What has more energy than a 2-year-old hopped up on jellybeans? The sun! It’s one giant ball of free and abundant energy. In fact, the amount of solar energy that hits the earth is about 10,000 times more than we currently consume for our everyday needs.

So why wouldn’t we use solar energy? Well, up until about a decade ago, solar energy wasn’t very practical or cost-effective. But thanks to today’s advances in technology, and incentives from both Uncle Sam and local governments, going solar is easier than ever.

Solar Panels: The Whole House Solution

Once only in the realm of greenhouses and your very eccentric neighbors, solar panels are becoming more attractive in terms of both aesthetics and cost. A whole-house system requires little or no maintenance and can supply all or just a portion of your electricity, depending on your location and the size of the system.

How Solar Panels Work

Typically mounted on the roof and angled to get the most sun, solar panels harness the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity through the use of photovoltaic (PV) cells—a fancy scientific name for the little silicone cells on each solar panel. These cells catch the sun’s rays and turn them into energy. Then an electronic device called an inverter changes direct currents (DC) into alternating currents (AC), which is the kind of electricity we use in our homes.

Costs and Incentives

The upfront cost of installing a whole-house solar panel system is steep (we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars), but in reality, it’s much less. After you factor in government incentives and rebates, your net cost of purchasing and installing the whole system will end up being just a fraction of the initial cost. Incentives vary by location, so you’ll want to do the math before you commit. To find information on federal and tax credits and savings, go to energy.gov/savings.

Long-Term Savings

In addition to government incentives for the setup costs, you’ll also want to factor in what you’ll save on your monthly electricity bills. You may even be able to negotiate lower rates with your electricity provider since you’re consuming less and supplying an alternate, more efficient power source. And, depending on where you live, you may be able to sell any surplus energy you generate back to the electricity grid through government policies called feed-in tariffs (FITs).

Savings Without the Initial Investment

Not sure you want to invest in a whole-house system on your own? Consider a solar power purchase agreement (PPA). With a PPA, you agree to let a third-party developer install, operate and maintain a solar panel system on your property. In return, you receive electricity at a lower cost than you would from your local utility.

Solar Power on a Smaller Scale

Are you so close to your neighbor that you can practically count his resting pulse? Then you may not be an ideal candidate for a solar panel system. Still, you can find ways to use solar power every day. Here are a few other ideas to incorporate solar energy into your life:

  • Water Heaters: A step down from whole-house systems, solar water heaters require less real estate for mounted solar panels, but can still save on electricity costs by heating water in any climate.
  • Outdoor lights: Use solar-powered lights in your yard, or around your driveway or walkway, and you’ll never have to worry about leaving the lights on at night. Widely available in a variety of styles, these lights are affordable, wireless and easy to use and install.
  • Chargers: Instead of sucking up electricity while charging your laptop, cell phone or tablet, switch to a solar-powered charger or case. No outlet? No problem. Just place the charger in a sunny window and you’ll have a full charge in about the same amount of time it would take using an outlet.
  • Toys: Kids can learn about solar power and save energy with solar-powered toys and building kits. And the best part? No batteries to buy or replace.
  • Small Solar Panels: Portable solar panels can charge your gear while camping. Or you can purchase small, plug-in panels that can be mounted on your deck, or apartment or townhouse roof—providing your landlord or homeowner’s association doesn’t mind, of course.
  • Cars: While a completely solar-powered car may not be a practical or affordable purchase just yet, some car manufacturers offer solar-powered features. The Toyota Prius, for example, offers a solar-powered ventilation system.

Factoring in the Future

As the demand for clean, renewable energy increases, the advantages of solar power will also increase. In the future, we’ll most likely see more affordable and easier ways to use solar power, along with more government programs, incentives and rebates. But the time to invest in solar energy is now. Even if the financial returns continue to improve, the real positive returns are for cleaner, more sustainable future.

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