.8 million dollars on energy efficiency. With that money, residential customers saved 95,124 megawatt hours (MWh), while commercial customers saved 295,968 MWh. That’s a total of 391,092 MWhs saved in 2019 alone! For comparison’s sake, the average Alabama home uses between 1 and 2 MWh per month.

Since Georgia Power and Alabama Power are owned by the same parent company, wouldn’t it make sense for Alabama Power to offer similar opportunities to their customers? Sadly, neither Alabama Power, nor Alabama regulators, seem to think so.

Unlike Georgia Power, Alabama Power only spent about $3.3 million dollars (of which just ~$5,000 were for incentives) on residential energy efficiency, and $84,000 for commercial customers. With that paltry sum, residential customers only saved 5,486 MWh and commercial customers just 192 MWh.

Why does Georgia Power spend so much more than Alabama Power? The price that consumers pay each company is fairly similar. So what’s going on here?

It comes down to monopoly control. Utilities do not want you to save energy, they want you to buy energy from them. It is the job of the regulators at the public service commission to protect consumers from monopoly abuses. Some regulators force utilities to invest in lower-cost energy efficiency since a monopoly would not do so on its own. Some regulators have even gone so far as to change the way utilities are paid in order to give the utilities a financial incentive to promote energy efficiency. Neither of those things happen in Alabama.

Part of it is that Alabama Power wants to build power plants, because they earn profit from how much new construction they do, regardless of if the construction is needed. In order to justify new construction, they need you to use more energy, not less. Don’t forget that Alabama Power customers are now on the hook for more than $1 billion in new gas plants…

I digress. The point is that we are giving utilities an arm and a leg, but we aren’t getting out what we put in. We’re already paying enough on our utilities bills to work towards the future and switch over to clean energy. Georgia, though they’ve just begun, has the right idea, and even they are behind the curve compared to many other areas of the country. So why is Alabama Power falling further behind? And why are we letting them get away with it?

Alabama PSC Should Release Analysis on Alabama Power’s Excessive Profit Formula

Today, Energy Alabama sent a letter to the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) asking it to commit fully to transparency and fairness by allowing regular Alabamians to review and submit questions about an overdue report examining Alabama Power’s Rate Stabilization and Equalization (RSE), a key factor in how the utility’s excessive profits are determined.

Read the letter here

Alabama Power’s RSE utilizes a formula that over-rewards the company at the expense of its customers. Hard-working Alabama Power customers deserve to know why they pay some of the highest electric bills in the country. The Alabama PSC owes an explanation to the people of Alabama and should find a way to virtually open this meeting to the general public.

There are major questions about the workings and results of the RSE formula which should be answered by a report required by a 2013 PSC order authorizing the rate. Publicly available data shows that Alabama customers are overburdened by the PSC’s formula, which hides the usual measure of return on equity (ROE) used by other utility regulators.

However, the “hidden” ROE can still be calculated from other sources. Such a comparison from 2014 through 2018 shows that Alabama Power customers paid more than $1 billion in excess profits than they would have if the PSC had instead awarded Alabama Power the national average ROE.

COVID-19, and the economic hardships it created, have further exacerbated the excess profit Alabama Power has pocketed. Instead, the PSC continues to over-reward Alabama Power at the expense of its customers.

Allowing a monopoly utility to retain profits that are far above those necessary to provide mandated services is not equitable nor economical for customers. The long overdue RSE report should provide the important information necessary for all stakeholders to discuss the unique formula and the profits it supports­­.

“If this Commission cares about creating jobs, it should put Alabama Power’s excessive profits back into the hands of regular folks and small businesses,” said Daniel Tait, Energy Alabama’s Chief Operating Officer. “The time for monopoly handouts is over.”

By any objective standard, the case is clear. The Alabama PSC must support transparency and #ReleaseTheRSE.

Groups Ask PSC to Reconsider Alabama Power’s Unprecedented Gas Expansion

Gasp and Energy Alabama have formally asked the Alabama Public Service Commission to reconsider its June decision to approve the single largest capacity increase ever proposed by Alabama Power, including including almost 1,900 MW of gas generation. We requested a rehearing to consider updated testimony in light of economic forecasts showing lessened electric demand due to the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).

Last year, Alabama Power filed a “Petition for a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity” with the Alabama Public Service Commission. That proposal initially sought to add nearly 2.4 gigawatts of new generating capacity — which would cost customers over $1.1 billion. Energy Alabama and Gasp, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, intervened in the docket to question Alabama Power’s lack of evidentiary support to build and buy such a significant amount of new gas resources.

In March, just before COVID-19 brought the world as we know it to a halt, the Alabama Public Service Commission held a series of hearings on the petition. Witnesses for Gasp and Energy Alabama exposed exposed significant flaws in Alabama Power’s planning and justification processes. After those hearings concluded, we made several key points in our proposed order filed with the Commission:

  • Alabama Power failed to produce the evidence necessary to support its request to increase electric generation capacity by almost 20%. The utility had previously asserted it wouldn’t need new generation sources until 2035.
  • Without a showing of need, Alabama Power’s request amounts to an effort to build rate base and enrich shareholders at the expense of its customers, who will pay for expensive, unnecessary generation for decades.
  • Alabama Power’s own analysis showed that the proposed solar plus battery storage projects were the cheapest options for customers.

The pandemic and subsequent economic downtown have cast even more doubt on Alabama Power’s supposed need for new capacity. In early June, we filed additional information regarding anticipated economic effects of COVID-19, arguing that the economic downturn precipitated by the pandemic called into question the magnitude and timing of Alabama Power’s claims about needing additional power sources. Alabama Power relied on outdated projections from more than two years ago, well before the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19. We argue those projections can no longer serve as the basis for a making a $1.1+ billion investment with customer dollars.

Despite all of that, the PSC in June unanimously voted to approve everything in Alabama Power’s proposal, including almost 1,900 MW of gas generation, except Alabama Power’s proposed solar plus battery storage projects. The PSC said they were not well-suited to meet Alabama Power’s reliability needs, despite the overwhelming evidence that supported their approval. However, the Commission refused to ask for supplemental information from Alabama Power as to whether its petition was still warranted.

Alabama customers already pay some of the highest electric bills nationwide. (A recent report found that people in Birmingham have the highest energy burden in the nation.) COVID-19 has only worsened the plight of customers struggling to pay monthly bills. If they want to move forward with these monumental investments, Alabama Power should not be allowed to put the entire financial burden on customers. Utility shareholders should bear the risk that the projects may become stranded assets before the end of their useful lives.

We also hope the Commission will reconsider its denial of the solar-plus-storage projects, which were the most economic options according to Alabama Power’s own analysis. That was just the latest in a long line of anti-solar decisions from the Commission. In September, the Alabama Public Service Commission dismissed our challenge against Alabama Power’s discriminatory solar charge, instead approving an increase in the charge.

By denying Alabama Power’s proposed solar-plus-battery storage projects in this docket and then approving an increase to Alabama Power’s unjust solar fee on rooftop solar customers in another, the PSC continues to deny Alabamians the benefits of clean, renewable energy like solar. Alabama has less solar capacity than other states in the sunny South, and far fewer jobs as a result of the PSC’s decisions.