The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a study showing how America could decarbonize its power grid using solar energy and power 40% of the nation’s electricity by 2035. They predict the transition won’t result in higher electricity prices. This is good news for the environment. Solar prices have dropped so far it is actually profitable to install solar pretty much everywhere. Even in cold, cloudy Michigan, everyone would profit by installing solar.
Unfortunately, even when solar photovoltaic systems produce much more money than they cost, many people simply can’t afford them. For the many Americans struggling financially, it may be unfeasible to invest thousands of dollars upfront to have a solar system professionally installed. Fulfilling the opportunity presented by economically profitable solar is even more daunting in much of the developing world.
This is frustrating for solar researchers like me that have worked for decades to make solar accessible for everyone. To help solve the cost problem I teamed up with Lonny Grafman, an internationally renowned solar hacker, to write To Catch the Sun — a free, open-access e-book. Kickstarter backers more than doubled our goal and will ensure it is available to everyone in English and Spanish.
If you are even a little handy, you can cut the costs of solar in half by building your own systems; To Catch the Sun guides you on exactly how to do it. We share stories of people from all over the world meeting their energy needs with small solar systems they made themselves.
DIY Makes Solar More Affordable
With a little DIY effort, you can take advantage of the profits low-cost solar electricity provides. As an Earth911 reader, you have probably already thought about installing solar, but the upfront cost may have deterred you. Solar is generally sold based on the cost of given amount of power measured in watts. A professionally installed basic grid-tied system will cost you about $3 per watt of available power; a typical home may need 5,000 watts for a total upfront cost of $15,000. For a lot of people, this is too much money to pay upfront.
If you build most of the system yourself and only call in an electrician to connect the system to the grid, you can easily do it for under $2 per watt; there are many sources for the modules under 50 cents per watt. This is a safe way to install solar, you pay a professional for the dangerous part of the installation and ensure that your system meets local code and laws.
When you do it yourself, you can also take advantage of the modular nature of solar. You don’t need to buy the whole system all at once. Simply add a panel when your budget allows or you need more energy. In To Catch the Sun, we walk you through all the steps of sizing your system, selecting components, and putting it all together.
Developing a solar system from scratch provides you with incredible flexibility. The same principles and technologies can be scaled to power everything from your cellphone or laptop to your home — to save you thousands of dollars. Solar powering isolated loads that are not connected to the grid — such as electric gates, pumps, greenhouse fans, backup generators, and telecommunications equipment — can reduce your electric costs too. These simple solar systems are easy to make.
How To Start in 5 Steps
2. Decide on a type of solar system and a budget to determine the equipment needed. All projects will require access to hand tools.
3. The book provides a basic introduction to electricity and solar system design, but you will need basic math skills.
4. Do an energy audit of the applications you are going to power — and use the spreadsheets in the book to design your system.
5. Follow the safety guidelines outlined in the book, ensure you are following local regulations, and for grid-tied systems bring in a certified electrician to do the final connection.
Solar Saves Money and Lives
Don’t get me wrong. You don’t need to wire up your own solar system to save a boatload of cash on powering your home or business. Solar photovoltaic technology provides the lowest-cost electricity in much of the United States and Canada. Period.
Because making your own solar electricity is less expensive than buying it from your utility, everyone who has enough capital will want to install photovoltaic systems to cover their electric needs. This is why major corporations like Apple, Google, and Walmart already have giant solar systems. They are making money on them — a lot of money — and so can smaller companies. We can also expect to see average middle-class neighborhoods sporting solar panels on most unshaded rooftops.
Solar prices continue to drop. And the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 brings new incentives to help taxpayers afford solar. Quite surprisingly, our latest research shows that consumers could even earn money by electrifying their heating in northern Michigan or Ontario, Canada, with a heat pump powered by solar. Solar electrification of heating saves you even more money and is even better for the environment.
The Department of Energy points out that a renewable-based grid will create significant health and cost savings too. They show reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality results in savings of $1.1 trillion to $1.7 trillion, far outweighing the additional costs incurred from transitioning to clean energy. This means when you invest in solar you make money, but the country makes even more money in avoided health costs. Plus, it saves lives. In an earlier study, I found that about 52,000 American lives could be saved per year simply by turning off the coal plants in favor of solar to reduce air pollution. Now we can all profit from solar; saving all those lives is a bonus.
No matter if you are rich, poor, or somewhere in between, for the good of your wallet and your neighbor’s health it really is time to catch the sun!
About the Author
Dr. Joshua Pearce is the Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at the Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership & Innovation, Ivey Business School and the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Western University in Canada. He is the author of To Catch the Sun, a free, open-source e-book.
Originally published on October 4, 2021, this article was updated in January 2023.