U.S. Department of Energy Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Ask an Expert

November 05, 2012
Q.

Are solar generators a viable alternative to propane and gasoline generators? After hurricane Sandy I'm seriously considering investing in a generator, but I have concerns about safety. I'd be looking to power my well pump, my oil burner and a refrigerator. -Laura

SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership

The SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership has been tasked with helping accelerate adoption of photovoltaic (PV) solar at the local level by providing timely and actionable information to local governments.

A.

There are several different types of solar technologies. Photovoltaics (or PV) is a technology that produces electricity, and solar heating is a technology that can assist with heating and cooling needs as well as provide hot water.  Both of these technologies could potentially be used when traditional power is not accessible.

In the case of PV, this technology could assist in providing power for your well pump and refrigerator.  However, the system would require a battery back-up system that would need to be sized appropriately to handle the required load over a given period of time.  While this is possible, current battery storage technologies that are commercially available are considered to have a high cost compared to the efficiency of energy storage/conversion.  These technologies are continuing to improve, so I would suggest reaching out to a qualified local PV installer to determine if the costs and benefits are worth it for your specific needs.  An added benefit to this technology is that this technology could also be used to help offset your electricity needs on an ongoing basis, possibly making the up-front investment more worthwhile.

Assuming your oil burner is used for heating purposes, it sounds like solar heating would be the technology best suited to assist with that need.  Solar heating systems collect thermal energy from the sun, which heats a fluid which is then pumped through a heat exchanger to heat your hot water tank/storage unit.  While these systems require a small amount of electricity to assist with the pumping, that need is often met via a small PV panel.  This technology can be fairly inexpensive (with a short payback period), and again can assist with space and water heating needs throughout the year, not just during times of power outages, potentially making the upfront investment more worthwhile.

To locate a qualified installer who could help you better determine your specific system needs and help estimate costs, I would recommend checking out www.nabcep.org/installer-locator.  The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners issues a nationally recognized certification to experienced installers of PV systems as well as installers solar heating systems.  Keep in mind that certification in one technology does not mean that the installer is certified to install both technologies (each individual certification is indicated on the NABCEP website).

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