The conventional approach to going solar is expensive. It’s an inefficient method that greatly increases the costs of going renewable, and it’s why less people are making the change. A holistic approach that includes changing our energy habits and appliances will win, saving us 70% of what the conventional approach to going solar would cost us.
If you do take the standard approach to going renewable, here is how it goes…You don’t do anything. An installation company starts by analyzing your current consumption patterns to find your peak load and your base load (i.e. they figure out under which conditions you use the most power and your average power use in a 24-hour day).
The installer takes the peak load and multiplies by safety factor to make sure your solar energy system can actually put out the power you need. With the assumption that the sun might not shine for two to three days, the installer determines how many batteries to use. Batteries alone actually make up a third of the cost—more than the solar panels in some cases. The result of this process is a solar energy system that is too overbuilt for your needs and very expensive.
This isn’t a bad thing on its own. If you pay a company to switch you over to solar, you would expect the system to work when you flip the switch. Maybe you have money in the bank to invest in your energy. The payback is definitely there, and this approach does work for many people. You don’t have to learn anything new, and nothing changes from your perspective. Companies are making sales based on a simple switch.
The problem is that the system is going to cost you a lot of money, which is why many people aren’t able to make the conventional solar conversion. I was quoted over $20,000 to convert my house to solar! Unfortunately, that was way too expensive and I decided not to do it.
So why is this approach flawed? There’s actually two factors that make the conventional way of going solar overly-expensive: our habits and our appliances.
First, let’s talk about our habits. If we changed the way we use energy, even a little bit, we could reduce peak loads and our base load. That means less energy to produce, which means a cheaper system. It doesn’t mean living in the dark, but there are a number of proven negawatt strategies that reduce the need to produce the energy in the first place.
Negawatt strategies are the most cost-effective step that any of us can take. Perhaps you’ve noticed government or power company programs for LED lightbulbs or smart meters. It’s cheaper to not produce the power than it is to produce the power—that’s why these institutions support these programs. Plus, it doesn’t require any habit changes on the part of people besides changing the type of lightbulb we buy.
Habits are definitely the elephant in the room for energy use. Cars, power plants, and all the energy of daily life is a result of our habits, and they are not inherently bad. There is a systemic inertia that keeps us needing to go to work five days a week or driving around for groceries, but there are also a lot of changes we can implement—like remote working and walkable neighbourhoods—that reduce energy consumption.
Individually, at home or on the farm, we can learn about our habits and energy use. If we do this, we can greatly reduce our peak load and base load. Those investments in our habits affect our pocketbook by reducing the size of solar energy systems, which means a cheaper price tag.
The second mistake we are making is that we power all alternating current (AC). AC appliances are found throughout our home. A solar energy system produces direct current (DC) power, and to use it in our home we have to convert it to AC. This conversion is inefficient and requires extra components. Again, that means higher costs and the need for a bigger system.
Over the last century, AC power became the standard delivered to homes around the world. The expected result was that most appliances would be designed to run off AC power. Appliances with batteries still run on DC energy, but require the transformer to convert the AC to DC. Things like our laptops and cellphones are a good example of DC electronics, but most things in the home are AC.
There is a secondary aspect to understand about AC appliances: they tend to be very energy inefficient. Up until recently, AC energy delivered to our homes was the cheapest—hence, people didn’t think much about leaving things plugged in, nor did it really hit their pocketbook. This has changed more and more, and now people feel the impact on their electricity bill.
Another part to this AC appliance story is the appliance manufacturers. They have incentives to put cheaper, more inefficient parts and designs together (i.e. they make more money by spending less in building the product). They will not pay for the more electricity you use. Yes, you can say there is Energy Star now, but really, energy consumption is down on the list of consumers’ buying priorities after looks, technology, pricing, brand, etc.
So back to the conventional approach to going solar. If we do not change our appliances, then we must produce much more energy to make up for converting DC to AC energy and to feed our inefficient AC appliances. Combine that with poor energy habits and it adds up to over-built solar energy systems that cost a lot.