Solving solar-power issues

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Certainly, no one would accept only having electricity during the day, and then only on clear days, if they have a choice. We need energy storage -- batteries. Unfortunately, batteries add a lot of cost and maintenance to the PV system. Currently, however, it's a necessity if you want to be completely independent. One way around the problem is to connect your house to the utility grid, buying power when you need it and selling to them when you produce more than you need. This way, the utility acts as a practically infinite storage system. The utility has to agree, of course, and in most cases will buy power from you at a much lower price than their own selling price. You will also need special equipment to make sure that the power you sell to your utility is synchronous with theirs -- that it shares the same sinusoidal waveform and frequency. Safety is an issue as well. The utility has to make sure that if there's a power outage in your neighborhood, your PV system won't try to feed electricity into lines that a lineman may think is dead. This is called islanding.

If you decide to use batteries, keep in mind that they will have to be maintained, and then replaced after a certain number of years. The PV modules should last 20 years or more, but batteries just don't have that kind of useful life. Batteries in PV systems can also be very dangerous because of the energy they store and the acidic electrolytes they contain, so you'll need a well-ventilated, non-metallic enclosure for them.

Although several different kinds of batteries are commonly used, the one characteristic they should all have in common is that they are deep-cycle batteries. Unlike your car battery, which is a shallow-cycle battery, deep-cycle batteries can discharge more of their stored energy while still maintaining long life. Car batteries discharge a large current for a very short time -- to start your car -- and are then immediately recharged as you drive. PV batteries generally have to discharge a smaller current for a longer period (such as all night), while being charged during the day.

The most commonly used deep-cycle batteries are lead-acid batteries (both sealed and vented) and nickel-cadmium batteries. Nickel-cadmium batteries are more expensive, but last longer and can be discharged more completely without harm. Even deep-cycle lead-acid batteries can't be discharged 100 percent without seriously shortening battery life, and generally, PV systems are designed to discharge lead-acid batteries no more than 40 percent or 50 percent.

Also, the use of batteries requires the installation of another component called a charge controller. Batteries last a lot longer if care is taken so that they aren't overcharged or drained too much. That's what a charge controller does. Once the batteries are fully charged, the charge controller doesn't let current from the PV modules continue to flow into them. Similarly, once the batteries have been drained to a certain predetermined level, controlled by measuring battery voltage, many charge controllers will not allow more current to be drained from the batteries until they have been recharged. The use of a charge controller is essential for long battery life.

The other problem besides energy storage is that the electricity generated by your PV modules, and extracted from your batteries if you choose to use them, is not in the form that's used by the electrical appliances in your house. The electricity generated by a solar system is direct current, while the electricity supplied by your utility (and the kind that every appliance in your house uses) is alternating current. You will need an inverter, a device that converts DC to AC. Most large inverters will also allow you to automatically control how your system works. Some PV modules, called AC modules, actually have an inverter already built into each module, eliminating the need for a large, central inverter, and simplifying wiring issues.

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