Feature Article

Making Your Own Electricity: Onsite Photovoltaic Systems

In 1980, after living without electricity for five years, I bought a photovoltaic (PV) module for $275. Once the 33-watt Arco panel was hooked up to a 12-volt car battery, my kerosene bill dropped significantly. For a few hours each night, I was able to listen to a radio and operate a tiny 12-volt fluorescent light.

Twenty-nine years later, I still live off the grid. The old Arco module has required no maintenance other than occasional snow removal, and has produced electricity every day without fail for all those years. I now have 16 PV modules on my roof; when the sun shines brightly, the solar array produces about 840 watts.

SolarRoof Membrane is a building-integrated PV roofing that marries Uni-Solar’s peel-and-stick PV product with a low-slope PVC commercial roofing membrane.

Photo: Solar Integrated Technologies

In 1980, after living without electricity for five years, I bought a photovoltaic (PV) module for $275. Once the 33-watt Arco panel was hooked up to a 12-volt car battery, my kerosene bill dropped significantly. For a few hours each night, I was able to listen to a radio and operate a tiny 12-volt fluorescent light.

Twenty-nine years later, I still live off the grid. The old Arco module has required no maintenance other than occasional snow removal, and has produced electricity every day without fail for all those years. I now have 16 PV modules on my roof; when the sun shines brightly, the solar array produces about 840 watts.

My PV array is both more and less dependable than the grid: more dependable because it’s unaffected by the ice storms that leave my neighbors in the dark, and less dependable because it produces very little power in November and December. The most significant fact about my PV electricity is its high cost. After paying for my PV modules, inverter, and batteries, I figure that electricity costs me between $0.50 and $1.00 per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

In the early 1980s, PV systems were quite rare, and the overwhelming majority of systems were installed on off-grid homes like mine. In the late 1990s, however, utilities and state governments, led by California, began to offer incentives for the installation of grid-connected PV arrays. Lured by these incentives, increasing numbers of homeowners and businesses began installing PV systems. By 2002, grid-connected PV users outnumbered the off-grid pioneers.

Building owners choose to invest in onsite renewable energy systems for a variety of reasons: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to limit their exposure to future increases in the price of electricity; or to obtain the public relations benefits associated with green energy production.

Published October 30, 2009