4 June 2020

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Alternative Energy Glossary

Frequently Asked Questions Minimize


Q. Can I reduce my power bills with solar panels?

A. Yes, but only by a small percentage. You will be able to save more money by using your power more efficiently and reducing waste than by merely making your own power from a different source. If it were significantly less expensive to use solar or wind, Idaho Power and other major utilities would already be doing it. The decision to invest in a solar electric system is generally driven by concerns beyond economics such as power independence, environmentalism and power reliability. If these issues are important in your life, you will probably be a happier customer than someone merely trying to reduce power bills.

Q. What is the difference between solar electric and solar thermal?

A. There are two types of solar panels - electric and thermal. Electric panels are often referred to as PVs, short for photovoltaic, and produce direct current (DC) electricity. These are the type of panels used for solar electric systems. Thermal panels produce heat, either hot air or hot liquids for space or water heating. Thermal systems are typically the simplest and most cost-effective of renewable energy systems.

Q. How many panels will I need?

A. That depends on how much power you need to produce. Since PV panels cost several dollars per watt, the more efficiently you use your power, the less expensive your system will be. In Boise, a One Kilowatt (1000 watts) solar array,tilted to 45 degrees, will produce about 1700 kilowatt hours per year. Many of the grid-tied, residential systems we have installed in the Boise area range between 2.5 and 3.8 Kilowatts and include between 10-20 PV panels ranging in size from 90-190 watts each.

Q. What types of systems are there? What does grid-tied mean?

A. Systems that use batteries for electricity storage because they are away from power lines are called stand-alone systems. They are not connected to a public utility. Grid-tied systems are connected to existing utility lines. Grid-tied systems may or may not have batteries. They can use either utility power or power from a renewable source. A hybrid system uses power from more than one type of source such as solar, wind, hydro or fueled generators.

Q. How do you get power when the sun doesn't shine or the wind won't blow?

A. If you are connected to a public utility your system will automatically use their power. If you aren't, you will need batteries to store power for these types of situations. Deep cycle, lead acid batteries are the most commonly used type of batteries for renewable energy systems. During extended overcast or low wind periods you may have to use a stand-by generator to charge your batteries.

Q. Do I need an inverter? What gets inverted?

A. An inverter changes DC electricity, which PVs and wind generators produce and batteries store, to alternating current (AC) electricity that most household appliances use. Some cabin or RV systems use DC appliances and go without an inverter. If you are going to power a whole house we recommend you use an inverter. If your system is grid-tied or you want to use AC appliances, you must have an inverter.

Q. What maintenance is required for alternative energy systems?

A. PV panels don't require much other than cleaning off dirt and adjusting the tilt for the seasons. Wind generators need to be checked for blade damage, general wear and tight connections. Since wind generators move around up in the air, all nuts and bolts, wire connections and tower parts should be checked at least once a year. Batteries should be checked for corrosion and water level at least every two months. The better you treat your batteries, the better they will perform and the longer they will last.

Q. If I just need power occasionally, isn't it easier to just run a generator?

A. It may be. It will also be noisier, dirtier and possibly require more work on an ongoing basis. Some systems we've designed cut generator use in half by merely adding an inverter system with batteries.

Q. How much does a system cost?

A. We design the size of every system to fit the need. One reason for this is cost. It will cost you more to make your own power than to merely buy it from your local utility, in most circumstances. If you are just powering a weekend-use cabin or RV, the cost will be anywhere from $600-$5,000. A direct, grid-tied, residential system will cost anywhere from $10,000 and up. A small battery-based system will be $10,000 or more. These prices may seem high, but you will own the equipment and be your own power company. As far as we can tell, the cost of wind and sunshine has not varied for a few thousand years.

Q. If I want to do something but can't afford a system yet, what should I do?

A. The best things you can do are to reduce your energy consumption and educate yourself. By improving your energy efficiency through better appliances and more conscientious habits you may reduce the required system size to a more affordable level. The more educated you are about power and power systems, the more prepared you will be once you get one. Even if you don't use renewable energy, greater efficiency will most likely make your house more comfortable, safer, longer lasting and less expensive to run. Aurora Power & Design provides an energy audit service for both residential and commercial properties which results in a list of recommendations for improving energy efficiency.

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