GoGreen Mailbag: Solar Electricity

From time to time, we receive several inquiries about the same topic. We’ll try to address those topics in a brief, practical way in this ongoing series we call the Go Green Mailbag. This time, we discuss solar electricity.

Q: How does solar electricity work? What are the benefits of using solar electricity? How can I get my own solar power system?

How does solar electricity work?

The sun has always been an important source of heat and light for us. Now we also have technology to convert the sun’s light into electricity using solar cells called photovoltaic (PV) cells – photon meaning light and voltaic referring to electricity. PV cells are made of semiconductor materials, such as silicon, to generate direct current (DC) electricity. PV cells can be packaged into solar panels and installed on a rooftop or pole or a ground-mounted system to provide power for our homes and businesses. Since most of our homes and businesses are connected to the electric grid and use alternating current (AC), an inverter is generally required to convert DC to AC electricity to run our lights, appliances and other electrical devices. For more detail about how solar PV works, check out:

How Stuff Works: http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/energy/solar-cell1.htm or

About Solar Electricity: http://www.masscec.com/technology/solar-electricity

What are some of the benefits of solar energy?

Glad you asked! First of all, by harnessing the power of the sun you are using a “renewable” resource that will never run out. The sun is roughly 93 million miles away from Earth, but its ability to provide us with power is enormous. Just 20 days of sunshine hitting the planet’s surface is equal to all of the energy stored in the planet’s reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas. Even if you’re only collecting a fraction of that light, it’s easy to imagine how that could fulfill your home energy needs. However, solar electricity has many other benefits, many of which are listed below.

Non-polluting: Since the “fuel” is sunlight, once a solar system is installed, unlike most other methods of generating electricity it does not need to be mined, transported, or burned and adds no carbon to the atmosphere.

Quiet: The solar panels make no noise while operating. The only moving or mechanical components are the inverters and possibly a tracking system.

Cost-effective: Due to various state and federal tax credits, decreasing panel prices, increasing system efficiency, increasing electricity prices, and the ability to receive net metering credits for excess power you generate, solar PV systems installed in Massachusetts can pay for themselves in as little as 5-10 years. Don’t wait too long though, as the 30% federal tax credit for residents expires at the end of 2016! For comprehensive and up-to-date information on incentives for solar electricity, go to the Database of State and Federal Incentives website.

Spins your meter backwards: Through a system called net-metering, any electricity your system produces but you do not use essentially causes your electric meter to “run backwards”. In Massachusetts you receive a credit for the excess electricity you have produced against the electricity you have to buy from your utility company/supplier.

-Widely applicable: Solar systems can generate electricity for your urban, suburban or rural home, a cabin far removed from civilization, and even satellites in space! As long as the site receives strong sunlight, especially with a southern exposure to take advantage of the strongest solar radiation being at the Equator (and thus, south in relation to the Northern Hemisphere), and little cover from trees make a site suitable, you can generate solar electricity almost anywhere.

-Dependable: Because the sun is a resource nobody can own and it will be there for millions of years, solar power is a very stable source of electricity in a world where electric prices are sometimes volatile. It provides a buffer of stability from market swings.

Great! How can I get solar?

As you can see, there has never been a better time to go solar, and the good news is that there are a variety of ways to affordably generate and utilize solar power. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center provides a wealth of information for everything from selecting a contractor to financing your systemThe Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s Residential Guide to Solar Power contains step-by-step information for interested homeowners.

What are some of your options?

Install Solar on your Home: You can purchase your own panels and have a contractor install them for you, assuming the up-front costs and enjoying all the benefits as you pay yourself back over time with the savings. And, if you need to finance the system, the good news is that Massachusetts has just announced a Solar Loan Program for residents to obtain low-interest loans to purchase and install solar systems on their homes.  For more information, go to: http://www.masscec.com/programs/mass-solar-loan. Loans will also be available for residents interested in purchasing a share in a community-shared solar project. See more on Community Shared Solar below.

Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs): Another business model in the solar market is the power-purchasing agreement (PPA)/leasing model. Under this model, the homeowner does not purchase the solar panels. Instead, a third-party company provides and installs the panels, and the homeowner either leases or agrees to purchase the power. This model helps homeowners avoid the up-front cost of solar installation. However, the customer is responsible for paying a lease fee or purchasing the electricity generated by the panels, and the contractor gets to claim any tax credits and the rights to the SRECs produced by the panels. This blog post from April 2015 elaborates on the topic.

Community Shared Solar: However, if you don’t have a good site for solar power, or don’t have the financial ability to purchase a solar system of your own, there are still ways to benefit from solar electricity. Community Shared Solar, for example, allows several community members to invest in and/or purchase the power of a system hosted on an appropriate site. For example, a landowner may have an unused field that gets enough sunlight to make it an attractive site for solar electricity. A group of individuals may come together to establish a community shared solar site on that unused field, all investing in a share of the up-front cost, and reaping the benefits of solar electricity once the system comes online.  CET is developing a toolkit for groups interested in developing a participant-owned Community Shared Solar project.  Stay tuned for more on that!

Green Up your Electricity: Another option for supporting solar electricity is to match 100 percent of your electricity usage with electricity generated by a variety of clean energy technologies by paying a small additional premium on your electric bill each month.  You can “green up” your electricity by enrolling in Mass Energy Consumers Alliance’s New England GreenStart and New England Wind programs. Your contribution is 100% tax deductible – and 100% of the electricity sold through New England GreenStart is produced by renewable sources in New England, with 75% of that energy supply coming from low-impact hydroelectric power and 25% coming from Massachusetts solar, wind, and anaerobic digester installations.

We hope you found this post helpful and informative. For more information about solar power including exciting developments, keep an eye on our GoGreen News Blog, and stay tuned for future installments of the Go Green Mailbag!

Leave a comment


Email(will not be published)*


Your comment*

Submit Comment

Next Events
* indicates required