Solar Panels: Are They Worth the Costs?

Ross Nilzek, class of 2009, recently set up a small-scale renewable energy system in his Living and Learning suite. He started by offsetting his suite’s energy usage by purchasing renewable energy credits generated by wind power in order to offset any emissions resulting from the production of electricity. Then he got the idea that it would be even better to not only offset the suite’s impact, but generate his own clean energy. The basic idea was to create a system to meet the basic electrical needs of his Power Book G4, iPod, cell phone, and Palm Pilot. “The idea of the system was not only to produce power and as a personal challenge, but also to educate others about the accessibility of renewable energy,” wrote Ross on the website he set up for the project. Ross’ biggest (and most obvious) challenge was that he was attempting to install the system in a dorm room. “The challenge with the system was not building a solar energy system, but where I was building it: in a college dorm room. I could not make any structural modifications to the building, I had no power tools – or any tools, for that matter, and also knew that I would have to move the system every few months.” Without being able to modify the building, Ross had to find a sufficient spot in his suite for the system. He eventually set up the system on the balcony of his as-of-yet unrenovated Living and Learning suite which, luckily, faces southwest; solar panels should generally be set up facing south. The system that Ross bought and set up is a relatively small (20W) system that cost a little over $300. While it seems a conscientious and valiant effort, the question I feel compelled to ask is whether or not this small-scale renewable energy system is worth the costs. Aside from that $300, the parts of the system were manufactured in a factory, they had to be shipped from storage facility to storage facility, and then they had to be shipped to him; how much energy was wasted just in the production and shipping of this product? In case you don’t know how small solar electric systems work, here is a brief tutorial. Solar cells – the basic building blocks of the system – consist of semiconductor materials. When they absorb sunlight, the solar energy knocks electrons loose from their atoms; this is called the “photoelectric effect.” The free electrons then travel into a circuit built into the solar cell to form electrical currents. Only sunlight of certain wavelengths will work efficiently to create electricity; they can still produce electricity on cloudy days, but not nearly as much as on a sunny day. These small solar electric systems are also known as photovoltaic (PV) systems. If you’re thinking about installing your own solar system, just make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs.