Components: The Solar Panel is Only the Beginning
There’s a lot to know when it comes to building and installing a solar power system. The components that go into a system are like the parts on a car in that they all work together for the same ultimate goal, but the quality of each component can make a big difference in performance. Additionally, having some high-quality components paired with some lower quality ones can lead to diminished returns; or to follow the car analogy, spending all your money on a nice paint job and fancy tires won’t make the car go any faster. In order to make an educated decision, it’s necessary to know what all of the components do and what to look for and look out for as you choose each component. Here’s a rundown of the components typically found in a solar power system and some details about each one.
The most basic part of the solar power system is the solar (or photovoltaic) cell. Put simply, these cells are made up of materials that when exposed to sunlight, create a reaction from which electricity can be harnessed. In fact, the same materials used to power a solar calculator are used in solar power systems, just on a larger scale. The type of cell used in your solar panels makes a big difference in performance. Consider that early solar cells were only 1-2% efficient, while modern cells are closer to 15-20% and high-end solar cells can achieve as much as 30% efficiency. You’re not going to find the 30% efficient cells at your local installer as they’re cost prohibitive and currently only used in aeronautic and scientific applications, but this is a good sign that as the technology progresses, the costs will come down and panels will continue to improve inefficiency.
The solar panels are the most identifiable part of a solar power system. This is typically the only part of the system most consumers consider and it’s also the biggest cost and most important element of the system. Solar panels come in a wide variety of sizes, form factors, and applications, making it possible to have hundreds of different applications, depending on the homeowner’s preference, budget, and needs. A few standouts are solar shingles, which mount directly to the roof and take the place of traditional cedar or composite shingles, and Solyndra solar panels which are designed for flat, white roofs and as such only require a 1/2 pound anchoring ballast and no drilling or penetration of the roof surface.
The power inverter is the second most critical component in a solar power system, it’s what makes the low voltage DC power generated from the solar panels and converts it to high voltage (110v) AC power used in our homes. You may have a similar device on a smaller scale in your car that lets you plug a laptop into your cigarette lighter. Power inverters perform a very basic task, but not all inverters are created equally. The process of converter power from one voltage to another and in this case from one polarity to another will inevitably result in lost energy turned into heat in the process. There are two things to look for here; is the inverter made of high-quality components with large heat sinks which will keep your equipment safe and is the inverter designed well so as to lose as little energy as possible as it is transformed.
The wiring may seem like an insignificant part of the process, but making sure you have the right gauge and shielding on your wires will not only protect you from safety code violations and potential fire hazards but can also make a big difference in efficiency of your system. Every element of your solar power system that interacts with the electricity will cause some energy loss, so using unshielded or thin power cables to save money could in the end cost you a lot more because they’re not transferring 100% of the electricity from point A to point B.
Most solar power owners will love the idea of being able to accurately and regularly check the status of their solar power system. Solar monitors and meters come in all sorts, from dead simple to something that looks like it belongs in the flight deck of a 777. The basic functionality that all monitoring systems will have is a readout of how much power your system is generating. This can be helpful when trying to measure your power usage or when considering expanding your system’s size. Additionally, the more complex monitoring systems offer advanced features such as remote monitoring, management, and control from a web browser or smartphone.
Knowing the ins and outs of each component can be a little daunting. The good news is that a good installer will be able to properly match each piece of equipment to give you the optimal performance but to be a good consumer, you should educate yourself on these components as much as possible to ensure that you’re not being sold more than you need.