On the Air: Is Solar Power Practical Yet for Homeowners?

Living in a house that faces south and has tons of windows enables my house to get warmed by the sun on a typical sunny day. Does that mean I am harnessing solar power? If I wanted to install solar panels, would it save me energy and money? On Worldview, host Jerome McDonnell and I explored these very questions with Dick Co, managing director of the Solar Fuels Institute and environmental chemistry professor and managing director at Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research (ANSER) Center.

Dick walked us through the basics of solar power for homeowners as well was some truly cool technology being developed to harness solar to make fuel (yes, liquid fuel) for practical use in the near future. But first, he helped us explore the virtues of solar.

Of course, the resource of sunlight is free in the sense that it does not have to be mined, and it’s abundant. Dick said we receive a whopping 120,000 terawatts per year of energy from the sun each year, but the world’s population uses only 16 terawatts annually. That is a pretty good ratio. Also, once installed there is no harmful waste or byproduct from producing solar power. In addition, there are a couple of studies that show that going solar may increase the value of your home.

Dick confirmed that my house is benefiting from passive solar home design, which can be done  a lot more effectively if the home is intentionally designed to absorb sunlight during the day and release the heat at night. Of course, you can install solar panels on your roof; these are known as solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and can be installed on a tracking device that follows the sun. Finally, there is active solar heating, in which you use a solar collector to heat water or air for later use.

We also explored the costs to homeowners and the various state subsidies that make converting to solar an affordable. Some people produce so much solar power that they actually get a rebate from their local utility for returning energy to the power grid!

To learn more about this topic, I encourage you to read the myth.

—As part of our partnership with Worldview, this content also appears on Chicago Public Media.