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Facts About Solar Panels

Updated on November 29, 2016
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy lives in Austin, Texas and has written about environmental issues and conservation for more than a decade.

Rooftop Solar Panels Capture and Use the Sun's Power

Solar panels on Ronald McDonald House in Austin, Texas.
Solar panels on Ronald McDonald House in Austin, Texas. | Source

How We Get Electricity From Solar Panels

The Sun emits huge amounts of heat - and heat translates to energy. Can this energy help reduce our electric bills?

Yes, the brief answer is that solar energy is indeed a way to save on electric bills. There's an upfront investment to get to that point, but installing solar panels on your house or business can lower your electricity bill for years.

Although installing solar panels for domestic use (on your home) can run $20,000 and up, the payback will be realized for decades.

Some solar panels have been in use for more than 30 years and are still capturing and converting power.

In addition to solar panels, there are other ways you can put the sun to use in your daily life, and save money while you're at it.

More than saving money, though, harnessing solar energy is an emerging way to save the Earth's resources and cut down pollution.

Although we often spend time dodging the sun's strong rays, we are also getting closer to using that celestial globe as a way to heat and cool our homes, power our appliances and even run a car.

Rooftop Solar Panels

The roof is a common place to install solar panels; plenty of surface and easy access to the dwelling or building.
The roof is a common place to install solar panels; plenty of surface and easy access to the dwelling or building. | Source

Video of Solar-Powered Car

How do Rooftop Solar Panels Convert the Sun Into Energy?

Solar energy is captured through silicon-coated panels that absorb energy from the sun and convert it into power (watts) we can use. As with wind energy, the process of transforming the raw energy into the usable form we need takes equipment and requires a way to channel it to our homes. Solar energy's efficiency ratio (the amount that is actually usable after conversion) ranges from about 16 percent to 22 percent in the current industry. Newer, more efficient technologies are being introduced each year, though, and that amount is expected to only increase.

For obvious reasons, it's easiest to harness solar energy in sunbelt areas such as the South or Southwest, but basically, you can use the sun as a source of power anywhere it shines. Areas with less sunlight or extensive air pollution will not get as much benefit as areas where the sun shines brightly for many hours, in a clear sky. But if there's sun, there's energy.

When you pay your utility bill, you pay for the number of watts you used during a month. Watts are the measurement for electric power (we buy light bulbs based on the number of watts they use per hour; the larger the wattage, the brighter the bulb).

Solar energy as an industry has grown tremendously, and is still on the upswing (with more than 20,000 megawatts of energy transferred to the United States' power grid each year).

Here Comes the Sun - How to Use Solar Power in Your Home

Solar Panels and Other Solar Energy Saving at Home

There are a number of ways to use solar power in your home. Here are just a few:

Install Solar Panels: You can install panels (such as the ones seen in this video) and channel it directly into your home to power your own appliances and heating/cooling system. You can also hook into your local utility firm to get credit on your bill for any excess energy you capture and convert. Most homes using solar panels remain on the local power grid to ensure they'll still have energy during times when there's not as much sun, so they can arrange to add power to the grid during times they have capture more watts than they use or than can be stored.

Solar Hot Water Heaters: A solar-powered hot water heater can give you hot showers and warm water for laundry and other uses. There are a variety of these types of heaters available; check for the type that works most efficiently in your area.

Heat Your Swimming Pool: Pool owners in sunny states such as Florida, California and Texas often use solar power to heat pools (which can make the pool an all-year feature of the home).

Solar Ovens: Some homeowners install solar ovens in patio areas. You can cook pretty much anything you would in a regular oven, and you can even make food items you would normally cook on top of the stove, such as soups and stews.

Rebates: Check for current rebate or tax credits offered by the local, state or federal government. In addition to saving money on utilities, you'll offset the investment cost of installing solar panels or fixtures in your home. These incentives are offered as a way to help reduce the drain on resources such as natural gas, oil and coal, which now generate the majority of energy consumed by homes and businesses.

Video: Solar Light Jar Science Project for Kids

Solar Oven from Pizza Box

Solar Energy Projects for Kids

Although it seems as obvious as, well, the sun coming up every morning, it can be difficult to explain how we can use the sun to create energy that will power our appliances, or turn on a light bulb.

Explain to your child that heat translates to energy (if you heat a pot of water, it boils), and that the sun produces tremendous amounts of heat. You can also demonstrate this at home with a few easy science projects:

Solar Energy Light Jar: This video shows how to create a 'light jar' with simple materials and some help from solar power. Your child will love being able to create this little gem.

Sun Tea: One of the simplest ways to demonstrate solar energy is to put a few family-sized tea bags (regular or herbal) in a large jar of water and allow them to sit in the sun for a few hours. The heat from the sun will gently steep the tea or herbs, and the result will be a cleaner, fresher taste than tea brewed from boiling water. Explain to your child that the heat from the sun and the liquid in the water is what helps create that tall, refreshing drink. Then pour a glass and enjoy!

Solar Oven from Pizza Box: Got some leftover pizza from last night? Save the box and show your kids how to make an easy solar oven to reheat that tasty slice, or to warm up another favorite (and easy) food item, such as chocolate. Everything you need for this oven can be found in your kitchen.

Once you start investigating solar energy and how it's used, you and your entire family will learn many ways to capture and harness this amazing source of power.

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  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    What a great idea, adjkp25 - turning off the water heater in summer months! I've spent time at Maho Bay Campgrounds in the US Virgin Islands & the entire place is Eco-friendly. They use solar water heaters, and the water is plenty warm enough for showers. Also, while I was in Mexico last year, for seven weeks, I showered with solar-heated water the entire time. Many people there never use hot water heaters because of the mineral build-up and corrosion. The showers were great, by the way!

  • adjkp25 profile image

    David 4 years ago from Northern California

    We have a solar water heater so I know for a fact that solar technology works. The unit has an electric backup for the colder times of the year here but I turn it off from May - September and let the sun heat all of the hot water our family of four needs.

    Voted up and useful.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Melovy - thanks for reading and commenting! My neighbors installed solar panels, and I'm so envious - I hope to do that someday. Don't you love all the little things we now have that just run & run with no electricity?

  • Melovy profile image

    Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

    Very useful hub Marcy. A friend of mine has done a lot of investigating into solar energy as she is about to have a major refurb of her house.

    We haven't taken the plunge yet, because we are also thinking about moving home, but we have lots of little solar powered gadgets, such as clocks.

    Great hub!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Alocsin - I share your hesitation on investing in solar panels just yet. Sometimes I think I will be in this home forever, and other times I think it's just a transition home. Already been here a while, though . . . !!!

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • alocsin profile image

    alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

    I'm eager to get started with solar energy, but given that we intend to move from our home within a few years, I'm afraid the investment would not be worth it. Perhaps in our next home, which should be our last. Voting this Up and Useful.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    You make some interesting points, American View - thanks for reading and commenting. I know this technology is still being developed; I just hope the research continues so we can use it more efficiently as time goes by. I'm interested in geothermal systems, too - anything we can do to use renewable resources makes sense in this era.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Unknown Spy - So glad you enjoyed the hub - and thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Patkay - I so hope your beautiful country eventually begins harnessing the ample solar energy you have there! I appreciate your comments here!

  • American View profile image

    American View 4 years ago from Plano, Texas

    Marcy,

    A great article and very well written. However , the truth about solar is the technologies behind it are not very good. It is a good alternative for the future, but the system needs much more research to make it viable.

    Today, the aver installation is 15,000 dollars. I you covered your entire roof with panels, you will save about 10% on your electric bill. Solar water is the same. When Obama campaigned in 2008, he said there would be solar panels on the Whitehouse for hot water. There are no panels because they had to concede it would not work.

    Geothermal is a great way to go, I have installed several of these systems. However, there is a cost to run them, electric. See Geothermal uses electric pumps to circulate water through pipes buried in the ground.. The water is chilled or heated by a heat pump.

    I would like to see our government instead of loaning money to companies that fail, give that money to NASA and let them develop the technologies and improve solar and other resources so we could have a better energy policy.

  • unknown spy profile image

    IAmForbidden 4 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

    amazing and interesting hub!! i learned so much! thank you

  • Patkay profile image

    Patrick Kamau 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks for this article about solar energy. Here in Africa, the sun's energy goes to waste each and every day as it is rarely tapped. The problem is the prohibitive cost of the initial installation and lack of knowledge. There some who use the small solar panels, so the output is never enough, you will find people in the villages powering the black & white TVs and of course a very small radio.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, homesteadbound! And thank you for reading and sharing!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Ruchira! Glad you like the hub - and please let us know if you try the kids' projects! They look especially fun - I may have to go borrow a kid or two and give them a try; mine are all grown!

  • homesteadbound profile image

    Cindy Murdoch 4 years ago from Texas

    Great hub Marcy! I am posting this on my facebook page for Criss and I.

  • Ruchira profile image

    Ruchira 4 years ago from United States

    Interesting read, Marcy.

    I liked the different projects to be done with kids. Gotta give them a try.

    Thanks for an interesting and useful hub. voted up and sharing it across

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Nettlemere - you absolutely get energy through solar panels anywhere the sun shines, even if it's overcast. So glad you like the hubb!

  • Nettlemere profile image

    Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

    I've never heard of solar ovens which sound intriguing. There's been a big push on solar panals in the uK supported by the government so they have become much more common on roofs here and we certainly don't get lorry loads of sunshine, but they seem to work.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Teaches - glad you like the hub! I think kids will really enjoy the science projects here - thanks for thinking of schools for sharing the information!

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

    Very intresting post. We use solar energy to make sun tea and it gives it a really mellow taste. Great post for sharing with schools around the country.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Suzette! Okay, I want to meet your aunt and uncle; they sound like role models for living efficiently and off the grid! if and when I ever build a home from scratch (not likely, but I can dream), one of my goals is to have it be as self-sustaining as possible and to heat and cool it through alternative energy. Thanks for reading and commenting, and for sharing that great example with us!

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    Suzette Walker suzettetaos 4 years ago from Taos, NM

    Marcy, what a terrific article. You have explained solar energy so that all can understand this. And I love the science experiments you included for the kids. Great idea. I have made sun tea many times during the summer. My aunt and uncle (who is a civil engineer) heat and cool their home with a geo-thermal system built underneath their back hard and heats and cools with water that keeps cycling from underground to the house and back again. They haven't paid heating or airconditioning bills in about 20 years. The geo-thermal system is quite expensive, but they have made up for it in no bills over the years. Why our country has not latched on to these types of energy saving and cost saving ideas for the general public is beyond me. We have these wonderful systems, but fiew use them. If these were made available for all, I think the cost of installing them would drop. Great article that explains and highlights the advantages of using solar power.

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