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Solar Energy Vocabulary To Navigate The Industry Like A Pro

Going solar is an exciting decision that millions of homeowners in the US have made. However, when you begin your solar energy journey, you'll quickly realize that the industry has a vocabulary all its own.

If this is your first time considering the switch, all the new lingo can be confusing and intimidating! Understanding basic solar terminology will allow you to have productive conversations with solar professionals, compare solar options accurately, and make the best decisions for your home.

In this article, we’ll go over 40 essential solar vocabulary words. You’ll learn key technical terms, concepts related to solar costs and savings, and specialized solar equipment. With this solar vocab cheat sheet under your belt, you’ll be ready to talk about solar with confidence!

Why It's Important to Know the Lingo

When you begin the process of switching your home to a solar energy system, it won't take long to discover that there is a lot of new language involved in the solar energy industry. Learning solar vocabulary allows you to have a deeper understanding of the process and to have more control over your system. Without an understanding of basic solar concepts and components, you won’t be able to properly compare quotes or effectively discuss your needs with solar installers.

Knowing the terminology allows you to ask the right questions during consultations and avoid potential confusion or miscommunications. With the right language, you can discuss key factors like how much energy you need, panel efficiency, inverter types, and financing options. This "solar fluency" will help you to ensure your system is tailored to your home and needs.

The best solar professionals will be ready and willing to explain unfamiliar terms or concepts in plain language. However, you can never be too prepared when making a big decision for your home!

Solar Consultation

The Right Questions to Ask During Your Solar Consultation

Since you're about to be a pro when it comes to speaking the solar language, here are a few suggested questions to ask potential solar companies. These questions will give you a deeper understanding of how well a solar company can meet your needs.

  • What panel and inverter brands do you use? How efficient are they?

  • What new electrical equipment will be installed?

  • How will I be able to monitor the system’s production?

  • How does net metering work with my utility company?

  • Will I lease or own my system?

  • What are my options for solar financing?

  • Will I need a battery backup system?

  • Will I be able to charge my electric vehicles with my solar panel system?

  • What tax credits, incentives, and rebates are available to me?

  • Who will do the actual installation? Do you contract out that work?

  • What is the estimated timeline for installation and interconnection?

  • What is your warranty and performance guarantee? What is covered?

Solar Energy Vocabulary

Solar Vocabulary Words

Now let’s get into the key terms and concepts! The words are listed here in alphabetical order so you can search for a particular term you want to know more about, or you can scan the list for a quick A-Z guide. Without further ado, here are 40 essential solar vocabulary words defined:

AC (Alternating Current) - The type of electricity delivered by utilities and used in buildings (like your home). Solar inverters change DC to usable AC.

Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) - The organization, usually a city or county, that reviews solar plans, issues permits, and conducts inspections to ensure that solar projects are compliant with its rules. Your solar company will take care of this process for you but you can expect to have an inspector at your home after installation.

Alternative Energy - Energy generated from sources other than fossil fuels. Alternative energy sources include solar, wind power, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower.

Angle of Incidence - The angle at which sunlight strikes a solar panel. This calculation is determined by the angle of the panel and the angle at which sunlight hits the panel. Solar engineers consider this when determining the best placement for your solar array.

Azimuth (Angle) - The compass direction solar panels face based on optimal sun exposure. In the northern hemisphere, south-facing is ideal.

Cost Analysis - An estimate of the total costs and projected savings associated with a solar system to determine the payback period. Your solar professional will likely conduct a cost analysis to help you determine how much money you can save over the life of your system.

DC (Direct Current) - DC energy differs from AC in that the electrons only flow in one direction. This is the type of electric current generated by solar panels and it requires conversion by an inverter for standard AC use inside your home.

Degradation - The gradual loss of solar panel productivity over time, usually 0.5-1% annually. The rate of degradation is an important factor to consider when choosing the best panels for your home.

Disconnect - A device used to manually stop the flow of electricity from solar panels, usually for safety during maintenance. Your solar system will include a new AC disconnect.

Efficiency - In the solar world, efficiency refers to how much of the sun's energy can be converted into usable electricity by solar cells. Panels generally range from 17-20% efficiency but there is a huge range. Solar panel efficiency is an important factor to consider when choosing the best panels for your home. 

Electrical Current - A flow of electrons, either AC or DC (see AC or DC). In your solar system, an electrical current is produced when sunlight strikes a solar cell and is captured in the wiring of the panels.

Electrical Grid - The interconnected network transporting electricity from power plants to customers through transmission and distribution power lines. A power grid is how utility companies provide power to homeowners. 

Energy Audit - An assessment of a home's energy use to identify energy usage and efficiency opportunities. This process helps solar companies determine the right size for your solar system to ensure it produces enough energy. During this process a solar professional will look at your past energy usage and talk to you about your appliance usage and potential future needs.

Fossil Fuel - Fossil fuels include non-renewable energy sources like coal, oil, and natural gas which are burned to produce electricity or refined to create fuels. These energy sources are called "nonrenewable" because eventually, the supply will run out and can't be replenished. Burning fossil fuels also produces greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide which contribute to harmful climate change.

Ground-mounted Solar - Solar arrays installed on racks or poles anchored to the ground rather than on a roof. This type of array is good for homeowners with limited roof space. There must be enough space on the property to construct the ground mount on a flat surface in the correct orientation and optimal lighting.

Inverter - A device that converts direct current (DC) energy from solar panels to alternating current (AC) for use inside your home.

Insolation - The amount of solar radiation energy from the sun received on a given surface area over time.

Interconnection - The process of connecting a solar energy system to the utility grid to allow excess power to flow onto the grid and credit the homeowner.

Irradiance - Solar irradiance is the intensity of solar power reaching a surface, measured in Watts/square meter. Irradiance measures solar power whereas insolation measures solar energy.

Junction Box - An enclosure on each solar panel that contains connections and wiring for electrical output and protects them from the elements.

Kilowatt - A standard unit of electrical power equal to 1,000 Watts. Kilowatts quantify electricity use and production. This is the standard unit of measurement used to talk about how much power solar panels and solar systems produce.

Kilowatt Hour (kWh) - The amount of energy used or produced at a rate of 1,000 Watts over 1 hour. Utility companies bill per kWh consumed. During an energy audit of your home, your solar provider will look at how many Kilowatt-hours you typically use per month to help determine the right size for your system.

Main Service Panel - The central hub where electricity enters a home and is distributed to circuits. Your solar system will connect with its own breaker to power your home and feed the grid.

Micro Inverter - A small inverter mounted on each panel to convert DC to AC, instead of a single central inverter (string inverter) for a whole array.

Net Metering - A billing arrangement where utilities credit solar customers for surplus energy added to the grid, deducting it from their consumption. Net Metering allows customers to produce more energy than they need during the sunny summer months, and use a credit for that energy during the winter when they are producing less energy but using more energy.

Orientation - Orientation is used to mean two things with respect to solar panels. 1. The compass direction solar panels are aimed based on the sun's path to maximize energy production (ideally South); 2. Whether solar panels are mounted vertically or horizontally.

Photon - The particles or "packets" of light and other radiation from the sun that solar cells convert to electricity. 

Photovoltaic (PV) - The conversion of light from the sun to energy. The term Photovoltaic of PV is sometimes used interchangeably with "solar," ie PV panels, PV cells, PV system etc.

Photovoltaic (PV) Cells - Non-mechanical devices that convert sunlight into direct current (DC) electrical energy. Also called Solar Cells. When combined, these cells make up a solar panel.

Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) - A financing option where a solar company installs and owns the system on your property while selling you the generated energy (also called a Solar Lease).

Renewable Energy - Energy from naturally replenished sources like sunlight, wind, water, plants, and geothermal heat. Renewable sources are in contrast to non-renewable sources like coal and gas.

Roof-mounted Solar - Solar arrays installed directly on a home's roof. For this option to work, the roof must have enough space, proper orientation, and structural capacity.

Solar Array - Multiple solar panels connected together to create one system producing a specific combined wattage. A solar array can be roof-mounted or ground-mounted

Solar Battery (Storage) - Batteries that store excess solar energy for use when panels aren't actively producing. Solar battery technology is still improving and batteries are not recommended for most homeowners.

Solar Energy - Radiant energy from the sun harnessed using technology for electricity and heating.

Solar Lease - A financing option where a solar company owns the system on your property while leasing it to you for monthly payments.

Solar Module (Solar Panel) - Interconnected solar cells sealed together into a weatherproof panel. Modules are the fundamental building blocks of solar arrays. The number of solar modules needed to power your home will be determined by your Energy Audit. Also called a PV module or PV panel. 

Solar Monitoring - A tool to view your solar energy production and consumption data through a phone app, web portal, or physical meter. Convenient solar monitoring can make a huge difference in your peace of mind once the system is installed because you'll never have to worry that your panels are broken or underproducing. 

String Inverters - A string inverter is a central inverter that converts the DC output of multiple solar panels wired in sequence into AC electricity that can be used inside your home.

Sustainable - Sustainable means that a product meets current needs without compromising the health and viability of future generations. Solar energy is sustainable thanks to its renewability. 

Tax Credit - A tax credit is a financial incentive allowing some solar installation costs to be deducted from your taxes. In 2024, the federal government offers a 30% tax credit and many states offer additional incentives. 

Tilt Angle - The angle at which solar panels are mounted to face the sun and capture as much sunlight as possible. Optimal tilt depends on location.

Utility Interconnection Agreement (UIA) - A contract required between a solar customer and their utility spelling out the terms and conditions for connecting their solar energy system to the grid. Your solar contractor will handle this interaction so that you have permission to install solar panels at your home in compliance with your utility company's rules. 

Final Thoughts

We hope this solar vocabulary primer has helped make the process of switching to solar a little less intimidating. You now have the lingo to navigate any solar conversation like a pro. You deserve to understand the process of switching to solar -after all, it's your home!

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