Are Solar Panels Cost-Effective and Energy Efficient?

Solar panels. They’re all the rage these days. Many countries worldwide are adopting their large scale, and with time, their popularity is rapidly growing.

Need clean energy?

Runoff and get yourself a solar panel.

Sick of your energy bills?

Grab yourself a solar panel.

Are they worried about the polar bears?

Solar panels for you, my good man/woman!

Solar panels, solar panels, and wait, more solar panels!

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I wouldn’t be surprised if doctors began prescribing them for back pain. Next, that’s how much they’re catching on in recent years. But let’s dig deeper.

Let’s go beneath all the jargon and all the statistics that promise you the literal sun and more.

Let’s find out just how cost-effective solar panels are in the long run and whether they’re as great as they’re cut out to be.

So, if it wasn’t obvious already, solar panels are pretty popular. And with time, they’re only increasing in popularity.

Why is that? Weren’t solar panels some fancy gizmos that crazy uncle Joe used to try and “stay off the grid” and “prepare for the eventual collapse of society”?

Sure, Joe, the NSA wants to know how many pounds of cat litter you bought last week. But that aside, we’re going to take a look at the following three things in this article (and maybe a few more, no promises):

  • Why have solar panels become so popular?
  • Do they still cost an arm and a limb to install and maintain?
  • Are they cost-effective? Can we really begin seriously considering them as an effective alternative source of energy?

So then, without further ado, here goes nothing.

What’s With the Soaring Popularity of Solar Panels?

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So, why are solar panels so popular nowadays? People are talking about them like they’re the next best thing in the energy world after good old fossil fuel (sorry, mother earth, daddy needs a new truck).

If I had to guess, I’d say it has a lot to do with solar technology. In all seriousness, solar PV (that’s “photovoltaic” for all you non-nerds out there) technology has come a long way. Uncle Joe would be proud.

Solar panels are no longer vanity projects or things celebrities had on their roofs to charge their electric tea kettles while eating a pretentious fruit like a pear. No, modern solar panels are state of the art. They’re almost like the stuff of science fiction.

Solar technology has progressed today to the point where we can actually consider it a viable alternative to fossil fuel in some respects. Now, that’s still a very optimistic statement because over 95% of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels, but we’re progressing towards full-scale solar adoption faster now than at any point in the past.

For example, the US has decided to try and speed up rooftop solar growth through a system of instant permits. These tools will allow local authorities to instantly grant permits to citizens to acquire and install solar on their roofs. This is not bad, considering that the most considerable delay in the solar industry is because of bureaucratic red tape.

Typically, in the States, approval takes around a week, and permit-related costs can amount to one-third of a solar panel installation cost, making it somewhat prohibitively expensive. At best, it’s a substantial investment.

However, US president Biden has made solar a cornerstone in his administration’s policy to fight climate change. The new procedure will allow citizens to install solar panels as much as five times faster, making them much more attractive and viable as a source of energy.

This widescale adoption is only becoming popular because the solar panels themselves have become far more efficient at doing what it is that they’re supposed to be doing.

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As far as solar panels are concerned, you need to keep two things in mind:

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  • How efficient are they?
  • How long do they last?

On both accounts, solar panels have made impressive headway. Companies today produce solar panels that are far more efficient than ones that came before. And they last a lot longer too! Modern solar panels are about 11 – 15% efficient.

But now, before you throw a hissy fit and say that isn’t much, you need to understand that it is much better than the 10% efficiency rating in 1958. Still not impressed?

Well, some of the newest solar panels being developed are 47% efficient. Add to that the fact that prices have dropped starkly, and life expectancy has soared, and you should be impressed. Just ten years ago, a 6kWh residential solar panel would have set you back USD50,000.

Today, a full-blown home system will cost you anywhere between 16,000 to 21,000. That’s a whopping 62% reduction in price. Estimates suggest that the price will drop by another 15-25% by 2030.

As for longevity, modern solar panels can last from twenty-five to forty years, depending on how much care you take of them and whether or not you live in a solar panel close vicinity. Needless to say, atmospheric stresses like rain, hail, and snow are going to reduce the lifespan of a PV system, whereas a lack of these will likely result in them lasting much longer.

Some companies are so confident in the lifespan of their panels that they hand out extremely impressive warranties (for up to thirty years in some cases). That’s longer than most people used to live in the prehistoric age.

So, do solar panels cost a kidney?

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Well, yes, but at least not both of them! Ok, that was a joke. Stay away from the organ trade, kids. But seriously, I’m not going to pretend that solar panels are cheap.

Depending on where you live, they can be cheaper or more expensive. Australia, for example, has a load of wonderous financing options for solar panels.

The land-down-under has made a point of sticking it to the rest of the world and speeding ahead in solar panel integration.

Though Australia is still well behind China and America in its adoption of solar panels, it is undoubtedly a success story in solar adoption and easily one of the fastest-growing markets for the solar industry.

Now that we’ve covered the first two points let’s take an in-depth look at the vaunted efficiency of solar panels.

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How Cost-Efficient are Solar Panels Really?

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We’ve established that solar energy is getting cheaper and cheaper by the year, and this decline is not a fluke. With time, the decline in prices and the improvement in technology have only become steeper.

This trend will continue, and by 2030, according to Wood Mackenzie, solar energy is expected to be the cheapest energy source in the United States, China, Canada (yes, icy cold Canada), and 14 other nations, including Australia.

  • In the US today, 16 states produce cheap solar energy, which is cheaper than any other form of energy.
  • Solar power is currently the cheapest form of electricity in Spain, Italy, and India as well.
  • Even with COVID-19 having wreaked havoc across the globe, worldwide solar panel installations exceeded 115GW in 2020, compared to 1.5 GW in 2006.
  • If there was any question in anyone’s determination about the fecundity of solar, it is time to put it to rest. Solar is here to stay and will likely grow with time.

So how exactly has the efficiency of solar energy been increasing with time? I’ve been harping about technological innovation for quite some time, so let’s look at some numbers and facts now.

Some of the latest and greatest innovations currently in the market, which has boosted the vitality of the solar sector are as follows:

Bifacial Modules

Solar bifacial modules are two-faced. No, Karen, it doesn’t mean that they’ll stab you in the back while you’re asleep. It means that they literally have two faces through which they can produce energy. “All the better to energize you with, my dear,” said the big bad solar panel to Little Red Riding Hood. But in all seriousness, bifacial modules use the back and front of their panels to generate power. This results in an output increase of as much as 15% or more in many cases. Modern bifacial modules are incredibly cost-effective.

Larger Solar Panel Modules

Cheaper solar panels mean more solar panels. More solar panels translate into larger solar panel modules. In turn, this means more surface area with which to collect that beautiful sunlight.

Sun Tracking Mounts

Modern mounts are just bits of plastic and steel that hold the solar panels in place on your roof. Usually, they’re ideally placed for maximum absorption, but we can eek in more performance with sun-tracking mounts. Mounts like these follow the sun through the sky and maximize the energy production of your PV system. And yes, they’ve been getting cheaper and cheaper with time as well.

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Validating the Cost Efficiency of Solar Panels

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Cost-effectiveness is a tricky thing because it depends on a variety of factors. These include the following:

  1. Geography: Where is your system located? How many sunny days does your area have? How many hours of sunlight can your system soak up? It will not be very cost-effective if a solar panel operates at 48% efficiency but only gets a few hours of sunlight daily (an extreme example, I know). Sure, it will undoubtedly reduce your energy bills, but it will take some time before you get a return on your investments.
  2. Solar rebates and Subsidies: The availability of solar rebates and subsidies will drastically reduce the amount of money you have to put up for a solar panel system. But these vary from place to place, so be sure to check with your local authority what kind of solar rebates you can get. Getting a good rebate can significantly improve your ROI.
  3. Price of your panel: did you go all out? Or did you buy the cheapest panel on the market? Did you invest in a solar storage system? The amount of cash you spend on a solar panel system will undoubtedly affect how long you wait to get a return. A cheaper system will pay for itself quicker, yet it may not last as long. A more expensive system may pay for itself a lot later, but it may last much longer, and therefore be much more cost-effective in the long run.
  4. The efficiency of the solar panel system: This is the one factor that is a known quantity and requires no speculation. You can’t go wrong with an esteemed panel from a reputed company. Pick up a bifacial module, be sure to read up on the specs, and check up on the warranty. The warranty should indicate how confident the manufacturers are in their panels. But regardless, you can’t go wrong. Modern solar panels are just excellent, and they’re improving with time. If you take care of your panel, you can rest assured it’ll last you a quarter of a century.

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Conclusion

To wrap things up, we need to understand why solar energy is essential now more than ever. Climate change would be a thing if you didn’t already know. The race to fight climate change is on, and we’re running out of time fast.

Nuclear energy is a viable alternative, but it comes with terrible risks. Wind energy can hamper the migratory habits of birds and be a hazard to insects. Yes, solar energy has its downsides too, but in the end, it’s easily the best option.

Solar panels can be put up in places that would go to waste, like rooftops, car shades, lamp-posts, and other areas. These spaces can conveniently be turned into power production areas, and while we still have a long way to go, we need to ensure that we do make the transition to renewable energy sooner rather than later.

With innovations taking place in the solar world and prices decreasing, it is high time we all consider going solar.

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Images by Maddy Bris, Grégory ROOSE, PublicDomainPictures, Maria Godfrida, teresa cotrim, Reijo Telaranta and Chris Chesneau from Pixabay

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