Solar Power – What the heck is it?

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There is much dialog today about the future of solar power. But just what is solar power and how am I affected? Knowing what solar power is will be important if you ever want to remove yourself from the grid or the grid goes down and leaves you powerless. An understanding of what it is and how it works will allow you to make knowledgeable choices if you ever decide to build your own system. Arm yourself with some knowledge and don’t allow snake oil salesmen to sell you an overpriced solution.

What is Solar Power

Simply put, solar power is the process of capturing the suns’ energy, in the form of light, and converting it into usable electricity. One can either use that electricity directly to power devices or you may store it in battery banks for later use. The magical device that converts the light from the sun into electricity is called a solar panel. Solar panel technology has gone from very expensive, inefficient, and difficult to buy to relatively cheap and efficient and easily obtained. They are available from local stores like Harbor Freight to online giants like Amazon. Today you can get solar panels, such as this Renogy 100 Watts 12 Volts Monocrystalline Solar Panel, for a little over $1 per watt. More about that later.

The next thing that is needed is some kind of charge controller that will take the energy coming from the solar panel and provide a consistent output power that can be used to charge a battery or a bank of several batteries. Typically these are 12 volt batteries like you would find in a car. Solar systems use a specific type of battery designed to take a long time to discharge and accept a charge very quickly to bring it back to full charge. Golf Carts use the same type of battery.

There are several types of batteries made up of different materials and have characteristics that make them more or less desired. The first is the Flooded Lead Acid battery. This is the same kind found in your car, normally. It is heavy. It charges slowly. You can only drain about half of the energy stored up before you start to do damage to it. Another type is what we use in flashlights. The Alkaline Battery has been the staple of portable handheld devices for many decades. They cannot provide the kind of power we are talking about for serious solar power systems. A few volts and a few milliamps was all you could expect from them. Another you might remember is Nickel Cadmium. These were the ones that had a “Memory” characteristic. If you recharged them before they deeply discharged they would not charge completely after that and became useless. They lasted longer then Alkaline but had serious flaws.

We now have a technology called Lithium Ion (LI) that has changed everything. LI batteries, such as this Battle Born 12v Battery are usually half the weight of lead acid batteries. They can be discharged to almost zero without harming them. They will charge back up quickly. All these characteristics make them ideal for Solar Power Systems.

Why is Solar Power important

With all the debate today about fossil fuels killing the atmosphere, Nuclear Power being extremely dangerous, think *Fukushima* Daiichi reactors, there is great concern about their safety and cost. Solar, on the other hand, is safe, clean, easily scaled and cost effective. With your own solar system you can disconnect yourself from relying on power being delivered to you from a costly source. Independence is a beautiful thing.

Today, the most expensive part of a solar system is the battery bank. A normal lithium Ion battery, capable of delivering 12 volts and 100 amp
hours, costs just under $1000. This sounds terribly expensive. If you think bout it they will outlast 10 Lead Acid batteries of the same capacity which sell for $250. The upfront cost is high but the overall costs over time are less.

A good charge controller, capable of handling the output from several solar panels, will cost in the neighborhood of $400 to $500 dollars. It is best to get one with remote management capabilities. There are some with wireless Bluetooth capabilities you can use with your smartphone to manage how the controller will act. It can also track and report usage.

Is solar right for you?

Building a solar power system is within the abilities of most people today. Components are easily obtained and are almost plug and play. Complete systems, such as this  Battle Born Batteries Keep Your Daydream 200ah Lithium bundle with 320 watt Solar kit can be purchased from Amazon. Assembling the kit is pretty straight forward. this kit is designed for RV’s to enable them to camp without hook-ups for days.

What are your needs? How much power do you need to have to make yourself utility free? When the power goes out, how much will you need to keep your food cold/frozen until it’s back on? Answering these questions can put you on the right track to solar freedom.