I've seen some solar panels advertised recently, and out of curiosity I decided to do a little research. What I decided to do was look up a middle of the road panel at Costco, look at the output, and do a cost/benefit analysis. What I looked at was this 500 watt, grid tied panel. It will set you back $1,899 before shipping and taxes. Assuming you pick it up at the store to avoid shipping charges, the total cost will be approximately $2,050. What do you get for that price? According to Costco, the monthly output is between 30kWh and 70kWh - roughly enough to power a 15 cubic foot refrigerator.
Of course the output varies according to the amount of direct sunlight, and since this area is under cloud cover a good portion of the winter, not to mention winter days are pretty short at this latitude, we'd be on the low end of the scale, and would get very little output in the winter. But for ease of calculation, I'll optimistically say we would get 50kWh.
According to the Puget Sound Energy web site, residential rates are currently 8.5 ¢ per kWh for the first 600kWh, and then 10.3 ¢ beyond that. Again, estimating on the generous side for ease of calculations, let's say I average 10 ¢. That means that for an investment of $2,050, you can reduce your electric bill by $5 a month. If rates stay static (which they won't), it would take 410 month, or 34 years and 2 month to pay for itself. Well beyond the 25 year warranty.
With such a horrible return on investment, I can't help wondering why anyone buys any. Without significantly coming down in cost and/or increasing in efficiency, solar panels are just not cost effective. If your intent is to save the planet, you're much better off purchasing higher efficiency appliances, windows, etc to reduce your energy use. I would really like to go 'off the grid' eventually, but at this point it seems highly unlikely that it will be economically feasible in my lifetime.
In unrelated news, I recently saw that this story was taking the internet by storm: Hiker claims bear saved him from cougar attack. According to the man, he was taking some pictures of a bear and her cubs when a cougar jumped on him from behind, and the bear came over and attacked the cougar. At first I thought that this was an incredible story, if true, and now it seems that the rest of the world is beginning to question the validity as well. Here's my theory. A 'cougar' is slang for a sexually aggressive middle aged woman. Or a WSU graduate. Or the feared double cougar - a sexually aggressive, middle aged WSU graduate. Also, a 'bear' is slang for a large, hairy gay man. So, I think he went home, and when his wife asked why he had scratches on his body and he cooked up the story, when in actuality he had been at a brothel where a 'cougar' got a little too rough with him and the bouncer, who was a 'bear', pulled the woman off of him. He simply changed the locale from a brothel to a wilderness hike. Once the story got out and gained popularity, he had no choice but to stick with it. And as a further update, the San Francisco Chronicle is questioning the account as well. The man is sticking to his guns though.