Science

The Solar Burn, Part 1: Playing with Fire

This is Part 1 of a multi-part series about my attempt to install solar panels on my house. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

Playing With Fire

The Sun is 93 million miles from Earth. Only one one-billionth of its energy reaches our planet. And about a third of this energy is reflected back to Space, by clouds. That’s pretty damned inefficient. Yet in spite of this, just one half-hour of sunlight shining upon the Earth can supply enough energy to satisfy everyone’s electrical needs for a full year. Including condemned prisoners sentenced to the electric chair.

But only if we can harness it. And we humans are trying our best to do just that, with ever-improving technology, and the latest and greatest, highly efficient solar panels.

This series of posts is about solar energy, as well as my personal endeavor to grab some of the Sun’s rays and use them for my own electrical wants and needs. There’s been a fever burning lately, for solar energy. I’ve caught the fever myself, but I think it’s best for me and everyone else to calm down. If we don’t approach solar energy carefully, we’ll be playing with fire. The fire of the Sun. And we could be scorched badly by what I call The Solar Burn.

Humans have been working at generating electricity from the Sun since 1839, when a French scientist named Edmund Becquerel immersed two brass plates in a conductive liquid and shined a light on this apparatus. To his surprise, he found that an electric current was produced by the light.

But at that time, electricity was not widely used. So no one knew what to do about this discovery, and simply regarded the finding with mild curiosity.

Then in 1873, a British engineer named Willoughby Smith accidentally discovered that shining a light on selenium bars created a tiny electrical current. A few years later an American inventor named William Fritts was inspired by Smith, and got in on the action. Fritts devised the world’s first electricity-producing solar cell, made from from a thin layer of selenium, covered by a thinner layer of transparent gold film.

But scientists felt skeptical. To them, Fritts’ invention seemed to violate the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. So they regarded his invention as a fraud, and accused him of trying to fool people with a magic trick. But try as they may, they couldn’t figure out how he accomplished this magic.

Also, his solar cell was only about 1% efficient. That means that it was only able to convert about 1% of the solar energy reaching it, into electricity. This wasn’t much juice, and even after scientists came to accept the authenticity of the strange invention, they regarded it as impractical. In their eyes, it was a mere oddity or curiosity, and without any real potential.

That is, until the 1950s. That’s when researchers discovered another element that produces electricity when exposed to light. Silicon. Silicon is one of the most common minerals on Earth. Basically, it’s sand, and if you’ve ever been to a beach, well, you know how common sand is. Bell Laboratories began playing around with this discovery, and managed to invent a silicon-based solar cell that was 6% efficient.

This was a giant leap from Fritts’ solar cell, but still not enough to make solar energy practical. The silicon has to go through an expensive purification process. Therefore, the manufacturing cost was too high for the small amount of electricity produced. So nobody wanted to buy these solar cells.

Except the government. Yes, leave it to the government, that free-wheeling spender of our tax dollars. We were trying to beat the Russians in the Space Race, and at any cost. And we needed a way to power our satellites. So NASA turned to Bell Laboratories’ solar cells. Finally, solar energy found respect within the scientific community. And the aerospace industry has used solar cells ever since, to power satellites.

Model replica of Vanguard 1, the fourth satellite ever to be launched into space, and the first satellite to have solar electric power. About the size of a grapefruit, it was launched on March 17, 1958. It remains the oldest human-made object still in orbit, although communications with it were lost in 1964.

Then, in 1973, the Arabs decided to get revenge on us for helping Israel kick their asses in the Yom Kippur War. They imposed an oil embargo that caused the price of gas, heating oil, and electricity, to skyrocket. One of the ways we reacted was to seek alternative forms of energy. We fervently hoped we could tell those Arabs to stick their oil tankers up a place where the Sun doesn’t shine.

So we turned to a place where the Sun did shine, and that was to solar cell technology. By the mid-1970s, people started putting solar panels on their roofs. Unfortunately, these solar panels were very expensive, and only rich people could afford them. It could cost several hundred thousand dollars for a solar array system that might supply the needs of an entire household. Also, solar cells had only improved to being about 14% efficient.

But since then, solar panel manufactures have figured out ways to bring down the cost of production, while increasing the efficiency of panels. Today, the cost of a full, solar array system ranges from about $15,000 to $30,000 for most homes. And today, solar panel efficiency has reached over 22% for the highest quality panels. Such efficiency means less panels have to be bolted to your roof, to supply all the needs of your home.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a bill that passed Congress in August 2022. Many have argued it will increase inflation, while purporting to reduce it. But that’s a whole other controversy, which I won’t get into. However, one of the provisions of the IRA provides a 30% tax credit to anyone who installs solar panels on their home. Thus, if you buy a solar system that costs $20,000, you’ll receive a $6,000 tax credit, reducing the cost of your system to $14,000.

I’m a strong believer in the law of supply and demand. I suspect the tax credit has driven up demand for solar panels, which in turn has driven up the price by about 30%. Thus, I believe there’s no real break here. There’s just the illusion of a break, like the mirage of water over pavement on a hot summer day.

Nonetheless, when you’re paying an average of 30-cents per kilowatt hour, as I am in California, solar panels can be a tempting way to tell the electric company to shove their high bills up where the Sun doesn’t shine. Which is what I’m in the process of doing. We’ll get into that, and how I’m trying to avoid The Solar Burn while playing with the fire of the Sun, in future posts.

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35 replies »

  1. Look forward to hearing about your journey. We have seriously considered solar panels but still debating. I want to make sure I am warm in the winter when we are in the single digits!
    We have been visited by 3 door
    to door salesmen this past year about switching over.

    Liked by 1 person

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