Thursday, March 5, 2020

Are solar panels worth it?

This cartoon absolutely cracked me up:

I have a question for readers: Are solar panels worth it?

A number of fairly recent articles sparked this question.

One interesting observation came from an off-grid family in North Carolina. The memorable line was this: "The easiest way to go off-grid is to need as little electricity as possible."

A little over ten years ago, when our local power supplier announced they were increasing prices, we started a long-term project to whittle down our electricity usage, including using LED lights and line-drying clothes (that's why the above cartoon amused me). We've kept our power usage moderate, about 616 kWh per month. By the above criterion, "needing as little electricity as possible," we'd be decent candidates for going off-grid.

But as one person wrote about last year's rolling blackouts in California, "California blackouts expose the total scam of solar panels: They don’t work when the grid goes down."

The author observed, "That’s a far cry from what buyers of solar panels have been promised. ... Even when solar panels do work, they’re still largely a scam. Power companies like PG&E rip off solar owners by charging much higher rates for electricity delivery than what they credit you for 'uploading' watts from your solar panels. So while your panels are providing power to the electricity company at a discounted rate, that same company is still charging you retail rates for the power you use. Furthermore, solar panels lose as much as 30% of their effectiveness when they aren’t regularly cleaned, meaning the actual power delivered is far less than what the panels claim to deliver."

People pour thousands of dollars into grid-tie solar systems, but do they ever recoup their expenses? And what happens if the durn things don't work when the grid goes down?

And for those with battery banks, how often do they need replacement, what happens to the old batteries, and how much do replacement batteries cost? All I can see is dollar signs all over the place, not to mention a heavier environmental impact than people want to believe.

A small panel is probably worth it for modest tasks like charging flashlight batteries, etc. But on a large scale, with enough panels to provide power to run all the electrical appliances in a normal home, it seems the costs can never be recouped. And for times the panels don't provide enough juice (long stretches of cloudy weather or whatever), then a backup generator is necessary, adding to the expense.

Also, there's the old axiom of moving parts. The more moving parts something has, the more likely it is to break. Almost invariably, high-tech solutions are complicated, require continuous maintenance (often by professionals), necessitate specialized parts, and are prone – simply because of their complexity – to breakdowns or other mishaps. What if something goes wrong within this complex system? Can you diagnose the problem and fix it? Do you have spare parts? And in a grid-down event, can you obtain more spare parts, and/or hire an expert to rectify the situation?

Some people say you shouldn't own stuff you can't fix, but I don't think we should be too purist about this concept. I don’t have the faintest clue how to fix a computer. Ditto for the car, the well pump, and the chain saw. These items are useful and valuable and help make our lives easier and more productive. But arguably they’re not critical to our survival. If they were knocked out of commission, we have low-tech backups so we won’t be hungry, thirsty, sitting in the dark, and unable to stay warm.

In other words, high-tech solutions may not always be superior to low-tech options. It strikes me that living a low-tech lifestyle -- using as little power as necessary and being fully prepared to live without it -- is a better solution.

So are solar panels worth it or not? What is your opinion?


  1. I t would depend on where you live, and how your power company "net meters" your power. Also; if your system is grid-tied, it will NOT work when the power goes down unless you have a battery backup system like the Tesla Powerwall or the like.

    Location is the biggy here. Places like Southern California and Arizona are IDEAL locations for solar, as they get over 300 days of full sun per year. The less sunlight you get in your area, whether it be due to weather or latitude, the less your system will produce. And yes, dirty panels produce less juice, which is the downside of having panels in places like Southern California and Arizona; plenty of dust, and very little rain...

  2. From my experience, solar is more expensive than hydro or most any grid supplied power source. When you consider all the materials, mining, production cost involved, it can be greatly more expensive, and not any more green friendly that natural gas and definitely less than hydro power.
    With that said, sometimes it's the only option. But I would advise, if affordable, a very decent backup to the grid power going out.
    In my situation I had 2 choices. A PUD supplied system for around $60,000, where I dug the trenches, supplied the conduit and all materials to their specs, and then once installed they would own it, but if needing repairs I would pay for them.
    Or put in solar, one system for the well and another for the cabin. Both systems for around $14,000. Batteries are the thing everyone is concerned about the most, but without them you really, in my opinion, can't have a reliable system.
    Wet cell batteries are nominally priced but require maintenance, as does everything man puts his hand to. But they can last 10 years, or more, m and are recyclable. There are battery options other than wet cell lead acid available, I went with what I could afford at the time.
    There are drawbacks to a somewhat small system as I have. Getting no direct sun on the panels during 3 months of the winter and very overcast days leads me to run a gen to charge the system for 1-1 1/2hrs daily during the darkest part of winter.
    So is solar worth it? It entirely depends upon your situation and the choices available, including your financial situation. Don't forget if you're living in a rural area where you have a somewhat reliable source of wind, include that in your plans as well, much cheaper than solar with a lesser carbon footprint. Ideally it would be good to be hooked up to the grid with solar and wind as backups..... But that's just been my experience and viewpoint.

  3. This is kinda nuts. I live in Southern California where power prices are really crazy, like $0.16 for the first 350 KW, and $0.19 for the next 400 KW and up to $0.28 per KWh. I live in a 3000 Sq. Ft. house, have a Fridge, a separate freezer, and lighting which is LED, mostly. I also use a spa, that is solar heated, but has a 5HP pump for the jets. I only break over 400 KW in July and August, when I break down and use the AC when it is unbearable.
    My advice to cut electricity usage is that if you have electric heated hot water, go to solar for the hot water, but do it yourself, it's not very hard with Youtube around, and there are a lot of rip-off sales people out there that will charge $3,500-$5,000 for a job you can do yourself for about $700 - $1200 dollars. That by itself will save around $300-$600 per year for a typical family of four.

    1. When I lived in Southern Ca I salesman came to our door to sell a hot water heater. Claimed it would save me $100 a month. I had a gas hot water heater in the garage and in the summer my gas bill was $7 a month and in the winter it was $9. The temperature inside the garage was about 100 degrees in the summer. He left in disgust.

    2. I had a similar experience. As solar hot water salesman said it would pay for itself in three years. I said my summer time gas bill which includes clothes drying, cooking and hot water is about $9 a month. I'll give you the whole amount, so how is this going to pay for itself in three years at that rate? Let's see, $4500.00 divided by 9 times twelve is a 42 year payback.

  4. On an episode of "Ask This Old House" the guys showed that squirrels often chew the wires etc that are between the solar panels and the roof...this knocks out the panel's effectiveness....and you might not even know it. Another reason to be cautious about relying on solar panels.

  5. The answer is yes, no and maybe. It depends on what you want to do with it and what you expect from it. It is true that most system will not work if the grid is down. But you can design one that will. It just costs more. Yes it is true that the power company will pay you less for your excess power than you have to pay to but the power. Is solar cost effective? NO! that is if what you are looking for is less expensive electricity than you can get from the grid. I have a friend that spent $20,000.00 on a system that feeds electricity back into the grid. He thinks it cuts his electric bill by about $100.00 a month. Simple math shows 200 months or 16 years. But that would be with continuous maintenance such as cleaning and it ignores the fact that solar panels loose power as they age. Last I read it was about 15 years before they are working at 30%. Hmm, from an economic perspective the HUGE electric companies can produce and distribute electricity much cheaper than any home system could do. Simple economics of scale.

    Then lets say you want solar to power your house when the grid is down. Add another $10,000 in batteries and charge controllers. And those batteries all need to be replaced every 10 years. So you can power your house if the grid goes down but it is going to cost a bunch. Oh and don't try to run the AC or electric heat.

    But, if all you want is to power a computer, some led lights, a small refrigerator then go for it.

    The other time it makes a lot of sense is if you off grid house is off the grid because you are a LONG way form a power line.

    I am a retired software engineer and live in southern Alabama now. I spend a lot of time thinking about off the grid power. I looked into solar and just could not justify things from an economics perspective.
    If I open up for alternative I would have to go with propane/Natural gas powered whole house power for if the grid goes down for short periods of time. If the grid goes down permanently, then I will just have to step back into the 18th century and try to survive.

  6. We recently put in a very small off-grid system for around $2500. That's still a lot of money for us, but we bought it in bits and pieces and spread out the cost. I did it because we live in the mid-south with summer days typically in the upper-90s and night lows in the 70s. That's pretty warm for food storage, so I depend on my fridge and freezer to keep things from spoiling too quickly. So for me, being able to put the freezer, at least, on solar was worth it. I'm hoping to add a chest fridge to that too. I only get a couple of days stored electricity if the grid goes down, but that's more than the grid gives me. That gives me some buffer time to save my food if it comes to it.

    I agree that the only real solution is to use less electricity, less energy in general. The very best option would be going completely non-electric. I don't think that's realistic for most of us, however.

  7. The answer is yes for us. We have a two-story house and only have Solar running through the main floor. Going in you need to know what To expect. We know that when it is cloudy for days on end we’re not gonna have any hot water, but electricity still will work. We do have our home connected to the grid but our solar does not transfer back into the grid. We have a generator that we use to recharge our batteries when we have a week or two of gray weather. We use firewood for heating in the winter and we put in mini splits which take very little solar power to operate. We also have a solar freezer and refrigerator that work great. We do you have a grid freezer and refrigerator also. We’ve been very content with our solar/grid life for the past five years.

  8. People make solar out to be a lot harder than it has to be. We run a modest system with 2kw of panels in SW Oregon and it supplies what we need. We do live on an energy diet though. For us, ROI wasn't a consideration, autonomy from the grid was. Our system has paid for itself over and over.

  9. When my wife and I built our retirement home back in 2008 I looked at both wind and solar. The payback on either or both was something like 15-20 years. I was 64 at the time and thought that I would never live to see the break even point so we did not do it. We did make the house as energy efficient as possible and that was paid off in about 6 years so that was a win for my family.

  10. When we moved off-grid, we really moved off-grid. The nearest power line is 12 miles from us. So, the only power we had was a propane-fueled generator.

    We decided to go with solar and batteries. Before the solar, we had power for 2 hours morning and two hours evening. Using just the propane used during those four hours, I have kept careful records of propane "saved" in every day the generator did not start. We hit 100% payback on our system in three years and four months. And, that is with power 24 hours a day, every day.

    Our system is showing no signs of slowing down, and our Battery has got one of the longest life guarantees on the market. I don't expect that I will need to replace them until I hit 500% or more on payback.

    So, in our case, it has been a blessing.


  11. The answer is so simple. If commercial solar power made sense it would not need massive subsidies and laws mandating power companies to use them.

    1. to a degree I agree with you here anonymous, but keep in mind, the power grid has been heavily subsidized over the years (rural electrification program, etc.) and its unfortunate that the power companies have to be mandated to purchase power. Its unclear to me whether its a burden on the power company to have to do that. They do have pretty much a monopoly. Also, the fossil fuel infrastructure is heavily subsidized as well, for instance who's paying for all our military to be in the mid-east? Just a couple thoughts

    2. The same goes for wind turbines. They are such a boondoggle!

    3. Rozy Lass, can you name one corporation that use wood stoves? If not does that mean wood stoves are boondoggles?
      Montana Guy

    4. re: woodstoves. I'm sure that this thought you had about woodstoves seemed brilliant when you first thought of it but it is nothing more than a logical fallacy. if woodstoves are a boondoggle or not has ZERO connection to if windpower is a boondoggle. Commercial wind power and solar power in the U.S. is a massive fraud intended to extract money from federal state and local governments. It is part of the bigger fraud where all or almost all politicians enter office as middle class and leave wealthy. The wind and solar companies are fraudulently taking our tax money and our politicians are neck deep in the fraud.

      Ditto for the "climate change" fraud.

  12. I do not have a system, but I do understand the more complex a system, the more likely it is to break down. (And the battery disposal thing really does trouble me). I think it makes sense for supplying small needs (I actually am purchasing a battery charger that will work with small solar panels as we only really use two types of batteries now that can be recharged using such items).

    But concur that ultimately, less use of power is really the thing to go (plus, of course, it makes you less dependent).

  13. Post Alley CrackpotMarch 6, 2020 at 4:21 AM

    This is not a great time to be investing in solar if the current trend of solar flux is anything to go by ...

    Have a look at this graph of F10.7 solar flux from 2000 through 2020.

    Buying right in the middle of the dip known as the solar minimum?

    It's a bit risky.

    Peltier junction modules, home fuel cells, and so forth also typically don't kick out enough power for your needs.

    Your "moderate" 616 kWh/month comes out to roughly 20 kWh/day, which is more than what the Panasonic ENE FARM fuel cell would kick out, and it'd be an even bigger and more expensive hassle than dealing with solar.

    Also, have you checked a solar irradiance map to see how many watts per square metre you actually would expect to get where you live?

    But if you were looking to become a solar farmer, well, you could possibly install an entire farm-sized array of solar panels. :-)

  14. I put in a small system as backup for my fridge and freezer. I bought components as I had money. The total costs was about $1400. The system will run both appliances and some lights indefinitely. Admittedly they were the cheapest components I could find (except the batteries)as I am on a fixed income. So I am sure I will need replacements in the future. The beauty is that i can stock up on plenty of replacements at a relatively low cost. Also the system is scalable in size just with the addition of more panels and batteries. That's whats great with small scale solar, you can start as small as you want and have a usable system for little money. As little as $250 will get you started!

  15. The off-grid families that we know are very savvy. We have little doubt that they are ready, willing and able to maintain their systems.
    Montana Guy

  16. We have a solar system on our house. Before discounts, rebates, etc it had a price tag of $20k, but we were able to join in our local County purchase group that offered additional discounts and rebates and so after we got our tax rebates back it cost us less than $5k. It cut our electrical bills in half. To us it was, and is, worth it.

    However, it is not a battery system, it is grid tie. Which means that in a power outage it does not power the house. We would like to eventually put in a small battery backup system, but money has been an issue (the discounts/rebates for such are much smaller and less available).

    Would I recommend it for someone else? It would depend on what you could afford, what you could get for discounts/rebates, and what exactly you want it to produce. It may or may not be worth it for someone else.

  17. A small solar system made up of a solar panel, charge controller, and a deep cycle battery is a great preparedness tool. Combined with an inverter you can keep your phones charged, run your computer, your LED lights, small appliances, and keep your car battery charged up. Saves a lot of generator usage. Parts can easily be scrounged off of Craig's List and you can be all set up for $200 -$400 dollars.

  18. The above comments prove that the answer that engineers give to most questions is "it depends".

    In my area of Colorado it currently is cost effective. Prices have dropped considerably from just a few years ago. Our electric coop will buy back power at 100% retail. They also provide very generous rebates. It is cheaper for them to do this than to purchase new power sources.

    I have not done so, just because I will be retiring this year and will move to a lower elevation due to health reasons. I will let the next homeowner purchase the system that works best for them

    1. "It is cheaper for them to do this than to purchase new power sources."

      No. That is dead wrong. They buy it back because the government mandates that they buy it back. It actually costs them money vs their conventional way of acquiring power. SO they pass on that extra cost to all the other rate payers. It isn't cheaper than new power sources. In fact solar and wind are so unpredictable and only available a few hours each day that they MUST build power plants capable of producing as much or more power than they acquire from wind and solar to compensate for that unpredictability.

      They give you rebates because the government mandates that they give you rebates. They do this because without the rebates it would be obvious to everyone how inefficient solar power is. IT can only be "sold" to the consumer if they get someone else to pay for most of it.

      The sweet spot for solar is around Las Vegas. Even there solar power requires heavy subsidies and even then the cost is too high so all utility customers pay higher rates to pay for this inefficient method of generation electricity.

    2. Anonymous you are dead on:
      1. Other ratepayers subsidize the "deals" some get with utility buy backs.
      2. What the other ratepayers do not cover the taxpayers do.
      3. The variability of wind and solar, mandates by the fed, loss of baseload due to shuttering of 'dirty' plants has nearly taken down large parts of the grid several times in the last 8 years. MPLS-SP was very nearly in the dark for 3 days in 2019 during the 'polar vortex'. Natokadn

  19. We installed solar panels five years ago, and it sure has made a difference. Even though we are still paying them off, the cost per month for the solar panels is still cheaper than our monthly bill with PG&E here in Very Northern California. So, for us the answer is Yes, they are worth it.

  20. Solar panels only work off grid or when the power is out when there is a battery source to store the power.

  21. Search Enola's old posts, there was one titled 'email by lamplight' (or something like that). I think it is pretty accurate. I have shared it with people. You and Don are better candidates than most due to your discipline and low use (home dried raisins are soooooo good but the power makes them soooooo expensive)! If you can't find it I can email you a copy. Natokadn