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10 Myths About Solar Power, Busted

Brooke Nally's picture
Solar Power Authority

Brooke is the content coordinator at SolarPowerAuthority, a leading renewable energy and solar industry website. Brooke is a part-time blogger, and a full-time environmentalist. Her crusade for...

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  • Aug 12, 2016
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photovoltaic modules in winter covered by snow

Despite the overwhelming growth of residential solar installations, many myths remain about solar power. Here are the top 10 solar power myths — and the facts that refute these myths.

Myth: Solar panels do not work well in cold climates.

Fact: Most solar panels actually work best in cold, sunny conditions. Conductivity increases in cold temperatures, making electricity flow more efficiently, while higher temperatures can reduce the panels’ efficiency. As solar panels get hotter, they produce less power from the same amount of light.

Myth: Solar power will get more efficient, so I should wait to buy or install.

Fact: While many companies are working to improve the efficiency of solar panels, the current technology for solar panels is well established — in fact, we’ve been using the same solar technology, more or less, since the 1960s. The potential efficiency gains of future panels are small compared to the panels ready for installation today, and the efficiency gains when measured in total dollars saved on your energy bills is miniscule.

Myth: I won’t live in my home long enough to make my investment in solar back.

Fact: Depending on your system and location, solar panel arrays can pay for themselves within 6 to 15 years. Combined with the best state and federal tax credits and incentives, you could start seeing a return on your investment within 2 to 4 years. Solar panels also increase the resale value of a home by about $15,000, so even if you won’t be in your home for the next 15 years, you can still see a significant return on investment when you sell.

Myth: Solar panels require a tracking system to follow the angle of the sun.

Fact: When panels are installed, they are positioned to maximize sun exposure, meaning tracking systems are not required. Some newer solar panels do integrate tracking systems to change the panel’s positioning throughout the day, but the additional expense may not be worth the limited efficiency gains.

Myth: Solar panels can’t operate well in snowy or cloudy conditions.

Fact: Snowy and cloudy weather can reduce the amount of energy produced by your solar panels, but they can still work efficiently in these conditions. In snowy climates, most solar panels are installed at an angle so that the snow will slide off the panel once it accumulates, and rain can help clear debris from you panels, actually helping them to be more efficient. In fact, Germany, a country that gets less than half as much sun as the sunniest city in the U.S., has one of the most successful solar initiatives in the world.

Myth: Solar will look unattractive on my roof.

Fact: Ultimately, the aesthetic appeal of solar panels on a residential roof is subjective. However, with the growing popularity of solar power, professionals can install solar panels in positions and locations to minimize the visual impact. Depending on your yard area, panels can even bemounted on the ground. Solar shingles can also help with curb appeal by better blending in with your existing roof.

Myth: Solar panels will require constant maintenance.

Fact: Solar arrays are built to be durable and require minimal maintenance. Many installers recommend an annual inspection to check the panels and overall system performance, and many offer warranties for the life of the system. Plus, if you lease rather than own your system, maintenance will be provided by the leasing company. Keep in mind that panels with tracking systems may require additional maintenance and care.

Myth: Solar panels will damage my roof.

Fact: Professional installers are skilled at installing solar panels on every imaginable roof pitch, angle, and condition. These professionals will not damage a homeowner’s roof, and in some cases solar panels may extend the life of the roof by protecting it from the elements. Solar panels are installed a few inches above the existing roof to increase air flow and weigh about the same as a second layer of shingles.

Myth: Only a few states offer financial incentives for installing solar panels.

Fact: Almost every state in the U.S. has some type of incentive for solar energy. Before assuming that your state doesn’t offer an incentive, research the solar energy incentives and policies in your state. In addition to any state incentive offered, the federal government is currently offering a 30% tax credit for solar array systems installed before the end of 2019.

Myth: Solar panel systems will store excess energy in batteries.

Fact: The majority of home solar power systems do not store energy in batteries. They’re connected to the power grid via net metering, and homeowners are credited with the energy that their solar panels generate and add to the electrical grid. Though it is possible to add a battery to your solar installation, doing so will increase the cost of materials, installation, and maintenance.

If you’re interested in learning more about solar power, don’t be fooled by these common misconceptions. Research the costs and benefits of solar power and find out how much a solar array system would cost to install in your home by using our handy solar cost calculator.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 13, 2016

brooke, you left out an important one:

Myth: Solar panels will one day generate a significant percentage of American electricity.
Fact: Solar generates 1% of American electricity after $30+ billion in investment, keeping Americans who need electricity on “cloudy days” and at “nighttime” hopelessly dependent on dirty fossil fuel, and exacerbating climate change.

Busted!

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 14, 2016

One more myth: that residential solar is cost effective for society.
The SEIA, a trade group which advocates for the US solar industry, has for years consistently reported that residential solar is double the cost of utility scale solar. Their most recent update reports $3.21/W for residential vs $1.24/W at utility scale. Utility scale plants can also be expected to have lower maintenance cost, therefore longer service lives. They can use tracking, to improve output in the morning an evening. And because utility solar is ground-mounted, it is safer for the workers.

With society struggling to find the money to shift from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, and major countries like Spain and Germany slowing down their clean energy investments due to the high cost, the US residential solar industry has continued to lobby for and in many cases receive sufficiently strong policy incentives that allow its product to successfully displace much more economical sustainable alternatives.

Advocates of residential solar will often claim their product provides other compensating benefits for the grid, such as reducing net peak load on the grid. But these claims are vastly overstated, since in most areas, electricity demand is only slightly lower at sunset than it was at the daily maximum. Thus, peaking power plants and grid expansions are seldom actually displaced by residential PV. Another claim is that distribution losses are reduced by rooftop PV; this is true for commercial & industrial installations (which are also much cheaper than residential), but unlike businesses, homes don’t use much power during the day, so the grid losses can actually be worse.

More and more utilities are deploying clean energy programs that allow residential users to buy clean energy from the utility. These typically cost more than normal grid power, as unlike with residential solar, the cost is not shifted onto other (typically poorer) users. But these programs are more scalable, since it is technically impossible for all homes to deploy rooftop solar under net-metering (using the grid as a zero-cost battery), but we’ve seen in other countries that utilities can shift to nearly 100% sustainable power (using a mix of renewables and clean dispatchable power) if customers are willing to support the cost.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Aug 14, 2016

There are several political sources for existing US solar policy and its overstated claims; the industry itself is only one of these. Also see yesterday’s comment from another prominent solar (and wind) advocate, Obama:

…we got to work, and over the past seven-and-a-half years, we’ve made ambitious investments in clean energy, and ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions. We’ve multiplied wind power threefold. We’ve multiplied solar power more than thirtyfold. In parts of America, these clean power sources are finally cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. And carbon pollution from our energy sector is at its lowest level in 25 years, even as we’re continuing to grow our economy.

The US President is correct about the level of US carbon emissions over the last 25 years, but as has been discussed on this forum, new non-carbon energy sources have very little to do with carbon based energy decline in the US. The reduction to date is mostly about switching from coal to gas and reduced energy demand growth (mostly from efficiency improvements and somewhat from reduced economic growth)

Source: EIA

During the period Obama references, the gains in wind and solar generation were roughly offset by the (avoidable) decline in nuclear and hydroelectric generation, a lamentable record that’s unlikely to make the Weekly Address.

michael pettengill's picture
michael pettengill on Aug 14, 2016

But what is the alternative? Hundreds of billions in subsidies on nuclear? Belief that some magic will replace fossil fuels in a century? Belief in fossil fuels being cheaper than ever in 500 years when produced at 5 times the current annual Rate so the entire global population can burn them like Americans?

We have been investing in burning natural capital for a couple of centuries, but how much energy is being produced by the gasoline you invested in 30 years ago compared to the energy produced by solar arrays invested in 30 years ago.

michael pettengill's picture
michael pettengill on Aug 14, 2016

So, basically, paying more workers more is bad for the economy.

I gather you believe all workers just burn the money they are paid because workers are not consumers?

Higher unemployment is the best way to have a great economy?

After all, you argue the poor unemployed must be kept unemployed by not requiring more expensive non-fossil fuel power which would pay millions more workers more money to build, reducing or eliminating unemployment and low wage jobs.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 15, 2016

…you argue the poor unemployed must be kept unemployed by not requiring more expensive non-fossil fuel power…

I assure you that every penny I receive is pumped back into the economy, either via direct spending, or re-investment into job-creating companies.

And certainly I believe in paying more for clean energy … I’m enrolled in my local utility clean energy program, in which users pay a few percent more for electricity, to insure that 100% of the electricity I use is “offset” via production of an equal amount of non-fossil energy”.

But should I pay double to get clean energy via the method that requires the most labor? I suggest you study the Broken Window Parable for guidance on this issue.

michael pettengill's picture
michael pettengill on Aug 15, 2016

How would you avoid the reduced hydro caused by rain and snow drought not providing the stream flows needed to maintain hydro power generation?

How much more should be paid for electric power to pay to rebuild old low head dams that have at times generated electric power? In many cases, rebuilding the dams was too costly and thus it was cheaper to the owners to remove them, with benefits to fisheries.

And nuclear power has not been able to compete since Reaganomics became the driving policy. Nuclear power is extremely high labor costs in capital and operations. That leaves zero room for profits. Once Wall Street gets involved in financing nuclear, it’s rent seeking drives nuclear power prices out of sight.

Nuclear is only viable with government central planning controlling the electric power sector like in the US before Reaganomics and in France where government central planners still control 80% of power generation, and hides the real costs by not using costs to set rates. Of course, nuclear power in France is done at zero or even negative cost finance.

I would note that investment in nuclear power is subsidized as much as wind and solar and batteries. Note, I said investment. In the same batch of DOE grants of subsidies that included Solyndra, the subsidies to the nuclear industries were just as large. Since then, the subsidies to build new nuclear power plants are huge, but the power industry has only made the capital commitment in two reactors so far.

Wind and solar production credits are not granted to old wind and solar, only to new investments. However, old investments in nuclear power plants are subsidized by forced payments by utility customers. I like other PSNH utility customers are paying for the cost of building Seabrook Station nuclear power plant, even though the utility has not owned it for a quarter century, after a forced sale in bankruptcy liquidation. The buyer claimed a decade later that nuclear power was extremely profitable, and set the value of Seabrook at twice the price they paid, which was much less than it cost to build, thus the payment customers pay to subsidize Seabrook’s gift to the operating making a nice profit in the 90s.

Going back decades, the electric energy strategy has had as a top priority “shift the risk of long-lived, capital-intensive investment decisions from utility ratepayers to the shareholders of unregulated players”.

Wind, solar, natural gas electric power generation investments generally repay capital costs in a decade with power contracts of only a decade. Nuclear requires 40 years with 40 year power contract commitments. Nothing stay static that long without government central planning.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Aug 15, 2016

The US nuclear industry was killed off by regulation after TMI. Naturally, much of industrial learning effects unraveled at that point and nuclear became “expensive” for that reason too.

South Korea has managed to keep the nuclear industry alive with a less adversarial bureaucracy, and has costs around $2/W. This is similar to solar, but sporting a 90% CF instead of 10-30%, and sporting double the life and baseload power instead of intermittent. The nuclear advantage in that case is at least a factor of six. As you might note, repaid capital costs are three times faster with nuclear.

But we choose our nuclear costs by regulation. Certainly, even with reasonable regulation, the costs for the first few plants are bound to be higher, before industrial learning sets in and supply chains gets established. It’s a matter of clarifying priorities. Do we want to fix climate change or do we want to have alibies for not doing so?

Fortunately, this is slipping out of US hands. Other actors are gaining traction and the export market for nuclear power plants is heating up, as well as, of course, the internal Chinese market. Eventually, the US will likely have to buy Chinese designs to keep up.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Aug 15, 2016

Myth: Solar panels do not work well in cold climates.
Fact: They do work, but in cold climates, the solar power produced has little value since it is matching periods of low demand.

Myth: Solar power will get more efficient, so I should wait to buy or install.
Fact: The reason to wait is rather that solar power costs trend downward, regardless of panel efficiency. But you should probably not install at all, since when your neighbors do, they will lower the wholesale cost of power during sunny times for you too.

Myth: I won’t live in my home long enough to make my investment in solar back.
Fact: Probably true. Incentives and even taxes will be adjusted rather quickly to make solar uneconomic. This has happened in most, if not all, pioneer countries. Also, the reported price premium when you sell your house will probably vanish once solar becomes more common and less profitable.

Myth: Solar panels require a tracking system to follow the angle of the sun.
Fact: No, but if you don’t have that, the solar will be so concentrated in time you won’t be able to cover very much of your demand and you’ll have to sell excess at some (bad) price.

Myth: Solar panels can’t operate well in snowy or cloudy conditions.
Fact: True. Germany has one of the costliest and most irrational solar initiatives in the world. Also, any tracking devices will be challenged and high-maintenance where there is ice and snow.

Myth: Solar panels will require constant maintenance.
Fact: It will probably require very irregular but also very costly maintenance, for instance when your inverters break down.

Myth: Solar panels will damage my roof.
Fact: Perhaps, perhaps not. It will definitely make your home more complex and if you need to replace your roof, the solar panels will be in the way.

Myth: Only a few states offer financial incentives for installing solar panels.
Fact: Many states do and that’s your chance. You’ll need to shift your costs to others somehow to break even.

Myth: Solar panel systems will store excess energy in batteries.
Fact: No, but you could add batteries yourself. That would set you back even more and make the environmental impact that much worse. So you’re probably stuck with panels that are producing power when you’re at work.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Aug 15, 2016

So, basically, paying more workers more is bad for the economy.

You could pay more workers to make your hamburgers.  A one-man-hour hamburger would mean LOTS of employment for every hamburger served.  But at $8.25/hour wages plus overhead, the wage cost of each hamburger would be about $15 and you’d have to charge at least $20 for it.  Hamburgers would only be affordable for the well-off.

I gather you believe all workers just burn the money they are paid because workers are not consumers?

No worker receiving $8.25/hr can afford $20 hamburgers.

A $8.25/hr worker who can turn out 60 hamburgers an hour would have a wage cost of about $0.25/unit.  He and his compatriots could afford his hamburgers.  You could even double his wages by raising the price by 25¢.

Higher unemployment is the best way to have a great economy?

Jacking up costs for the rest of the economy destroys it.

After all, you argue the poor unemployed must be kept unemployed by not requiring more expensive non-fossil fuel power which would pay millions more workers more money to build

You are parroting the de-industrialization line which insists that energy must be costly regardless of how clean it is, because industry and population are bad and need to be kept out by high costs.

I note that the Sierra Club, FoE and NRDC have managed to make electricity very expensive in California, but the population there has still exploded to 40 million.  It is time to tell these idiots to shove their policies because they don’t work on ANY of their supposed metrics of good.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Aug 15, 2016

” and has costs around $2/W. This is similar to solar,”

Comparing nameplate installed costs between nuclear and solar is not useful. Useful comparisons require the capacity factor, pushing the nameplate utility solar peak Watt price from $1.21 to $6 per average Watt output over time and perhaps $8 in the winter. This price does not include whatever storage mechanism might be used to accommodate the over production of solar during its operational hours.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Aug 15, 2016

Most of what you label as “Myth” is either not claimed by anyone or you acknowledge as more true than not with your own discussion. I think you mean Disadvantage vs Advantage, not Myth.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Aug 15, 2016

How would you avoid the reduced hydro caused by rain and snow drought not providing the stream flows needed to maintain hydro power generation?

Are you so crazy that you think it can be avoided?  You can only avoid the consequences, by not relying on stream flows for energy.  Note that stream flows rely on rainfall, which correlate positively with wind (both of which come with storm fronts).

How much more should be paid for electric power to pay to rebuild old low head dams that have at times generated electric power?

The same amount as is paid for wind power, with a premium if it is not run-of-the-river but can be reserved for peaking.

nuclear power has not been able to compete since Reaganomics became the driving policy.

Nuclear power has been whipsawed by capricious regulatory changes since the 1970’s, long before Reagan.  When regulation is light and predictable, nuclear is cheap.

Nuclear is only viable with government central planning controlling the electric power sector

In the 1960’s, nuclear was predicted to eliminate coal because it was cheaper both to build and to operate.  The technology did not get more expensive; government did.

I would note that investment in nuclear power is subsidized as much as wind and solar and batteries.

Anyone who believes this is disinformed or deluded.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Aug 15, 2016

“How would you avoid the reduced hydro caused by rain and snow drought not providing the stream flows needed to maintain hydro power generation?”

There are other ways to maintain or increase hydroelectric generation besides rain dances: i) stop decommission existing operational hydroelectric, such as the 1.3 GW Glen Canyon, and ii) build new run-of-the-river hydroelectric capacity in the dozens of GW as identified by DOE/ORNL.

I prefer nuclear power to most hydroelectric projects for environmental reasons, but until more nuclear is built in the US, clean hydro power is preferable to the default of more coal and gas. Beyond a 1/4 share of load for intermittent sources, or so, there is no other viable alternative for clean, dispatchable power with current technology.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Aug 16, 2016

The myth parts was copied, unaltered, from the original text above. So I just followed the format and added some more interesting facts.

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