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How Do Solar Panels Work?

So, you’ve heard a lot about solar energy but you’re still not quite sure how it works. Understanding the intricacies of solar is helpful in knowing why you should go green. We’ve taken the liberty to break down some of homeowners’ most pressing questions about solar energy, from the components of a typical solar installation, to how you can get paid for the energy your system produces. 

How do solar panels work?

What’s in a “solar system”?

There are several components that go into building a solar system. The most basic elements include mounts and flashing, racking/railing, conduits and wiring, solar panels, and inverters.

Mounts are secured onto the surface of the install site, typically a roof, as a foundation for the system. Aluminum flashing, used to stop water from leaking into the roof, is installed by lifting the shingles and inserting the flashing underneath them. Racking is fastened on top of the mounts where they will secure the panels. Next, solar panels are attached, with adequate support from the racking and mounts. Wiring is then run throughout the panels to power the solar system. RevoluSun completes the system wiring from inside the home (typically in an attic or crawl space), to ensure no ugly wires or conduits are visible whatsoever.

In most cases, conduits are provided to house the wiring to ensure the wires can safely run from the system down into the main service panel. Lastly, solar inverter(s) are installed on the outside or inside of the home, typically in the garage or basement. The solar inverter is responsible for converting the energy produced from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) that can be used as electricity in your home.

What are solar panels made of?

Solar panels contain a number of elements that allow them to harness the sun’s energy. These materials include silicon solar cells, metal frames, a glass sheet for casing, standard wiring, bus wires, and plexiglass. Plexiglass is used as an extra precaution to protect the solar cells. In order to maintain efficiency, an insulation sheet is installed to keep the solar cells cool and reduce humidity within the panel. The cooler the panel, the quicker it can process sunlight into energy. Like all electronics, solar works slightly more efficiently in cooler climates.

Solar Cell
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Three types of solar panels

Despite the fact that many panels include the same components, there are still different types of panels. Currently, there are three types of solar panels on the market: amorphous, monocrystalline, and polycrystalline.

thin film, mono silicon, and poly silicon solar panels
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Amorphous panels are the cheaper and less efficient modules within the industry, made of silicone and steel. Polycrystalline solar panels are easily identifiable by their noticeable blue coloring. These panels are much more efficient than amorphous panels but require more space than monocrystalline panels. Due to their higher silicon purity, monocrystalline panels are more efficient than the others. Thus, monocrystalline panels have become the most popular choice, as they are extremely efficient and take up the least amount of roof space.

Manufacturing solar panels versus burning fossil fuels

Some people believe that the manufacturing of panels is bad for the environment, but it’s not even a fraction of the impact of burning fossil fuels. Although some greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere during the production of solar panels, it is less detrimental to the environment than using other energy sources, such as coal and gas. Fossil fuel extraction and consumption is responsible for a major portion of all greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, fossil fuels produce 100 grams of CO2-equivalents per kWh of electricity formed, while solar power only emits 10 grams of CO2 per kWh, meaning fossil fuels yield at least ten times more CO2 than solar panels. Plus, once they are assembled there are no hazardous emissions, unlike the processes involved with extracting and burning fossil fuels.

How do panels generate electricity?

A whole solar system is able to capture the sun’s rays and turn them into usable electricity for your home.

First, sunlight radiates photons, which are invisible energy molecules. These photons are then absorbed by conductive layers that house electrons. The photons then collide with the electrons, knocking them free of their atoms. Next, these electrons move through the conductive coating and enter the solar cell. Then, when positive and negative sides of a cell interact, they form an electrical current. When the electrons move throughout this circuit, they begin to produce electricity. This movement of electrons happens in each cell and there are several cells that make up each panel. Multiple panels circuited together, create a solar array. Thus, the more panels, the more cells, meaning the more electricity for your home.

how solar energy works
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The solar inverter then takes DC electricity and turns it into AC electricity that can power your home. Solar inverters are essential in turning solar energy into electricity. Their largest task is to convert direct current, that has been produced by the solar panel, into alternating current, which can then be used to power your home. RevoluSun primarily uses the SolarEdge Single Phase Inverter. However, SunPower AC panels include an Enphase microinverter on the back of each panel that acts as a SolarEdge inverter would, eliminating the need for a standard inverter.

How do I earn money for the energy my system produces?
National Grid Electric Bill with Solar energy solar panels

Saving money is the largest motivating factor for those looking to install solar panels. A big part of saving money with solar is the ability to bank excess energy your solar system produces back to the electric grid. Throughout the day, your solar system is producing energy. This electricity is automatically stored in your utilities’ electrical grid in the form of solar credits. Each time you use electricity in your home, you utilize those credits and apply them to your electric bill. Ideally, your system will produce enough power in the spring and summer months to provide enough credit to eliminate your bill in the winter months.

When your solar system generates extra solar energy, your utility grid will provide an on-bill credit. This process is referred to as net metering. How much your utility company will pay for your unused solar credits depends on your utility company and the state you live in. In Massachusetts, utilities provide credit remarkably close to the electric retail rate.

Solar Incentives- Richie Bonney

National Grid Electric Bill with Solar

Richie Bonney, our Vice President of Project Development, went solar over a year ago and is experiencing tremendous savings. Richie’s system produces enough energy every month to sell back to the grid and offset his entire electric bill (right). Solar panel ownership allows the relationship between utilities and customers to flip so that the utility company credits solar customers for their energy instead of the customer purchasing energy from the utility. National Grid owes Richie $254.10 for the excess energy that was automatically sent back to the grid.

SMART Program

In addition to net metering, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) has unveiled the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program. The SMART program allows solar owners to receive money, in addition to their electric bill credit, for their solar production at a set kilowatt-hour rate. SMART is a declining block system. Once Block 1 fills up, solar customers will be enrolled in SMART’s second block and so on. There is a 4% loss in incentives as you move down the blocks, estimating that the average customer who doesn’t get into Block 1 will lose an estimated 8-10% in savings. Currently, National Grid customers will receive around $0.11 per kWh of electricity produced, while Eversource clients collect about $0.14 per kWh. Those enrolled in SMART will receive a monthly check with their solar incentives.  

How do solar panels save me money?

There are many components to solar that help saves money, besides just selling excess solar energy back to the grid. This includes a federal tax credit, increased property value, and decreased electricity bills.

Last chance for the 30% Federal tax credit

Currently, U.S. residents are entitled to a 30% tax credit on the amount they pay to own a solar system. Renewed in 2015 by Congress, this tax credit has allowed countless U.S. residents to go solar. Yet, this tax credit might not be in effect for much longer. The current administration does not advocate for the tax credit and is seeking ways to cut down spending on renewables. This makes solar a pressing issue as time may be running out on large incentives. This year, 2019, is the last year that customers can take advantage of the 30% Federal tax credit. It is imperative to go solar before the tax credit expires since it is partly responsible for solar customers’ rather quick return on investments.

Congress Capitol
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Make your home smarter

Unlike other home improvement projects, solar systems add value to your property without tacking on an additional property tax. This makes your home more valuable if you ever decide to sell. Buyers are willing to pay an additional $15,000 for a home with the average-size solar system, compared to a similar home without a solar system. A low or non-existent electric bill is attractive to buyers. In a challenging market, solar panels can be the difference in selling your house or not, an added bonus that gives potential buyers a reason to consider your house over others as their next long-term home.

By going solar, homeowners save thousands on their electric bills. Solar customers are no longer at the mercy of the utility companies escalating prices. Electricity rates rise every year, but with solar energy, customers are no longer affected by these rising rate costs because they’re producing their own energy.

In addition to solar savings, there are many affordable options when it comes to financing your solar system and investment.

How do I go solar?

Our process for getting customers energized with clean energy begins with filling out this formOr, contact us if you still have questions about how solar energy works.

revolusun truck

How to Achieve Carbon Neutrality in Massachusetts

Achieving Carbon Neutrality in Massachusetts through renewable energy and electrification

Going Carbon Neutral Through Electrification

Massachusetts has been recognized as the most energy efficient state, 6 years running. Boston has been the most energy-efficient city in the country for 8 years now.

But how can Massachusetts improve or keep its title? Massachusetts is unique for a variety of reasons, but one thing that makes us stand out is that our officials, policymakers, and citizens are acutely aware with environmental issues and take steps to make the state greener. Massachusetts has been able to begin reducing their carbon footprint in an attempt to lessen the effects of climate change; effects such as sea level rise, ozone depletion, and global temperatures rising.

Climate-Forward Policy

The United States is among 184 total parties that signed the Paris Climate agreement on April 22, 2016. The Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise, below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase, even further, to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement intends to strengthen countries’ abilities to address the impacts of climate change.  The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) released a report addressing the impact of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius and related global GHG emissions pathways, in hopes to strengthen the global response to climate change, sustainable development, and the eradication of poverty.

Many U.S. states have their own goals to combat environmental issues through carbon neutrality. Carbon neutral(ity) refers to achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference, commonly referred to as having a net zero carbon footprint.

Carbon Pricing

A carbon price is a cost applied to carbon emissions (or pollution) to incentivize people to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas they emit into the atmosphere. Economists widely agree that introducing a carbon price is the single most effective way for countries to reduce their emissions.

Massachusetts could become the first state to put a price on carbon. In June 2018, the Massachusetts State Senate made history today by passing landmark carbon pricing legislation.The bill (S.2545- An Act to Promote a Clean Energy Future) includes a key carbon pricing provision that allows Massachusetts to regain state leadership on climate policy by designing and implementing a carbon pricing mechanism. Putting a price on carbon got a big boost when National Grid, one of New England’s largest utilities, called for putting an economy-wide price on carbon and rapid electrification of the transportation sector. The legislation’s next step is in the House, where we hope to continue momentum for the legislation and for carbon pricing.

The Commonwealth has an ambitious goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. However, this goal cannot be achieved by 2050 if we continue to build with natural gas or other fossil fuels. The only way we can get there is if we transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. As Boston’s skyline rises and population increases, the choices we make over the next few years on how we’re going to fuel the city’s energy future, and the buildings we construct or retrofit today will have profound effects.

Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change

Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, thus creating a warming effect, are called greenhouse gases (or GHG). Greenhouse gas emissions from human-caused activities are known throughout the scientific community to lead to climate change. There are four types of GHGs consisting of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases.

Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil), solid waste, trees and wood products, and also as a result of certain chemical reactions. Carbon can be sequestered (or removed) from the atmosphere when it is absorbed by plants.

Methane is mainly emitted during the production and transportation of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil). The largest difference between fossil fuels and renewable energy (besides that fact that renewables are indeed renewable) is the methane emitted. Methane does not linger in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but its effects are far more devastating due to the efficiency in which methane absorbs heat. Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Approximately 25% of manmade global warming effects are due to methane emissions. Even though it occurs in lower concentrations than carbon dioxide, it produces 21 times as much warming as CO2. Methane emissions can also come from livestock, other agricultural practices and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills.

Nitrous oxide is emitted during agricultural and industrial activities, as well as during combustion of fossil fuels and solid waste. Fluorinated gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons that are used in air conditioning, are synthetic, powerful greenhouse gases typically emitted from industrial processes.

Electrifying our energy supply

Industry experts have dabbled with the idea of electrification or the transitioning energy supplies to electricity. Electricity is basically a no-loss energy; it converts energy into useful power without losses and without pollution. The use of electricity could decarbonize the world.

Over the last few years, there has been an increase in the electrification of everyday transportation, specifically electric vehicles. Researchers have broken down the potential for electrification into many different sectors but transportation starts with the smallest electricity share, which would make it the easiest sector to begin with. Transportation accounts for nearly 30 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption. Beyond transportation, the building sector can take steps to reduce their carbon emissions by making the switch to electricity fueled by electromechanical generators, solar photovoltaics, or geothermal.

So, what are the next steps? Reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 starts with electrification of our buildings and transportation systems. Then, we can begin powering that electricity with renewable energy sources, such as solar.

Step 1. Build Green and Electrify Buildings

Green Building Renewable Energy LEED

Sustainable building starts with the design of the building to take into account the natural resources and energy available at the site. It may mean positioning the structure to make the most of the sunlight available or implementing natural ventilation to reduce the need for energy-intensive heating and cooling systems. Sustainable construction methods and materials will help reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) ranks buildings using the LEED guidelines to stimulate/encourage/promote “sustainable construction, maintenance, and operation” across the country. The major pillars of LEED certification are a decrease in greenhouse gases, improved air quality, a transition to new energy sources, and smart, forward-thinking building practices. This all reduces the negative effects on human health while being conscious of the environment. Massachusetts is ranked #1 for LEED Green Building Per Capita. The goal of carbon neutrality could be reached close to 2050 if we can keep the momentum going with green buildings and electrifying them.

Local households making the switch to electricity

Claire and Jan Galkowski of Westwood, MA installed 29 SunPower 345-watt modules, creating a 10.0kW PV system, with 19 facing South-Southwest, 5 facing East-Southeast, and 5 facing West-Northwest. Although these directions are not the most favorable, with the great efficiency of these panels, they made it work. In an effort to reduce even more fossil fuel usage, Jan and Claire decided to convert their hot water system, heating and cooling system, and many major energy-consuming technologies to electric sources. The Galkowski family is also planning on purchasing a Tesla Model 3 that will utilize clean energy generated from their home.

RevoluSun Solar Installation in Westwood, MA

Three years later, the Galkowskis decided to add to their solar system. They ended up installing another 10 Sunpower 345 panels to create a 39 panel, 13.46kW system. Nine of these are again East-Southeast, and 1 is West-Northwest. Even though their home (and car) ran entirely on electricity, their bill was only $2 per month. Also, the Galkowskis earn an extra $100 per month in SRECs with the additional panels. The Galkowskis are pioneering efforts to reduce GHG emissions in Massachusetts.

Step 2. Electrify Transportation

Transportation is responsible for about 25 percent of our emissions. This means that we have to look at changing the way we commute and how we fuel our vehicles.

When possible, walk or ride your bike to completely eliminate your carbon emissions associated with transportation. Carpooling options, like Uber or Lyft, and public transportation can greatly reduce CO2 emissions. Ridesharing services, such as Uber, have started incentive programs that reward drivers of electric vehicles. Uber launched a program to provide cash incentives to drivers who use electric vehicles (or EVs) with the goal of facilitating at least 5 million trips over 12 months. Uber is also adding features to its app for drivers who specifically use these types of vehicles, and it’s partnering with nonprofits and UC-Davis researchers to discover new ways Uber and local governments can encourage EV adoption.

For those who are committed to sustainability, make the switch to a fuel-efficient vehicle, such as a hybrid or electric vehicle to further reduce your environmental impact. Where is the electricity coming from? Shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy to power your EVs will reduce carbon emissions from vehicles. Simple changes like avoiding speeding and unnecessary acceleration can reduce gas mileage by up to 33%, subsequently reducing carbon emissions.

Additional ways to travel cleaner

Complete Streets policies in Massachusetts lead the state towards sustainability

Complete Streets is a transportation policy that mandates streets to be designed, planned, maintained, and operated to enable safety, convenience, comfort, and accessibility to all travelers, regardless of the mode of transportation. Complete Streets promotes and encourages pedestrian and bike-friendly roadways. Establishing a complete streets policy demonstrates a community’s commitment to improving community livability by focusing on safety and mobility, sustainability, and economic development. Massachusetts Department of Transportation is taking action to encourage more Complete Street projects across the state.

Many towns in Massachusetts have been recognized for their efforts in integrating Complete Street plans into their short-term agendas. Smart Growth America recognized Stoneham, MA as National Complete Street Champion. Governor Charlie Baker & Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito awarded the city of Cambridge $400,000 to fund a Complete Street program and help the city get started on achieving their sustainability goals.

Step 3. Embrace Renewables

Solar Energy Renewables

Approximately 75 percent of our emissions in 2018 come from energy use in buildings, compared to 68 percent in 2017.

The University of California schools are aiming to be the first carbon-neutral school system by 2025. Over the last year, UC campuses made big strides toward zero-emission vehicles. In the last year, UC Irvine converted its entire bus fleet to electric. Campuses also cut water use, saving enough water to fill 125 Olympic-size swimming pools. Complete electrification will mean converting all university buildings and facilities to electricity powered by solar, wind and other renewable sources, a conversion that is already underway at some campuses.

University of California Santa Barbara leads in solar energy development

All 10 University of California campuses now have on-site solar power, and more progress is in the works. UC has purchased 80 megawatts (MW) of off-campus solar — enough to supply 14 percent of total electricity use. Campuses have also installed nearly 80 on-site solar photovoltaic systems, an additional 13 MW of on-site solar is in development. Solar panels will supply the universities with carbon-free energy.

States Embrace Renewables

California has become the first state in the nation to require solar panels on new homes, starting in 2020. Watertown, located just outside of Boston, has recently become the first town in Massachusetts and New England to require solar panels on new commercial construction. The town mandated renovations of existing buildings that are more than 10,000 square feet to have solar collectors. Parking garages will also require solar installations.

Watertown’s Energy Manager, Ed Lewis, believes the new ordinance will help to reduce pollution, decrease the town’s carbon footprint, and drive local business. Local companies typically install the solar panels, so the mandate will help provide local jobs. New renewable energy generation will offset the money previously spent on non-renewable energy sources. Energy for Massachusetts customers typically comes from outside of New England. With this new ordinance, the money that normally leaves New England will now stay in the local economy.

Solar is easily the most popular energy source among Americans. Mandating solar is an idea most Americans support for their state. A poll released by Morning Consult, reveals that approximately 63% of Americans supported requiring solar in residential construction.

Step 4. Make small changes in your home

6 Ways of Going Green and Reducing Your Electric Bill

The idea of electrifying your home, business and transportation can seem daunting. There are plenty of smaller changes you can make in your home that will reduce your energy use. Here are other ways to save money and energy.

Turn off electronics when they aren’t in use. About 25% of all residential energy usage comes from appliances that are plugged in when not in use. Even when your coffee pot isn’t brewing coffee or your laptop charger isn’t charging your device, they are still using energy. To make unplugging easier, try using power strips that you can switch off.

Utilize your blinds. It’s surprising how much opening and closing your blinds can impact the temperature of your home. In the summer, close your blinds during the day to limit sunlight heating up your home. In the winter, keep them open.

Wash your clothes in cold water. 90% of the energy usage of laundry machines goes towards heating up water when many clothes can be washed in cold water. Making this switch could save $40 each year, and washing only full loads saves 3,400 gallons of water annually.

Use low-flow showerheads. A low-flow showerhead uses 2.5 gallons-per-minute or less. A ten-minute shower saves you 25 gallons of water compared to a full bathtub. This saves you up to $145 each year in utility costs.

Switch to efficient light bulbs. Reduce energy use by 30% to 80% with energy-efficient bulbs such as halogen incandescents, CFLs and LEDs.

Clean or change filters regularly. Having dirty filters in your AC, heating unit, dryer, or other appliances reduces their energy efficiency and effectiveness.

Your Home or Business’s Impact

Since carbon neutrality is an ambitious goal, there will have to be changes made both locally and nationally. Massachusetts has a great start in legislature and state politics to combat climate change now through 2050. Electrification of buildings and transportation, supported by renewable energy sources, would be a huge leap towards climate change mitigation.

Your decision to go solar and electrify your home or business can have a huge impact. In a previous post, we explain the true and hidden costs of fossil fuels and how switching to solar saves money and resources. The average household in the US uses around 900 kilowatts of electricity every month, this is equivalent to 733 pounds of coal burned. In order to produce 900 kilowatts of electricity in a month, you would need a system of approximately 7 kW.

Every house will have a different size system, but the average system size we install is approximately 8.5 kWh. This means the average home could produce enough electricity from their solar system alone, and then some. The energy savings from an 8 kW system could be as high as $120,000 over 25 years, without including your solar incentive income.

The thought of electrifying your home can sound overwhelming, but Greentech Media has broken it down here to help homeowners better understand what this means. Call us at (781) 348-6496 to learn more about switching to a renewable source of energy, such as solar.

5 Tips for Choosing a Solar Installer

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