Solving Solar Power Issues

The thought of living at the whim of the weatherman probably doesn't thrill most people, but three main options can ensure you still have power even if the sun isn't cooperating. If you want to live completely off the grid, but don't trust your PV panels to supply all the electricity you'll need in a pinch, you can use a backup generator when solar supplies run low. The second stand-alone system involves energy storage in the form of batteries. Unfortunately, batteries can add a lot of cost and maintenance to a PV system, but it's currently a necessity if you want to be completely independent.

The alternative is to connect your house to the utility grid, buying power when you need it and selling it back when you produce more than you use. This way, the utility acts as a practically infinite storage system. Keep in mind though, government regulations vary depending on location and are subject to change. Your local utility company may or may not be required to participate, and the buyback price can vary greatly. You'll also probably need special equipment to make sure the power you're looking to sell the utility company is compatible with their own. Safety is an issue as well. The utility has to make sure that if there's a power outage in your neighborhood, your PV system won't continue to feed electricity into power lines that a lineman will think are dead. This is a dangerous situation called islanding, but it can be avoided with an anti-islanding inverter -- something we'll get to on the next page.

If you decide to use batteries instead, keep in mind that they'll have to be maintained, and then replaced after a certain number of years. Most solar panels tend to last about 30 years (and improved longevity is certainly one research goal), but batteries just don't have that kind of useful life [source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory]. Batteries in PV systems can also be very dangerous because of the energy they store and the acidic electrolytes they contain, so you'll need a well-ventilated, nonmetallic enclosure for them.

Although several different kinds of batteries are commonly used, the one characteristic they should all have in common is that they are deep-cycle batteries. Unlike your car battery, which is a shallow-cycle battery, deep-cycle batteries can discharge more of their stored energy while still maintaining long life. Car batteries discharge a large current for a very short time -- to start your car -- and are then immediately recharged as you drive. PV batteries generally have to discharge a smaller current for a longer period of time (such as at night or during a power outage), while being charged during the day. The most commonly used deep-cycle batteries are lead-acid batteries (both sealed and vented) and nickel-cadmium batteries, both of which have various pros and cons.

On the next page, we'll dig a little deeper into the components that'll be needed for the sun to start saving you some cash.