In recent years, solar power has become a trendy option for corporations and individual households, especially with the enticing aspects of eco-friendly tax deductions and eventually saving on your electric bill after a few years of use. Solar power is a viable option for separating from the electric company, but is there truly a difference?
The electricity in the world around you comes from a power grid. Each power grid is powered by a unique source of energy, depending on availability and legal restrictions. Solar power can be used to create electricity in many forms and help some areas reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.
Choosing to use solar power for electricity or using the electricity from the power grid may or may not be entirely up to you. Many factors can contribute to your source of electricity that can be out of your hands. However, there are many viable options if you choose not to use electricity from the power grid.
What is Electricity?
Electricity was discovered to be harnessed in the 18th and 19th centuries by several scientists, including Ohm and Faraday. Before that, Benjamin Franklin found that lightning from the sky was electricity. Even before that, the ancient Egyptians acknowledged some form of electricity from electric fish in the Nile River.
Electricity was brought into homes in the late 19th century by many scientists and inventors, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. From there, it has powered almost every form of technology we use today.
Thus, electricity is the transfer of power and conversion from one state to another state. The electricity we use today comes from power grids at power plants. These power plants use various forms of energy to create electricity to be sent to our homes and communities.
The most common sources of energy for electricity are fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and solar power. Out of these sources, fossil fuels, including natural gas and coal, produced 61% of the United States’ electricity in 2019. The United States only used renewable energy forms for about 17% of the electricity used in 2019, including solar energy.
What is Solar Power?
Solar power is energy harnessed from the sun’s rays and can be converted into electricity. Solar energy can also be converted into heat. Solar energy can be collected in two ways: photovoltaic cells to create electricity, also known as solar power. The other is to generate heat with a concentrated solar power system.
Photovoltaic cells started to be tested in the late 1800s. However, due to the widespread availability of coal and petroleum, photovoltaic cells stopped being used and researched for almost a hundred years and became more prevalent in the late 1980s.
Many people have started to use solar power to give their home’s electricity and warmth; however, it strongly depends on where you live and the environment around your home. Most homes also use a third way to harness solar energy to heat their homes, which is the natural heat produced when the sun comes through the windows.
What are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Each Type?
There are many benefits to using each type of energy for electricity. As mentioned earlier, whichever kind of power you choose to energize your home is and isn’t entirely up to you. Some disadvantages can outweigh advantages, and you also should be thinking about long-term and emergency energy, rather than just at the moment.
The main benefit of using electricity from the power grid is as long as you pay your bill on time and that there aren’t any natural disasters that will shut down the power grid, you will have electricity.
Another benefit of using electricity is that many of the products we use depend on electricity, such as our computers, phones, tablets, and almost every type of medical machinery used for diagnosis.
A drawback of electricity is that it can be expensive. Some areas in the United States charge 32.77 cents per kilowatt-hour (KWh) (Hawaii). Electricity can be costly, but some areas are also prone to brownouts because the power plants cannot produce enough energy and cut off their users’ power to conserve electricity.
Another drawback of using electricity is that many power grids are powered by unsustainable resources that can be harmful to the environment, such as natural gas, coal, and petroleum. The United States has been making efforts to increase electricity produced from renewable resources, including solar, hydro, and biomass.
One benefit of solar power is that you’ll have a reduced dependency on a public utility. Another advantage of using solar energy is that it is more environmentally friendly than using electricity from the power grid.
A potential drawback of using solar power is that you may not live in an area that receives enough sunlight, or your home has trees or buildings that will prevent your photovoltaic cells from absorbing enough sunlight to power your home. Using solar power usually requires having a backup form of energy available.
Even though the initial costs for using solar power for electricity can be expensive, after some time, there is a return on investment, especially if you also consider the environment around you valuable and not just the money in your wallet.
Known Places That Use Solar Power
Devices That Use Solar Power
Solar power isn’t just used for powering your home. We have all seen those small dancing window figures with mini-photovoltaic cells on them, powering their movements. Many other devices have started to personalize using solar power and slowly cut out your dependence on the electrical grid.
Phone Chargers and Accessories
Solar-powered phone chargers are an excellent option to keep your phone going throughout the day. You can leave it on your windowsill or outside on a sunny day to absorb energy and use it to charge your phone midday or at night. There have even been solar phone charging stands installed in communities like this one.
Not only are there direct chargers, but there are also solar backpacks, which are great if you’re always outside and on the go. They can charge your phone and laptop and have been known to be useful in emergencies such as disaster relief for lighting and powering emergency medical supplies.
On the Streets and Sidewalks
Many cities have placed solar-powered trash compacting bins to reduce the amount of litter on the ground and pickup frequency. It can hold five to eight times the trash an ordinary trash can on the sidewalk can hold.
Many streetlights that we see today are also solar-powered, rather than using electricity from the grid. They also save money and time from having to dig conduits for the electricity. Cities have also been installing solar traffic lights at intersections.
While not readily available to the public just yet, solar-powered cars have been making a breakthrough, and in 2021, the Lightyear One is expected to be produced for the public to purchase.
Solar power is an excellent way to heat your home, water, and pool instead of using electricity and natural gas. For heating the water in your home, a rooftop panel absorbs the sun’s rays and sends the heat to the water tank for heating. Different flooring is placed to help transfer absorbed heat to be dispersed through your home for heating your home.
Outside of what was listed here, here’s a complete list of current solar-powered devices. Every day there are more advances in technology that rely on solar power as a form of energy.
Availability and Logistics
As mentioned earlier, the availability of solar power in your area may prevent you from using solar power as a primary source of energy for your home, making using electricity from the power grid your primary source. Electricity from the power grid is almost always available in any urban area and most rural areas.
One factor that will determine your ability to use solar power for your home is your environment. Solar power has only been seen as beneficial in areas with at least four hours of peak sunlight every day or when the sun is the highest in the sky. States such as Minnesota and Wisconsin wouldn’t be viable options for using solar power as Arizona and California would.
Another factor that will determine if you should or shouldn’t use solar power is the number of trees and tall buildings around your home, as well as the angle of your roof if you choose to put solar panels on your roof. Ideally, you want your roof to be in a south-facing direction to be able to absorb more sunlight.
As for tall buildings, you can’t knock them down. However, you may have the option to cut down a tree, but that could also affect your local ecosystem and your home’s temperature in the summer.
Can Clouds and Rain Affect Solar Power?
Since solar power relies on the sun’s rays, will clouds, rain, or other types of weather, such as dust storms, affect solar panels?
On a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t affect electricity production significantly. However, not as much electricity will be produced, so areas with rainy seasons will need a backup or stored form of electricity for power.
How to Start Using Solar Power in Your Home
If you’ve decided to start using solar power in your home, there are a few steps you need to take.
First, you need to find a source for photovoltaic cells and a way to install them correctly. Many companies are available in every state who can provide a quote and an honest opinion if solar power is right for you.
Second, you’ll need to contact your electric company. Depending on your area, you probably won’t need to tell them that you’re getting solar panels; however, they may provide a rebate, discount, or sometimes may buy your electricity from you.
Can you use Solar Power and Electricity at the Same Time?
Deciding to switch to solar power isn’t all or nothing. As mentioned earlier, many factors can affect the amount of energy the photovoltaic cells can absorb to power and heat your home. You’ll also need a back up if you have a significant amount of rainy or cloudy days.
Having a backup form, such as electricity from the power grid or another source of energy, will help ensure you always have power.
Many people who have researched or decided to switch to solar power from electricity will tell you about the initial expenses. Changing your home to solar power will cost you between $15,000 and $25,000, depending on your region and the amount of electricity needed.
Electricity costs 13.1 cents per KWh on average in the United States, and as mentioned earlier, it can be as high as it is in Hawaii.
Depending on how much solar power your home can harness, usually, after about eight years, you’ll start seeing money coming back after the initial costs. Many states also give tax breaks and incentives for using solar electricity.
Efficiency and Efficiency Promoting Products
In the fast-paced world we live in, we rely on efficiency in our energy and products. Due to many environmental initiatives, companies have created and distributed products designed to reduce energy consumption, making your solar power and electricity go a long way.
Lightbulbs are one of the most popular switches people make to consume less power in their homes. Many electric companies have also offered rebates for people who use more eco-friendly light bulbs in their homes. Here’s a chart showing the amount of energy each type of lightbulb uses:
|Lightbulb||Comparison to an incandescent bulb|
|LED||Longest lasting and lowest energy usage, white light.|
|Halogen||White light that is 25-35% brighter using the same amount of energy.|
|CFL||Last longer and use electricity with white light.|
Appliances and Electronics
Along with lightbulbs, many households have switched to using more energy-efficient appliances and electronics. Some power companies have also created programs to give households energy-efficient appliances at a reduced rate. You can use the Energy Star rebate finder to see if you’re eligible.
Environmental Sustainability and Impact
Power isn’t infinite, and it has to be created from some source. Depending on what the electric company you use can determine the environmental sustainability of the resources.
Solar power can be infinite. Solar power companies can harness sunlight and store it for later usage, especially if a photovoltaic cell breaks or if there isn’t enough sunlight. A significant environmental impact that harnessing the solar energy can have is if there is a solar farm, it can disrupt the ecosystem that it took over.
Electricity’s environmental sustainability varies depending on the source. Many countries are starting to use more renewable sources for electricity; however, they are still dependent on nonrenewable energy sources.
Living off-the-grid has become a viable option for many people who want to reduce their dependence on public utilities or choose to live in an area with little to no access to public utilities. People have successfully and safely lived off-the-grid for decades in our modern society, and even longer before that.
If you choose to live off-the-grid, that doesn’t mean you’ll have to sacrifice electricity altogether. People who live off-the-grid use solar power and many other sources of energy that are inexpensive, dependable, and safer for the environment.
Other Natural Sources of Electricity
As mentioned earlier, solar power won’t be available everywhere, and unless electric companies transition to a more sustainable energy source, there need to be other backup sources of energy.
Wind power has been used for millennia. Although people may complain that the turbines are an eyesore, they are a clean and dependable energy source in many areas. Wind power is harnessed by wind naturally turning turbines that are placed inland or offshore. The wind is created by the heating and cooling of land and water.
Wind power created 7% of the electricity in the United States, which was 42% of the renewable energy produced in 2019 in the United States.
However, as with any source of energy, there are some drawbacks. One negative thing wind power is known for is killing birds, insects, and bats and disrupting their migration patterns. Another negative aspect of wind power is that you’ll need backup power because high winds and thunderstorms can damage a turbine.
Hydropower is another viable option to give your home electricity. The movement of water creates hydropower. The water’s energy can be held and harnessed by a dam, which controls the amount of water flowing through the turbines, which send the energy into a generator.
Other than dams, another form of hydropower that has been started to be used is ocean current energy. This is where turbines are placed in areas where there is a strong ocean current, and they collect and convert the energy and are transferred back to land via a transmission line.
Hydropower created 6.6% of the United States’ electricity in 2019, which was 38% of renewable energy. Using dams, hydropower has also been known to control flooding and is used as backup power during blackouts. Hydroelectricity also doesn’t emit any pollutants that burning fossil fuels does.
The turbines used for hydropower have been known to disrupt aquatic ecosystems and the land ecosystems around the water source. Another issue with hydropower is that it is dependent on the water cycle; therefore, if there is a drought, the amount of water available to produce the energy needed decreases.
Geothermal energy is a source of power that is harnessed from the Earth. It takes the natural heat produced within the Earth and releases it into a chamber where it is converted to electricity or stored for heating or cooling. It is commonly used in Iceland, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It provided 2% of the electricity in the United States in 2019.
Some drawbacks for geothermal energy are that it could emit greenhouse gases during harnessing and be sustainable. However, overuse can make harnessing geothermal energy unsustainable. Harnessing geothermal energy also has the potential to trigger earthquakes.
Fossil fuels are an unsustainable form of energy that modern society has relied on since 3894. They have been developed to burn cleaner; however, they aren’t infinite, and their usage, farming, and mining have a detrimental environmental impact.
Natural gas comes from drilling through layers of the Earth to harness. It comes from the remains of pressurized marine animals and plants. It takes millions of years for natural gas to be created. It is currently used to power 38% of the electricity produced by power plants in the United States.
Burning natural gas causes the release of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas. Methane has been known to hold more heat, causing the Earth to trap the heat. The world’s natural gas supply is estimated to run out within the next century.
Petroleum, also known as crude oil, is another fossil fuel used that isn’t environmentally friendly or sustainable. Petroleum comes from a similar source as natural gas and coal. It takes millions of years to form. It is farmed from many countries worldwide, and once it is farmed, it can be converted into gasoline, jet fuel, and many other things.
Using petroleum for energy has caused many environmental and economic problems and creates tedious international relationships. Oil spills have caused many problems for marine wildlife and are extremely expensive to clean up. Some of the more well-well known oil spills are the Gulf War oil spill of 1991 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.
Even though petroleum accounted for 1% of the United State’s energy in 2019, the world’s oil is also expected to run out within the next century.
Coal is mined all around the world and in half of the 50 states. It has been used for many years as a source of energy and heat. It was created the same way natural gas was made. The steam engine made it possible for burning coal to become a primary source of energy. Coal is estimated to be available for the next 250 years.
While coal mining was reduced during the Obama administration in the United States; however, the Trump administration has pushed to reopen coal mines, despite decreasing coal dependency for electricity. China and India currently use the most amount of coal in the world for energy. China alone uses more than seven times the amount of coal the United States does.
Burning coal since the 1800s has caused many environmental problems due to the overuse. Over recent years, efforts have been made to make coal cleaner and safer using scrubbers; however, some things that mining and burning coal has caused are:
- Increased sulfur, nitrogen, and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
- Increased particulate matter in the air.
- Increased exposure to toxicities that can cause deadly lung diseases
- Increased heavy metals and toxins being exposed to the ecosystems around mining sites
Nuclear energy is created by converting the nuclear energy found in uranium atoms into electrical energy. It is highly efficient and uses significantly fewer resources than using fossil fuels or biomass.
It is commonly used in France, the United Kingdom, and South Korea and is an immaculate energy source. In 2019, nuclear energy supplied 20% of electricity in the United States. However, the safety and long-term effects need to be analyzed.
There have been events in the past, such as the nuclear meltdowns in Chernobyl in 1986 and Japan in 2011 that killed hundreds of people and left the area the plant was in tainted with radioactivity, making the land unsafe to go on.
The disposal of nuclear waste is also a controversial topic. Nuclear waste can’t be destroyed, so it is stored in containers to prevent the waste’s radioactivity from contaminating our environment. These containers are then buried deep in the ground. The containers shouldn’t get any cracks. However, there have been several disasters due to improper nuclear waste disposal.
Biomass has also become another popular form of creating energy. Biomass comes from burning anything organic, such as wood, agricultural waste, and garbage, in a steam power plant, like coal. The energy is harnessed and converted into electrical energy.
Biomass created 1% of the electricity in the United States in 2019. Biomass is also used to produce gasoline, and many gas stations around the United States use gas that contains ethanol, a product of biomass. One major disadvantage of using biomass for electricity is that it can release sulfur dioxide, which is known to aggravate respiratory conditions like asthma.
Over recent years, many countries in Europe have resorted to using biomass as a form of energy to produce electricity. Even Sweden has been known to buy garbage from other countries to be able to produce energy!
The Chariton Biomass Project was an experiment that changed the source of energy for a power plant in Iowa and found that switching to combination biomass and coal as a form of energy instead of solely coal significantly reduced greenhouse gas and particulate emissions.
When thinking about the differences between solar power or electricity, at first thought, it’s a little confusing because solar power can provide electricity, amongst other things. Both types of energy have their benefits and drawbacks; however, it is up to you and your environment to know what kind of energy you’ll use for power in your home and lifestyle.