Solar 101


What is solar energy? 

Solar power is energy collected from the sun that is converted into thermal or electrical energy. It can be used to generate electricity, heat water for homes, pools, commercial or industrial use, or provide light. Solar energy is the cleanest and most widely available form of energy, and according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL): "More energy from the sun strikes the Earth in an hour than all of humanity uses in a year." 

Solar panels work by their photovoltaic cells converting energy from the sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity, which is then converted to alternating current (AC) by an inverter. Due to their relatively low maintenance, solar panels typically last for 25-30 years, and sometimes much longer (some 40-year-old solar panels are still running today!) NREL found in a recent study that most solar energy systems only lost .5% of their efficiency per year, which means by the time your system reaches 25 years old it could still be 88% efficient. This is very high, especially considering the low, low maintenance solar panels require. 


What are the different types of solar?

Solar energy comes in many forms. Rooftop solar may be the first type of solar that comes to mind for you, and it's a method that is rapidly growing across the U.S with the help of decreasing solar prices and federal incentives. Solar installed on roofs or small ground-mounted systems, are classified as "Distributed Generation" (DG) solar because the electricity is produced close to the source that is using it (i.e the home or business). These systems are connected "behind the meter," meaning that the energy is used directly on-site. Since the electricity is produced close to where it's used, it decreases the amount of energy lost in transmission and distribution. It also decentralizes the grid, making it more reliable and resilient. Net metering is a critical policy to increasing solar deployment because it allows residential and commercial customers to sell their extra energy back to the grid and receive a credit on their energy bills. Net metering policies vary by state, and utilities can voluntarily choose to enact net metering. Net metering encourages home and business owners to install solar systems because it helps them pay back their installations faster, so it is essential that states enact strong net metering policies. Read more about net metering on SEIA's website.

Utility-Scale solar projects are typically owned by the electric utility company or wholesale utility buyer, are connected to the transmission grid, and the electricity is delivered to the utility's customers. These solar projects are much larger than DG projects, getting up to 100 megawatts of solar covering 400 acres of land. 

Community solar is a growing movement across the U.S that allows customers who cannot install their own solar (because they have shady roofs, rent, live in multi-tenant buildings, can't afford the entire installation, or for other reasons) to access and benefit from solar. Participants choose to buy into and become subscribers to the community solar project, and then receive a credit on their energy bill each month for their share of the electricity the solar produces. Some utilities also offer their customers the choice to buy into their community solar projects, allowing them access to clean, green energy. 

Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Project (MnSEIP) community solar

Minnesota is a leader in community solar, and we are proud to be an example to other states! The largest community solar program in Minnesota is Xcel Energy's Solar*Rewards Community and is regulated by the state. Under Xcel’s program, your subscription must not exceed 120% of your average annual electric usage. The typical Minnesota home uses about 800 kWh each month, so to fully meet that need  you will need about 8 kilowatts of solar capacity. Every home is different however, so review your previous year's energy bills before making your decision. Find out more about subscribing to community solar in Minnesota on the Minnesota Department of Commerce website

Community solar is a crucial part of the green transition because it expands access to clean, affordable energy to everyone, including low-to-moderate income communities and people who otherwise could not participate in solar. The U.S community solar market is expected to grow to over 3GW over the next few years. A single MW of solar powers 164 homes, so 3GW of community solar could power almost half a million homes in a few years (SEIA). 


Do solar panels work on cloudy days or in the cold? 

There's a lot of misinformation out there claiming that solar panels do not work when it's cloudy, rainy, or cold. If this were true, then places like Germany and Minnesota (which we all know aren't known for their nice, sunny weather) wouldn't be leaders in solar energy. While solar panels are most effective in direct sunlight, they can still generate more than enough power when the sun is blocked by the clouds. And since solar panels are powered by light, not heat, they are actually more effective in cooler temperatures than hot ones. In fact, cold, sunny environments are the optimal operating conditions for solar panels


A Bipartisan/Nonpartisan Movement

2/3 of U.S voters say 100% renewable electricity by 2030 is important, according to a new survey by Morning Consult. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) found that 9 out of 10 Americans support the growth of solar. Clean energy benefits the economy, job force, communities, and environment, and when voters and politicians across both sides of the aisle see the positives in more renewable energy, you know it's a win!  


Solar Energy National Politics
Courtesy of Morning Consult