1. Plugged into the grid: Mini systems for your home
More and more people meet their energy needs by purchasing mini solar panel systems, known as plug-in solar devices. The small photovoltaic systems come with one or two modules and a power capacity of up to 600 watts each. That’s enough to meet up to 30% of the energy needs of one household, providing electricity for the fridge, washing machine, dishwasher or computer.
What is unique about small panel systems is that they can be plugged into any normal household outlet, which is how they feed the solar power into the grid. Installation is easy and the devices have been declared safe. Another benefit is that you don’t need an electrician to install them on your balcony, your roof or in your garden.
“There are already several hundreds of thousands of these types of systems in use in Germany and its neighboring countries. The devices are basically very safe, so far they’re not known to have caused any damage,” says Thomas Seltmann, photovoltaic expert at the Consumer Association for the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
And there is a lot of interest. “We are at the beginning of a boom of plug-in solar devices,” says Seltmann.
An island solar system far away from the grid in Rwanda. This home system can power several lights, TV and radio
2. Island solar systems
In 2010, around 2 billion people didn’t have access to electricity because many regions of the world didn’t have an electric grid. Today, that number has dropped by 1.3 billion. The reason: It’s easy to generate electricity anywhere these days thanks to what are known as island solar systems. Equipped with a solar module and a battery, it’s an easy and very affordable solution.
These small solar home systems have a tiny 4-watt module with a battery and an efficient LED lamp generating enough power do homework at night.
A slightly bigger island solar system that comes with a 50- watt module could also power an additional TV and several lights. And one that comes with a 250-watt module could even power a fridge.
Powering something bigger, like an electric car, would require a 2,000-watt system, or roughly 10 square meter modules. With that power a car could drive up to 16,000 kilometers (9,941 miles).
3. Solar power to go
Solar motion detectors, solar lamps and solar plant watering systems are becoming increasingly popular in people’s homes, while campers have discovered mobile mini solar panel systems.
These systems are made out of a solar module that can be easily folded up as well as an inverter with a battery. These mobile power systems come in all different shapes and sizes that are made for different needs, from tiny plants the size of a wallet that let you charge your cell phone, to very powerful systems with a capacity of 160 watts that let you charge your bike batteries, as well as power your laptop and fridge inside of a camper van. Many people buy them from specialized online retailers.
After your trip, you can still use them at home. The solar module can be easily placed on a window sill, where it could charge a phone or even serve as a backup power source for the fridge if the power goes out.
Consumer advocates and politicians promote plug-in devices, a win-win for the tenants and the climate
4. How expensive are mini solar power modules?
The price of mini solar panel systems depends on the performance of the module and battery. Other cost-decisive factors are quality, optics and functionality.
Prices for good quality, small solar home systems with a small battery and an economical lamp start at around €30 ($35), while island solar systems that can power a TV and fridge cost several hundred euros. Mobile solar power plants for a camping trip that come with special panels that can be folded and fit into your backpack cost a bit more, but have the same performance.
Plug-in solar devices generally don’t have a battery and can be directly integrated into the grid. They cost between €350-€900 in Europe. According to the Consumer Association, plug-in devices in Germany pay for themselves after roughly six to nine years.
In low-sunlight countries like Germany, electricity produced by solar power costs between 7 and 10 cents per kilo watt hour (kWh), in areas that have more sunlight, such as southern Europe, Africa, Latin America, California and many parts of Asia, it’s less than 5 cents. Electricity from the grid is two to five times more expensive.
5. Do mini solar power plants help protect the climate?
Mini solar panel power systems lower electricity costs and help protect the climate. In fact, according to the German Association for Solar Energy, an additional 1,000 – 2,000 megawatts of electricity could be generated by mini solar power modules in Germany alone. That’s how much electricity a coal power plant produces, which is much more harmful for the environment.
Experts say they also have another advantage for the climate.
“Many people so far don’t really have any inkling of how much electricity they use and don’t have any experience with solar energy and battery storage,” says Krisztina Andre, who works at Bündnis Bürgerenergie, a German association that promotes renewable energy.
According to Andre, people who have their own solar power modules learn more about their own energy use, how to save energy costs and do something good for the environment at the same time.
“It’s also fun to get to know the technology and produce your own electricity,” says David Breuer from Yuma, an online shop that sells plug-in solar devices.
Andre is convinced that another boost for home solar modules could come from the rise of e-cars, as their batteries can be used as storage.
“Electric cars have large batteries and their electricity could easily be used somewhere else intelligently: for meeting your own energy needs at home as well as the neighborhood through the public grid.”