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The leaves are off the trees now and it is easy to see that the solar industry is
growing. In fact it is 60 times larger than it was in 2015, yet it is still tiny and
produces less than 1 percent of the electrical energy we use in the state. Nationally
about 2.3 percent of the power is produced by solar. But it is growing in Arkansas
and will only increase.
With all the recent activity and advertising hype, I thought I would talk to some
early adopters to see what they think. Mainly, is solar living up to expectations.
This is by no means an accurate survey, but just conversations I’ve had with about
10 people who have added solar panels during the last eight years.
Almost all have been pleased with the performance of their systems and their decision
to invest in the relatively new and unfamiliar technology. These systems are not cheap,
costing on the order of that of a midsize new car. If the system is put on the old
seven-year installment plan, monthly payments on the order of $400 per month tempered
the enthusiasm of one owner I spoke with.
Because the motivation for installing the system for most early adopters was to do
the right thing to support the environment, not financial, the satisfaction quotient
amongst owners was quite high. As one owner said, he was surprised by the peace of
mind he enjoyed by doing what he knew was the right thing to help protect the planet.
Arkansas electrical utilities operate under “net metering” laws which allow residential customers to feed electricity they generate into the
grid and retrieve it as it is needed during the night or on cloudy days. The goal
is to size new systems to generate exactly what you need. Any overproduction of energy
is essentially a donation to the electric company, a relatively unpopular idea amongst
these mini power plant owners.
A couple of the earliest owners I spoke to installed smaller systems so they didn’t
eliminate all electric bills, but those who had properly sized systems eliminated
most or all of their bill. One owner paid a couple of low midwinter bills but was
pleased to do so because he was driving an electric car and charging his car off of
Well, there is always a small fee of less than $15 a month paid to the electric company
for the use of the power grid, but no net charge for electricity if the system is
The new wave of people installing panels are responding to the advertisements for
saving money. But, of course, before you can save any money you have to pay for the
system. Financing the system through an installer usually drags payments out for seven
or eight years, so the actual savings are a bit delayed. Another owner with a totally
electric home and an oversized collection system figured breakeven for him to be 16
years. The systems are thought to have a useful life of 25-30 years.
One person I spoke to actually installed the bank of panels on the roof himself, only
hiring an electrician for the technical hookup to the grid. He calculates his breakeven
point at less than eight years. He had to get approval for the system from his electric
company, a process that took him almost six months.
One owner had an inverter that changed the DC current from the panels into AC for
the grid go out, but it was still under warranty so that was no problem. The panels
themselves are quite tough and reliable. The silicon wafers that actually capture
the energy are considered extremely long-lived. The first experimental wafers that
were made more than 75 years ago are still generating power. However, these silicon
wafers are imbedded in a plastic matrix, so plastics do dull with age. Most systems
loose about 15 percent efficiency in the first decade of use.
Normal sized hail doesn’t bother the panels but one business I spoke to lost “a few
panels” out of their 400-panel system when ice chunks hit their store in 2020.
So the early adopters are pleased with residential solar systems. We will be seeing
more of them in coming years as the general public becomes more familiar with them.
New technologies, such as Tesla’s solar shingle system, will allow easier, more seamless
installation in existing neighborhoods.
In the near future, builders will probably start incorporating solar systems into
their building plans, allowing the cost of the system to be rolled into the mortgage
payment. The transition towards a more sustainable future, like any journey, begins
with baby steps.
Check out our solar energy resources to see if it's right for your home or business.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.