Types of solar grid systems
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Interest in renewable energy continues to rise as more solar panel arrays are mounted on roofs and the ground nationwide. Not all of these solar panel systems operate in the same ways, however. Some feed our energy grid, and some don’t.
If you’re thinking about going solar, you’ll need to know what system best fits your needs. Keep reading to learn how the three primary types of solar grid systems work and learn the benefits and drawbacks associated with each.
- Grid-tied systems are the most cost-effective option and the easiest to install.
- Off-grid systems use batteries to operate independently from the electrical grid, making them best for people in rural areas or places far from power lines.
- Hybrid systems are connected to the grid while also having backup batteries. However, that flexibility comes at a cost.
- The right system for you depends on your budget, location and how much space you have.
The three main types of solar power systems explained
There’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all solution for going solar, but there are three main options you may encounter when researching what’s best for you: grid-tied, off-grid and hybrid.
» LEARN: Types of solar panels
Grid-tied solar power systems
Grid-tied systems are the simplest and most popular to install. Solar panels don’t produce electricity consistently throughout the day, and being connected to the electric grid gives these systems a way to compensate for that inconsistency.
During a power outage, solar energy systems without battery storage have to shut down to protect people working on the power lines.
If your solar panels make more electricity than you need at the moment, like during the middle of the day when no one is home, they can send that excess energy out to the grid instead of it being wasted or lost. Likewise, anytime you need more energy than your panels are producing, like at night or on rainy days, you can receive extra energy from the grid.
This often works through a setup called net metering, which acts as a point system between you and your utility company. Basically, every time you have enough electricity to share, you accrue a credit. Later, when it’s dreary or dark out, you can use those credits to pay for energy from the grid. By the end of the year, your system typically exports more power than it imports, and many people achieve a zero net electricity bill.
Grid-tied systems are great for people who want the flexibility and reassurance of two energy sources without spending extra on solar batteries. With less equipment, the installation is also more straightforward.
However, grid-tied systems are susceptible to power outages. Without a backup battery to store your excess energy, you’re just as vulnerable to blackouts as you were before you installed solar panels.
- Unlimited power is available from the electric grid when needed
- Net metering can help cancel out your grid power use
- More affordable
- Vulnerable to power outages
- Not available in some rural areas
- Electric bills if net metering doesn’t cover your energy consumption
Off-grid solar power systems
As their name suggests, off-grid solar panel systems are not connected to the electricity grid. Instead of bouncing excess power to the grid, they store it in solar batteries.
Because solar batteries have hefty price tags and require additional equipment (like charge controllers), off-grid systems tend to make a bigger dent in your bank account. They may, however, be your only option if you live in a rural or remote area that doesn’t have access to the grid, and they do have their perks.
Residential solar batteries usually cost between $10,000 and $20,000, including installation.
When you’re completely independent of the grid, you don’t have to adjust to the ups and downs of the energy market or deal with net metering policies. Like any product, energy prices can spike depending on consumer demand. So, when electricity rates increase, it can be a major benefit to avoid reliance on utility companies. You’re also immune to the grid’s blackouts.
The downside is that it’s critical for off-grid systems to be powerful enough to keep your house up and running on their own, and you are still vulnerable to some factors outside of your control. If gray skies and bad weather hit your region for an extended time, you could run out of energy if you don’t have enough battery storage.
“My only disappointment is that we did two Tesla battery wall packs and I wish I would have done three,” said Michael, a ConsumerAffairs reviewer from Hawaii. “At the time you're doing it, you don't know how much a battery is going to hold. I was kind of under the impression that two batteries would carry me for a few days ... even if it was cloudy days.”
- Energy independence
- No electric bills
- Protection from power outages
- More susceptible to bad weather
- Banned in some areas
Hybrid solar power systems
With a hybrid system, you can get the pros of both grid-tied and off-grid systems. Just like grid-tied systems, they have the advantage of pulling from the electric grid when necessary, but unlike grid-tied systems, hybrids aren’t susceptible to utility outages. Your appliances and lights can keep running during a blackout since they can pull power from your battery.
This mix of benefits also means your solar panel array and batteries don’t have to be as large as with a fully off-grid system. Michael, who we mentioned above, luckily had a hybrid system that maintained a connection to the grid, meaning things didn’t go dark just because their batteries ran out of juice.
This flexibility comes at a cost. Hybrid systems are more expensive than grid-tied systems, and in many cases they’re only cheaper than off-grid systems because they utilize smaller arrays and less battery storage.
- Reliable power supply
- Efficient use of resources
- Saves money on electricity bill
- Complex installation
- Less battery life
» MORE: Best solar batteries
How to choose a type of solar power system
If you’re deciding which system is the best fit for your home, consider three factors: your budget, your location and how much space you have.
- Consider your budget
- If you’re searching for the most cost-effective option, grid-tied systems are your best bet. You’ll spend less initially because you don’t have to purchase solar batteries, and you can earn credits from your utility company through net metering later on.
However, if money isn’t the main concern, you may want a more dependable solar option, such as a hybrid solar system.
- Consider your location
- Where you live plays a major role in which system you should adopt. If you’re far from the power grid or in a rural area, going off-grid may be your only choice, and people in areas with inconsistent power grids may prefer hybrid systems for their added reliability. Conversely, if you’re in a city, extra permits and limitations will likely hinder you from being completely energy-independent with an off-grid system.
- Consider your space
- Some systems, such as hybrid and off-grid models, require more space to set up. That’s because they come with additional equipment and, often, larger solar panel arrays. (When you’re off-grid, you may even want a wide expanse of land to collect the most sunlight for your home.)
If space is an issue in your home or yard, consider a grid-tied system.
If you’re ready to go solar, the next step is usually deciding which solar company to work with. You can check out our top picks for solar energy companies to get a head start.
How much do solar batteries cost?
On average, batteries for residential use cost $10,000 to $20,000, including installation. Your overall price depends on the quality of the batteries you choose, how many batteries you need to power your property and whether the battery has its own inverter.
» MORE: How much do solar panels cost?
Do you need a battery for your solar panels?
If your solar energy system is connected to the electrical grid, you don’t need a battery. (Though you may want one.)
If you are not connected to the grid, you should install a battery with your solar panels — otherwise, you won’t be able to power your home when the sun isn’t out.
Can you use solar panels during a blackout?
Solar panels without backup batteries won’t function during a blackout to protect people working on the power lines. However, if your panels are paired with a solar battery, you can still produce and use your solar energy.
- Article sources
- ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
- “GoGreenSolar, “The 3 Different Types of Solar Power Systems Explained.” Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Hoymiles, “What is a grid-tied solar system?” Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Save On Energy, “Off-Grid Solar Explained.” Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Panasonic, “What is a hybrid solar system? How does it work? A guide.” Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Solar Technologies, “Advantages and Disadvantages of Hybrid Solar Energy Systems.” Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Solargain, “Which solar energy system is right for me?” Accessed June 23, 2023.
- EnergySage, “How much do home batteries cost?” Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Solar.com, “Can I Use Solar Panels Without Battery Storage?” Accessed June 23, 2023.
- Sunrun, “Will Solar Panels Work During a Power Outage?” Accessed June 23, 2023.
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