Solar Power: A Rant

I still hear folks that are looking at land say, “There is no power available and solar is so expensive and unreliable.” I just have to say Horse Pucky!

We have been living off-grid using photovoltaics (PV) for close to 40 years now. When we originally started our solar system, PV was selling new for $5 a watt (price per watt is a way to compare apples to apples), which was right after I graduated from Colorado Mountain Collages Solar Retrofit Program in 1987.  That was also the year the Reagan administration dropped the tax credits for solar systems.  So after graduation as I was out looking for work, all the solar companies were going out of business (not that I endorse the government subsidizing any industry.  I am a firm believer that if a business can not stand on its own, then it should sit down and re-think what it is doing).

All the over-priced solar hot water systems also crashed quickly.  They were costing around $20-30,000 to replace a hot water heater that would cost less then a $1000 a year, which made no sense and they where inherently unreliable and in need of expensive repairs. Solar electric at those prices made no sense either to try and supplement your electric bill while on the grid.  But with the price of bringing in poles (such as $10,000 a pole) solar electric quickly become the more affordable choice for those living off the grid/rurally. But still, building a system at $5 a watt was expensive and required a conservative use of electricity for things that created larger loads, such as propance refrigeration being used instead of an electric fridge. We had many a Servel gas fridge over the years, usually they worked well, with no moving parts to wear out. But if they sprung a leak your whole house would be filled quickly with ammonia.

Not being able to find a real J.O.B in solar, and after building off-grid in Colorado, I started offering my knowledge to the public and often my neighbors. Most of them were excited at my proposals, and would usually reply, “Can you put me something together for around $500?” So I searched and found a source of some used panels for $3.50 a watt.  They came as a set of three, so that was 110 watts for $385.  Then I would get two golf cart batteries that were about $65 back then, a controller for about $30, then I would go to the local junkyard and pull wire out of their wire heap and pay for it by the pound to wire it all together. That whole system was right at $500 with zero profit. (actually I think I made something on the panels and controller).  I still have two sets of these 50 year old panels hooked up to the RV we are staying in for now and they still work.

So anyway, early 1990s while we are building our place in Colorado, $3.50 a watt was the screaming deal.  30 years later we decide on a big change in our lives, not to on-the-grid (heck no!), but now off grid in Cochise County, Arizona.  But our first need was to put a pump down the well on our property and we needed some solar to power it.  When we ordered some brand new panels in 2018 they were only $1.25 a watt,which I thought was a lot better deal than it used to be. So we get moved down and started our dream hyper-adobe home and I saw a Craigslist ad for some used solar panels that worked out to be only $0.30 a watt and then just last year (2022) my buddy buys some brand new Canadian solar panels for $0.35 a watt, delivered! I have heard of some folks finding used panels for $0.15 a watt. Wow, that’s cheap!

So actual solar panels are dirt cheap and what I am seeing now is the state of the art lithium batteries are really on a down curve on price, and used Tesla sort of car batteries are really cheap with a lot of life left in them. Hardware, such as inverters, controllers, switches and controls are not only becoming more affordable and reliable, but also plug-and-play, which makes the whole installation more DIY, or at least labor saving if you pay for their installation.

So what I am saying is the days of scrimping and saving the watts that you use are mostly over, as I am sitting here in the comfort of a solar-powered mini-split conditioned living space. Whew, think I will go and grab me a beer from the full on electric fridge, and then maybe a hot shower from an electric hot water heater. Let me know if I can help you with you move to the Grid Free World, it is great to be your own power producer.

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