If photovoltaics are such a wonderful source of free energy, then why doesn't the whole world run on solar power? Some people have a flawed concept of solar energy. While it's true that sunlight is free, the electricity generated by PV systems is not. As you can see from our discussion of a household PV system, quite a bit of hardware is needed. Currently, an installed PV system will cost somewhere around $9 per peak Watt. To give you an idea of how much a house system would cost, let's consider the Solar House -- a model residential home in North Carolina, with a PV system set up by the North Carlina Solar Center to demonstrate the technology. It's a fairly small home, and it is estimated that its 3.6-kW PV system covers about half of the total electricity needs (this system doesn't use batteries -- it's connected to the grid). Even so, at $9 per Watt, this installed system would cost you around $32,000.
That's why photovoltaics(PV) is usually used in remote areas, far from a conventional source of electricity. Right now, it simply can't compete with the utilities. Costs are coming down as research is being done, however. Researchers are confident that PV will one day be cost effective in urban areas as well as remote ones. Part of the problem is that manufacturing needs to be done on a large scale to reduce costs as much as possible. That kind of demand for PV, however, won't exist until prices fall to competitive levels. It's a Catch-22 situation. Even so, demand and module efficiencies are constantly rising, prices are falling, and the world is becoming increasingly aware of environmental concerns associated with conventional power sources, making photovoltaics a technology with a bright future.
Photovoltaics systems are an important power source for space missions. Solar cells have not only enabled to explore space, the solar system, and the Earth in great detail, they also have enabled the emergence of the telecommunications industry.
Throw in the mounting hardware, wiring, junction boxes, grounding equipment, overcurrent protection, DC and AC disconnects and other accessories and you have yourself a system. Electrical codes must be followed (there's a section in the National Electrical Code just for PV), and it's highly recommended that the installation be done by a licensed electrician who has experience with PV systems. Once installed, a PV system requires very little maintenance (especially if no batteries are used), and will provide electricity cleanly and quietly for 20 years or more.
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