“On-Site” Solar Electricity and Home Design

This week I met with a solar electricity specialist and I just wanted to put in a good word his business. I am learning more about sustainable energy technologies and energy-efficiency so that I can better integrate these technologies in to my home designs. A home design that incorporates passive solar strategies, radiant heating, solar arrays, solar hot water, and other energy technologies will result is a more energy-efficient, more affordable, and more aesthetically pleasing/interesting home. I spent some time with Al Borrego, the owner of Del Sol Technologies . Al is an energy specialist that contracts and installs solar panels in the Southwest Montana region.  I talked with Al for over and hour and he was invaluable at answering a whole slew of questions I had. Some of my questions were:

1.  What is the optimum angle of a fixed solar panel array in Montana?
Al: (paraphrased) This depends on if you are hooked to the grid with a reverse metering system or if you are installing to an off-the-grid battery storage type system. If you are installing an off-grid system, you will be needing to harvest the most energy during the short days of Winter where lighting is needed for longer periods at night. The sun angle is lower in the horizon, so the panels need to aim at roughly a 45 degree angle to get the best energy gain. This energy is stored in the battery array for fairly immediate usage.

If you are installing a solar array that will be hooked to the electric grid, it is better to look at maximizing your gains on the long days of summer. What energy you harvest during the Summer will run back through the meter and the local power company gives you credit which can be spent throughout the year (“net metering“). In other words, rather than storing your energy in batteries, you are saving it as future electricity credit that can be used during lower energy-collecting days in the Winter. This array will want to be tilted to favor sun angles that are more overhead, as the sun angle is steeper during the Summer. A 30 degree angle will achieve this maximization.

These types of decisions about sun angle and its projected energy are similar to passive solar design.  It is all about knowing when you want to achieve gains and how to set up sun capturing to favor the gains.

2.  Why are solar panels not integrated into the architecture of a home’s design from the beginning?

Al: (paraphrased) Unfortunately, solar electricity is often considered an item that is at the bottom of a home’s requirements. If there is still money left after the building of the home, then solar panels will be added.

We both agreed that this is unfortunate decision making and brings up many questions.  For one, shouldn’t energy creation on site be considered an asset valuable enough to not consider as an option?  If the home could harvest energy and turn it into power needed to run appliances, lights, etc, why not consider that as important, if not more important, that having an extra bathroom (which often costs about as much as the whole solar array)?

If the solar systems are designed into the home from the start, their installation would be smoother, more seamless, and would be more aesthetically-integrated into the home design. We both agreed that if a collaboration between designer and energy specialist were initiated from the onset of the home design, the overall cost of the installation would most likely drop. Installing solar panels after a home has already been designed and built always requires modifications in mounting. The arrangement of where the solar array is positioned might be difficult to access for installation and repair or to free of snow.  All of these issues could have been considered if solar panels were designed into the initial home design.

Al and I agreed that solar collection systems should be given as much consideration as other aspects of home design. Home energy technology and design should come first or the home doesn’t function correctly. Unfortunately, we are living in a system that has run off of fossil fuels for so long and this is a habit that is hard to break. The future of habitation, however, is with a more self-sufficient home that can create all of its own energy. Like Al said, with energy-efficient appliances, modern solar arrays, and an integrated home energy design, there is no reason why every home can’t completely cover its energy needs. Its just a matter of time before it is common place to see homes being built with such an integrated approach.

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