SuperTopo's West Coast Headquarters (AKA Lita and Chris McNamara's House) just went solar - Yes!
Solar panels at Chris Mac's house
Credit: Chris McNamara
I have dreamed of owning solar panels since I was 10 (I was a weird kid). I've been researching solar panel systems since 2008. I was a little worried that all the hype and buildup would not equal the reality. But I have to say… the panels are better than I imagined.
Chris Mac's solar power system
Credit: Chris McNamara
Credit: Chris McNamara
Why did we go solar? Three reasons:
1 - I have always thought solar was cool. A 10-year immersion in eastern psychology texts left me not wanting many possessions… EXCEPT I have always wanted to own solar panels but never had a house to put them on. So in the interim, I put my focus on portable solar panels. I just like the idea of generating my own power. Especially if it can then be used power something like my electric bike.
2 - It's a really good investment (see below). In today's stock and bond environment, it's actually hard to think of a safer investment with a more guaranteed rate of return over a 10 to 30-year period.
3 - I'm a big believer in moving to more renewable energy and away from drilling/mining/burning. I've read way too many books on the subject, many of which are ranting polemics. But two great books are Oil On The Brain which tours the globe reporting on how oil extraction happens and who it affects and The Quest which I think gives a pretty good history lesson on where our energy comes from and where it is headed. Both books take you on a global adventure where you meet entertaining characters along the way.
Sharp solar panels on our house.
Credit: Chris McNamara
Questions people often ask me about solar for the home How Long Does It Take to Pay Back?
It depends on at least five variables that are all dynamic (except for the system cost)
how much power you use
your electric rates
how much electricity rates go up in the next 25-plus years.
how you define "payback"
It will probably take me seven years to pay for the system in electricity generation. After that it is free electricity or I am selling back extra power. However, there is always the argument that it actually pays for itself on Day 1 because the system cost, discounted by 30 to 50 percent in state (California) and federal incentives, likely adds that much value to your house. Here is a study (PDF) from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that found solar boosts the value of your house by $5.50 a watt in resale value. Since I paid far less than $5.50 per watt… I guess the payback period took about… no time!
I bought my system because I want "The joy of owning solar panels" and the long term investment benefits. However, today you can get solar panels on your roof for nothing because many companies like Solar City, RealGoods and Sungevity offer various forms of solar leases. This option is ideal for folks who don't want to spend the up-front money. One great we have heard good things about is Sunrun.
What is the rate of return on the investment?
It all depends on where electricity rates go. In the below graph I used a four percent annual rate of utility inflation, which seems conservative because for the last 37 years in California utility prices have gone up on average six percent annually.
Credit: Chris McNamara
It also depends on how long the system lasts. Components are guaranteed for 25 years and most systems older than that still produce 80 percent of their original power. In the below numbers I conservatively only use the first 25 years. If you plug in a six percent rate of utility inflation and assume the system will last 40-plus years, the rate of return is much higher. While it's hard to pin down exactly how good an investment solar is, it is clear that it is a good one if you live in an area with good sun and use a decent amount of electricity.
Example estimated rate of return on a home solar panel system
Credit: Chris McNamara
Is the environmental cost of making the panels worth the power generated?
Yes. Big yes. The energy required to make a panel is produced by the panel in one to four years according to this article (PDF) or less than 1.5 to two years according to this article
Are solar panels the best way to save money and protect the environment?
No, efficiency will always be the best return on investment and best for the planet. The cheapest and cleanest kilowatt of electricity is the one you never buy or use.
For example, I have been obsessed efficient cars for years (half hoping my '97 Subaru dies so I can justify getting one). But then I realized I should really be focusing on electric bikes (which are insanely efficient in their use of electricity) or just a regular bike. The most efficient car in the world is the one you never drive.
How did you choose which installer?
I got bids from five companies: SolarCraft, Real Goods Solar, Solar City, Sun First!, and Cooperative Community Energy. I ended up going with SolarCraft just because they seemed to have the best customer service and they happened to have the best price. They also had access to great financing. The whole process went as seamlessly as any construction project I have been a part of. I highly recommend them. A few friends have also used Real Goods and highly recommend them.
I used the Enphase microinverters because I had some shading issues. If you have partial shading, you need either a microinverter or product like SolarCity has which makes sure a few shaded panels don't bring down the whole system's production level. But even without the shade, I might have gone with the Enphase because they generate five to 15 percent more power than central inverters in the real-world monitoring cases I have heard about. More importantly, the Enphase lets you see how every panel is producing at every moment on your computer or iPhone, which is very cool (see below).
The Enphase software shows me how much power I am generating. Data is updated every 5-15 minutes.
Credit: Chris McNamara
Are you on the grid or off the grid? Does your meter spin backwards?
Our system is grid-tied. When it's sunny, we sell power back to the grid, usually a high rate, and our meter spins backwards (it's a digital meter so sadly there is no dial to spin… only a small blinking arrow). When its dark, we buy power back at a low rate. For example, in the summer, during peak hours, I can be off climbing while our system sells power to the grid at $0.21 a kilowatt hour. When I get home at night the rate to buy it might only be $0.04 a kilowatt hour. So at the end of the year I will probably get a decent sized check from our utility company. I am lucky because in Marin County we have Marin Clean Energy that pays a good price (retail price plus a penny) to buy your extra power. In most parts of California, PGE will only pay you for your excess power at the wholesale rate (which is 30 to 50 percent less than the retail rate).
Off-the-grid systems are really only for if you either live where you don't have access to the grid, it is prohibitively expensive to get access to the grid, or if you philosophically just want to be off the grid. Being off the grid doesn't make sense for most people for three reasons: (1) Off-the-grid systems are much more expensive because you have to buy a bunch of batteries, (2) You don't get the big federal tax credit and (3) You don't get to take advantage of selling power to the grid at peak rates and buying it back at off- peak rates.
Can I get solar if I am a renter or in a condo-HOA situation?
That is a tough one. But it does seem to be getting easier each year. Here is an article on a new law California passed in 2011 that makes it easier.
Is my roof right for solar?
First thing you need to know is how much sun your roof gets. This online tool will give you a general idea. But the only precise way to measure is with a semi-fancy tool like a SunEye while standing on your roof. Most solar companies do this as part of their free estimate. You then get a number; my roof gets 90 percent sun exposure on average throughout the year and is in a good area for sun (not as good as the Mojave Desert but way better than most of the world). Once you get the reading, you then have to decide how much sun in enough. Germany gets less sun than Seattle but they have been the biggest installer of solar in the last ten years. It all comes down to you deciding how much power production justifies the cost of the system.
Can solar panels be recycled?
Yes. But so far, their has not been much solar panel recycling just because even panels that were installed in the 70's are still producing power. Here is a good article on solar panel recycling.
Any extra costs?
If your roof is in bad or mediocre shape you may need to upgrade it to install solar. Our roof was just bad enough that we decided to re-roof. We used a TPO cool roof which will keep our house cooler in the summer because the material reflects 95 percent of the sunny energy. The material is wild – it is basically like our entire roof is now a slip n' slide or river raft or haul bag.
Another cost may be an upgrade to your electrical system. If you have a super old house (like we did) you may need some upgrades to your panel. We had to pay about $200, which seemed very reasonable.
Ask me questions!
I would be psyched to answer any questions folks have about this. Please post below or message me. And please check out my Portable Solar Panel Review. I loved the process of going solar and will be happy to help others do the same.
Next project is to figure out how I can get solar panels on my Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals. I am going to be looking into a solar lease because that is the only way I can figure out to get the tax credit. If anyone know about getting credits for what the IRS considers "lodging" please send me a note.
Update After 6 Months
Just came on the 6 month anniversary of owning solar panels:
1) You can see just how much power we are generating at this link. It is updated every 15 minutes 24/7. If you see a panel, not performing, send me an email and I will jump up on the roof and clear my neighbors kite.
Our solar panel system.
Credit: Chris McNamara
2) We are getting $$. We bought more solar panels than we needed to cover our bill. So every months we are getting a check (actually it is just a credit and you get one big check at the end of the year). This months credit was for over $100. yeee haw!
3) Our meter spins backwards… big time! When we got our panels, PGE gave us a new meter that starts at 000000. It immediately started spinning backward (ok, its digital so there is no spinning but it counts backwards). As you can see below, we have now sold back over 1100 KWH of excess power to the grid. This reminds me of that scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off where they put the Ferrari on a stand to try and get the miles to go back. But in our case, it actually works!
Meters "progress" after a 4 months.
Credit: Chris McNamara
4) The panels generate a surprising amount of power when it is cloudy or raining. It is only 40-60% of the power generated when totally sunny. But still impressive. And a good reminder to wear sunscreen even when cloudy.
Update on 7/20/13
Just got an all electric Fiat 500e so that I can drive off the power from my solar panels!
Just got the Fiat 500e electric car... charging off the solar panels right now!
About the Author Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara’s life on Earth had been spent on the face of El Capitan – an accomplishment that left friends and family pondering Chris’s sanity. He has climbed El Capitan more than 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, “Why?”
Outside Magazine called Chris one of “the world’s finest aid climbers.” He is the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 5000 dangerous anchor bolts. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley and serves on the board of the ASCA and the Rowell Legacy Committee. He has a rarely updated adventure journal, maintains BASEjumpingmovies.com, and also runs a Lake Tahoe home rental business.
Did you like this article? Got something to say? Don't hold back...
For collective housing, like townhouses/condos, are there any studies showing the efficiency/cost benefit of supplementing power with solar there in that scenario? HOA's don't seem willing to shift to solar, e.g. even just to power pool filters, fountain pumps, etc., without some sense that it's going to reduce costs.
Good info on the inverter, I didn't know that. We would be partially shaded. thx!
when I was putting solar panels on my van I was looking for MCI sockets at the wholesale electricians supply. The salesman told me you would not see solar around in few years after the gov rebate ended. I am glad to see you got in under the wire.
As much as I really dislike the over-hyped Green movement, having solar panels on your house is very practical in the long run, as you pointed out, Chris. Businesses could also benefit. When there isn't enough power from the sun, you simply divert back to 'the grid'.
It's a no-brainer, really. Especially in the long run.
I am looking to buy a house soon and will investigate the idea for my particular needs.
Back in the early 80's my Dad had solar panels that were strictly devoted to heating our backyard pool in San Ramon.
we put a 3.2KW system on our house four years ago. Pre-microinverters so all 14 panels feed to a single inverter. Makes it a little harder to upgrade as we matched the max panel output to the max inverter rating.
Love having the system on the house.
EDIT: caughtinside, the guy who we contracted to install our system handled all the rebates himself so out of pocket was discounted by that amount. At the time that took a $27k total down to $22k and we got another $4k back in tax savings.
Good job, nice clean installation over what looks like a single ply cool roof which helps with energy use reduction along with those solar tubes for interior day-lighting. A good example for all of us who drive or fly manically to the mountain ranges of the world. An appropriate off-set from the fossil fuel we consume being climbers and skiers.
Thanks for posting Chris, we should all follow your example or move and stay put!
Sorry for the wine induced rant, I must remind myself hipocracy is simply part of the human condition.
Great stuff. Love all the comments and questions. I just added a video and answered many of the questions you guys asked. Please fire more.
I don't have solar hot water just because I couldn't find a cost-effective way to do it without installing it myself... and I don't want to punch holes in my perfect new haul-bag-roof! But down the road I'll try and figure out how to make it happen.
Dingus, the major tax credit, the 30% federal tax credit is here till 2016. The big credit that just expired was the tax grant for businesses and a some kind of accelerated depreciation. But for homeowners, the credits are here for a few more years at least.
But even once the credits expire, solar will survive, and maybe even thrive. Panel costs have come down 50-80% in just the last year. If you assume price declines will continue at the same rate they have for the last ten years, then in only a few years, solar will be price competitive without rebates. Then, the main issue will be that there is plenty of cheap solar generation and not enough ways to store the energy as a base load power source. Storage is the big hurdle for wind and solar to get massive adoption at utility scale in the future. Here is a pretty cool article by Vinod Khosla on the future of alternative energy (PDF)
Very cool. We are looking into the panel lease program in MA.
Here's how the program works: A homeowner calls one of the companies to assess the potential for solar at the home and install panels. A one-time, upfront fee of about $1,000 is charged, and the homeowner also is given an 18-year locked-in rate for energy the panels generate. That rate will be comparable to, or less than, what utilities charge, according to the companies involved. If the homeowner uses more energy than the panels produce, they then pay the utility its rate for the electricity.
Yo Matt, yeah hit me up. I will gladly give more info to folks who are seriously considering going solar. Maybe ill make an exhaustive video or check list that shows the whole process from start to finish.
And yes, I talked to Tom about solar hot water. He shopped hard, got a great price on the components, and then installed it himself. I am not that handy and all the bids i have received are pretty expensive.
Thanks for the writeup Chris! For some reason there is a real lack of in-depth case studies for home solar installations. It would be great if you could keep this updated with monthly numbers on power used, power generated, etc.
I am probably going to be buying a home in Arizona this year, and solar is at the top of my list for improvements.
Couple of things solar is different than just turning it off if as with local utility company. If for some reason grid goes down because neighbors pole or street/block is down or storm shuts their system down there are things you need to do for safety and make sure your system is up and running in case you are on a climb or gone for a couple of days and just found out what happened to my solar and no lights?
Seems like you might have it covered since you have done homework on the subject. Installer might have left literature and did not cover all the bases.
Also on circuit modules the safety writing is on the side which no one can see. 2012 code revision will be written to put inside panel to read.
Firemen go nuts seeing the panels on top if they have to open or cut a hole in the roof. So make sure to have a copy where you’re wiring inside or interior partitions are if they need access to your house.
Normal conditions without solar when you cut the electricity you have no live energy. Solar you still do have an energized state and will create an arc flash hazard which can kill or fry him. Same with disconnecting your connectors to the panels will give off an arc if you turn system off. Noticed on your photo no warning. Sure you have Arc-Fault Circuit protection [Direct Current built in, problem needs to be manually restarted. Like I said you could be gone for a week come back and lost all your juice.
Any chance to provide more photos: Did you take photos during installment[beginning to end] Solar Module Combo box or what you are using [separate to tie in with giving power back to the utility co., grounding system [On roof or to the ground], switch or circuit breakers, Safety or warning signs. Using Batteries for storage? Labels, labels and safety.
NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] is releasing their 2012 “National Electrical Code for Photovoltaics.” So go to their web site. Added quite a few from their 2011. Lessions learned.
necplus.org is another and will be available there as well.
Other thing is nice having apps to phone. Also you mentioned shading in winter what about summer? They have an apps as well that tell you where and how much you might loose.
Hmmm. If I install solar panels on my roof, will that make the sun shine on my house in Seattle?
That's why Chris included the link to the solar insolation (how much sun hits your house) computer.
With 16 panels, I could generate 2.8KW at full sun and I've got a garage roof with excellent sun exposure about 3/4 of summer daylight hours.
My problem is my electric bill is already down to $85 per month so here in the Santa Cruz mtns the cost/payback computations come up with about 12 years to break even.
I'll run the computations again at different numbers of panels.
However I'll soon be computing the cost/payback for a plugin hybrid car. Which will be MUCH better. Maybe by 2013 it will make sense.
Chris: thanks for your excellent and informative report. Your linked references are a great starting point.
I understood solar systems are configured to shut down whenever power from the grid is off. This so that linemen won't get fried. What you reported seems to contradict this?
Collaterally I don't see why this is even needed. You could put a relay powered by the grid so that when grid is down the system is entirely disconnected but is still operating for the customer. When the linemen bring up the grid they presumably will already be hands off. Must be stuff going on here with which I am not familiar.
Chris can answer for himself, but I'll bet he has no batteries and that he can't use his system when the grid goes down. By far the most common system has panels generating current when the sun is shining that is converted to 120hz AC with an inverter, and this feeds to the grid via a meter that runs two ways: if you are generating more power than you are using at any moment, the meter runs backward and vice versa.
So, you don't directly use any of the power your system generates and if the grid goes down, you do too.
EDIT: Ah, I see Chris added a bunch of (excellent) info. He is indeed grid-tied.
Excellent posting Chris-We have been using solar panels on our boat since the early 80s and have watched the evolution of thin, safe-to-walk-on panels and some of the problems inherent with them.
Key thing with any solar panel is to go with a reputable and established company that has a long term warranty and you hope will be around if you have any problems. Manufacturer is the key! Reputation is the key! Ginormous amount of poor panels on the market.
We can basically run the boat completely from our 8 panels and that includes a 12 volt freezer and a separate 12 volt refrigerator. Boat systems can suck up a lot of power, so we have three banks of two each 6 volt deep-cycle Trojan Golf Cart batteries, with a capacity of 675 am hours at 12 volt. Rarely ever have to run our VW diesel engine to top up the charge.
We use deep cycle lead acid batteries because they are the most reliable. Not susceptible to overcharge damage, and easy to replace a single battery if you are in Timbuktu and some cells go bye bye. Yes. it is a hassle to top up with water on a regular basis but it allows you to be more in tune with your charging system overall.
The following will illustrate my emphasis on choosing a reliable manufacturer. In 2004 we placed 4 large panels on the cabin top from a well known German company called Solara. Efficient, high voltage panels that could take a slight deck camber for mounting, safe to walk on and productive even with partial shading.
Within two years I noticed a slight intrusion of water into the membrane. Year three, all the panels had significant water intrusion and things were not looking good.
To make a long story short: I had to tear all the panels off and toss them. Of course we were situated in a remote part of the South Pacific and it would be months before we got to New Zealand. Thus began a two year battle with the company to get replacements. Finally, they sent new panels to replace the "defective"ones. After refairing the cabin top from the damage from the "defective" panels we next had to paint the entire area before we could install the new panels. Well, two years later the game started over when I again noticed a slight water intrusion into one of the new panels. Endless letters, e-mails and threats over the past two years have resulted in zero cooperation, even though the company, Solara, states it is there faulty quality control that is responsible. SolaraSucks!
We also have 4 Solarex thin, solar panels on the Radar Arch and they have been fantastic with no problems.
Six 6 volt deep cycle Trojan Golf Cart lead acid set up for three banks of 12 volt-675 amphr
Charging electronics etc................
Fuse system for both banks and regulator.
4 large Solara panels on the cabin top. Yes you can walk on them.
Oops, a wee bit of condensation in the panel. Not too worry mate!
Time to worry mate.
Nice mess on the cabin top.
4 fantastic Solarex MSX thin panels on the radar arch.
Second batch of Solara panels-We have a problem here.
I built a little off the grid setup that I used for the summer and fall. It was just lights and electronics, so it didn't need to be that big.
I bought two really big 6 watt batteries and a single 400 watt panel. It wasn't that much.
For the electronics you have to have a pure sine wave inverter. I scored one that could handle far more current than my system. I bought it at Inverters R Us, on the web. I managed to buy everything but the batteries on the web for about 60% of what the local retail solar guys were charging. There is a glut of panels right now, and they are cheap.
It really is exciting to learn how much current you need for each device. Lights are nothing if you go LED or compact flourescent, which you should be doing anyway.
Hey. It isn't the oil companies who hate solar. Almost all electricty that comes from fossil fuels is coal. The natural gas companies have been trying like crazy to use it as a generating fuel for decades. Even though there is a total glut of natural gas right now, and prices are incredibly low, we have coal fired plants in Oklahoma and Texas. That really pisses off the oil companies.
Coal is the filthiest of all fossil fuels. Natural gas is the cleanest in not only emissions like mercury, but also in carbon per BTU. The reason that most of our computers are getting our juice from coal right now is that it is a very efficient generating fuel. So if you go solar, you are using less COAL.
Since natural gas is all home grown, it doesn't follow the same price as oil, which is extremely high right now. Local fleets like UPS and others went to natural gas vehicles a long time ago. The problem is that there is no infrastructure. If just trucking moved to natural gas, our oil imports would be far less, and we could use natural gas as a transition fuel to cleaner technology. There is only so much natural gas. If we went to natural gas for transportation, we wouldn't need all of those Nimitz class aircraft carriers in the Middle East.
Trust me. The U.S. oil companies don't have nearly as much political clout as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If they want to punish alternatives, which they will some day, they will open the spigot and lower oil prices. Making alternatives much more expensive.
Solar is really cool, though, and a good investment that will pay out in less than ten years. Just don't think that burning wood for heat is cool. Wood is worse than coal. Switch to Propane if you have no option other than electricity. Propane comes from natural gas anyway.
You have to be in the energy industry to truly appreciate how foolish we are about energy. You can drill baby drill all you want and not make a dent in oil. Gas is different.
The only book worth reading on the topic of oil is The Prize. Oil=Power, and by power, I mean military and economic power. Our addiction to oil is bad for many reasons.
No batteries for my system. It all goes straight to the grid. Werner, i will look for the diagrams of the install. Here is all the info on the Sharp panels (PDF) I used
I have not read The Prize - I will add it to the list. But i did read Daniel Yergin's latest book, The Quest which I thought was pretty illuminating on history of energy. I read A LOT of other books and if people are interested I could give a summary of which ones I like and which ones are rants with an agenda.
A couple of web sites that describe the issue, I am a member of both ICC [International Code Council] and NFPA and sit in committee meetings and write papers. Would have to get a hold of them for me to release code requirements due to copyright which they would say no problem as long as I am not getting paid for consulting but would be not a problem if you want the # can produce but just to give you an idea:
Also just to complicate the problem choosing the right inspector is critical and I mean critical so do not take their word that it passes. Grounding is the biggest issue, also access needs to be out side and not interior. Again I will say inspectors [not all] are the same and do not know what they are doing as in construction so need to be careful in choosing systems.
You can do yourself suggest take a class: recommend NFPA course.
osfm.fire.ca.gov has a fire safety for solar. PDF? It is somewhere on their site but if you need it can provide.
ICC and NFPA regulated. Which Republicans hate. Sorry if some dies because you fu#hed up you should be accountable. Hey! That is what keeps lawyers employed.
Here is just a start:
InterNACHI inspectors may want to check for the following design elements that will prevent PV modules from exacerbating the dangers of a house fire:
•Photovoltaic systems should be installed and subsequently inspected regularly by a qualified professional.
•PV systems should be labeled in a clear and systematic manner to ensure that technicians and firefighters can quickly and easily identify key elements of the system. The main service disconnect panel should be clearly labeled on the outside cover, if it is operable from the outside without opening. Both interior and exterior portions of live conduit should be labeled every 10 feet. Batteries should also be clearly labeled.
•A rooftop shutoff valve should be present. This switch could be utilized to disable the direct current running from the solar panels through the conduit.
•The roof should have sufficient pathways and perimeter space around the PV modules so that inspectors and firefighters can traverse the roof safely.
•There should be a section of the roof left vacant so that it may be ventilated, if necessary.
•Check for damage from rodents and other pests, which could compromise wiring or insulation.
•There should be an integrated arc-fault detection device present in the solar panels, which shuts down individual panels in the case of a malfunction, such as arcing.
•During the permitting process when the PV system is installed, the local fire department should be given a set of the plans to refer to in case of emergency.
In summary, photovoltaic solar panels rarely cause house fires directly, but the potential hazards they pose in the event of a house fire can be mitigated with proper installation and preparation.
The electrical upgrade was because my house was built in 1930 and there were some ungrounded wires near the panel and other general old sketchyness. At least I think that is what was going on. It didn't take much time or money to fix. Probably needed to be done anyway.
Many thanks for all this great information.
I'm about to rip the roof off our house in Boulder, and am considering both solar and the white roofing material. Do you have any numbers on the savings from going white? I heard it was a wash - savings in summer were balanced out by loss of warming during winter?
I don't have the exact numbers on the roofing. For us it was an easy decision because we don't have AC and the summers can get hot in San Anselmo. Also, it was the same price to do tar and gravel vs. going over the existing roof with the white TPO material. If you are completely removing the roof, then i could see how maybe the TPO is more expensive.
Coming from Marin myself I remember when PG&E wouldn't buy back any of your power , the reason why my parents didn't put solar panels on when we got roofing work done (and the low efficiency at that time). Glad to see that there is an even better alternative than selling it to PG&E
I'd like to do more, and the info. is useful. Also, I'm not sure, but I think these guys, located in Boulder, built a house in the Rockies at about 7k ft. It is largely, if not entirely off the grid. Finally, I think they grew bananas.
I forgot to add RMI new book Reinventing Fire to my recommended book list. I especially like the RMI collaboration on the Empire State Building efficiency upgrade. A 13 million dollar investment in efficiency upgrades will save the building $4.4 million a year. Now that is a pretty amazing return on investment (and the building now needs 38% less energy).
SunWise Solar Electric Products catalog free can download catalog
Solmetric Site Evaluation and System Design. If you do not have I phone but best or cheaper is using Apps for Smart phone just aim towards sun and will give info on angles or tilt for the panels, best location, what happens with shading, temperature and more plus cheaper.
Spray-on solar panels developed at U and A [Canada] are promising and windows are in the works as well from different companies. Thickness of a hair. www.cbc.ca/.../edmonton/story/2011/08/12/edm-spray-on-solar-cells.html also www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/sprayonsolar.jsp here in the states
As for micro-converters issue colour coding needs to change and will be updated since the blue ring attaches to the other blue coloured for connection. Problem if you do not know what you are doing you end up connecting positive to positive. So changes are in the works to correct it.
Left connector sightly can see the blue ring in middle
right connector when opened has blue ring as well [blurry photo]
Notice wording on side of fuse or circuit assembly “warning” needs to post on inner panel as well.
"Do not open under load"
With these configerations how could you read it so will be changed.
Oddly enough, I attended a panel discussion tonite entitled: Is California’s Solar Gold Rush Destined to Fail?
I'll post the link to the video of it tomorrow.
Here's the info on it:
Moderated by Warren Olney, host of 89.9 KCRW's Which Way, L.A.? and To The Point
California history is a tale of crazed grabs: for gold, for oil, for fame, for making weapons and planes. Today, the state is in the midst of a solar energy frenzy. Solar panels materialize on rooftops, on coastal mountains, and in massive arrays in the state’s deserts. The state and federal governments are offering incentives to push the rush. Will the rapid move to solar power produce new jobs, new industries, and cleaner and cheaper energy? Or does the pace and nature of the rush pose threats to the economy, ecosystems, and government budgets? Lisa Margonelli, director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, Ron Nichols, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and Jim Cahill, SolarCity’s regional operating director, visit Zócalo to discuss whether solar power in California is a passing fad or a lasting innovation.
Solar: Not Just For Tinfoil-Hatters Anymore
But Most Of Our Debates About It Miss the Point
by Lisa Margonelli
Since 2007, California has experienced a solar boom. Photovoltaic panels rest on 107,159 rooftops, as of this writing (the numbers are updated here every Wednesday). Driven by incentives that are bankrolled by every Californian who pays a utility bill, Californians now have more than one Gigawatt of solar capacity installed over our heads That’s a lot: one Gigawatt is roughly the size of one of the state’s four nuclear power plants, although solar PV panels do not produce power at the steady, even rate that nukes do.
California recently approved 11 separate solar power plants, big installations of mirrors and equipment that can concentrate the sun’s heat to produce power. If built, those 11 plants will have a capacity of 4.2 Gigawatts. The cumulative impact of all of this building—driven by federal investment tax credits and state mandates to generate a third of the state’s power from renewable sources by 2033—is astonishing. In short order, solar could lose its tinfoil-hat-California-dream aura to become the Golden State’s new normal.
This is a stunning triumph of all the things we Californians hold dear: idealistic bureaucrats, an action-hero governor, starry-eyed inventors, entrepreneurial environmentalists, venture capitalists, and thousands of big and small businesses and homeowners who want to be part of the future.
But will it last?
California has been on the solar cutting edge before. In the 1980s, the state produced 95 percent of the world’s solar power. One company, LUZ International, designed solar thermal power plants and managed to reduce the price of generating a solar kilowatt hour of power by two-thirds between 1984 and 1989.
But by 1991, LUZ was bankrupt. The problem wasn’t the technology: LUZ’s plants are still gleaming away in Kramer Junction and Harper Lake for the utility NextEra Energy Resources. What did LUZ in were falling energy prices, unpredictable political support for the tax incentives that kept investors in the game, and the lack of a big-picture push to make solar a fundamental pillar of energy security.
Unfortunately, the things that killed LUZ are still around. Forecasts of falling natural gas prices would make solar energy less competitive. Solyndra has ensured dwindling political support. And we still don’t have a national greenhouse gas policy or a carbon tax that would ensconce solar as a core of our electric portfolio.
Is there a cautionary tale here? Or is LUZ just an artifact of the past?
The first person I called was Michael Lotker, LUZ’s former VP of Business Development. He wrote a report on the demise of LUZ published by Sandia National Laboratories in 1991. For a report, it’s a ripping yarn of how high energy prices—combined with an activist California Public Utilities Commission and government initiatives—helped make room for solar entrepreneurs in California’s energy markets. Investors were attracted by federal “Energy Tax Credits” while state property tax exemptions helped reduce costs. LUZ’s power plants looked vaguely like space stations or Martian landing pads. Big circles of mirrors concentrated solar heat, while extensive pipe systems carried hot fluids to the generators. Although the engineers managed to reduce the cost of solar power, energy prices fell even faster: fossil-fuel prices dropped by 78 percent between 1981 and 1991.
Meanwhile, the political support for solar power evaporated. Congress started dragging its feet on the yearly renewal of the Energy Tax Credit, and 1990’s renewal lasted only nine months. This made financing perilous. Then, in 1991, California’s governor vetoed the property tax exemption. Although it was ultimately reinstated, the credit was labeled “controversial.”
I reached Lotker, who’s left solar power to become a rabbi, while he was helping with a funeral. He remembered the days of trying to secure political support. “It was two emergencies every year,” he told me. “The first was getting the new plant online. The other was getting the credits. It was always life or death and it made our costs much higher.”
Lotker described many barriers to the company’s success. There was “false confidence” in the availability of renewable energy—and a lack of commitment to taking the steps to make solar competitive with other forms of power, including putting a price on pollution or the hidden costs of conventional power generation.
“I always thought support for these [steps] was a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said. “Everyone loved them but no one would fight to the death.” Thirty years ago, Lotker and his compatriots at LUZ looked at bombing ranges in Nevada and imagined powering the whole U.S. with concentrated solar thermal power from them, but “inch deep” support cut their small effort off at the knees.
Today Rabbi Lotker drives by the old plants occasionally and says he feels “like a father” to them, but without a carbon price solar power will lack enough support to become a major part of the grid.
In the usual discussions of solar power in the media, we focus on whether the technology “works” or whether it’s too expensive to compete. Sometimes we talk about poor management, boondoggles, or the proper role of government in helping renewable energy. Rarely do we talk about how politics invades a business model, making a risky proposition more risky. If we learned anything from the past, it should be that the dumbest thing we could possibly do is to support a technology, get companies going, and then yank the support so that taxpayer investments go to waste.
Some of LUZ’s founders started a company called BrightSource, which designs, develops, and sells solar power plants that use banks of precisely angled mirrors to concentrate heat on a central tower to generate steam and electricity. BrightSource has contracts for 2.4 Gigawatts of generation with California utilities and plans to design and build several plants. BrightSource’s senior vice president of government relations and communications, Joe Desmond, was formerly chairman of the California Energy Commission and has held positions in the public and private sector. He is a springy intellectual with an encyclopedic enthusiasm for solar.
To Desmond and those on the inside of the energy business, it’s obvious that the entire utility sector is the product of government regulations, incentives, and goals. But that can also be risky for a technology. Regulators sometimes get enamored of a technology with hidden barriers—hydrogen for example—that then falls out of favor. And no one will forget the starkness with which the tricky relationship between politics and the grid was laid bare during the California blackouts of 2000-2001, which cost Governor Gray Davis his job. “There are high consequences for the failure to manage risks,” Desmond said.
Desmond mentioned two ways that risk is already embedded in the solar energy landscape. First, as in the ’80s, federal tax credits are an important part of getting investors to pony up money for solar projects. The “Investment Tax Credit” has been extended to 2016, a solid timeframe that allows entrepreneurs a predictable future. But a provision called Section 1603—which allows those tax credits to be monetized early—must be renewed every year, and it was not renewed at the end of 2011. With shades of LUZ, the shuttering of 1603 is likely to cut private financing for solar significantly. Solyndra’s bankruptcy is driving the debate around renewing programs like 1603, even though the loans the federal government made to the start-up are very different from the tax credits made to solar producers. “It’s difficult to communicate the difference in a sound bite,” said Desmond.
But, in many ways, the problem with tax credits is old-school. The newer, more interesting, more futuristic risk is the one posed by the restructuring of the grid itself. The old grid was hierarchical, with centralized power plants dispatching power at will. The new grid is a two-way flow of information and energy. “We’re moving from centralized to distributed decision making,” said Desmond. “How do we manage these risks?” Regulators often play catch-up to the technology. A partially solar-powered grid will have benefits and risks we don’t yet understand, and these will be combined with the risks of wind, cheap and plentiful natural gas, and a “Smart Grid” that makes consumers and their usage part of the conversation.
As the grid gets more complicated, so does the regulation. BrightSource and other power companies have been working on ways to store energy so it can be dispatched on the grid when it’s needed. BrightSource stores heat, and then uses it to generate electricity after the sun has set. Hydroelectric plants often pump water back behind a dam so they can send power onto the grid when it’s needed. But as energy storage evolves, regulators need to decide philosophically what it is. Is it like electricity, which is a product? Or is it more like natural gas, a fuel that can be stored? Recently the California Public Utilities Commission has had seven proceedings on energy storage. The consequences of the commission’s obscure decisions on this issue may suddenly become visceral some screaming hot afternoon in 2015. And no one wants to be the next Gray Davis.
I left the conversation with Desmond thinking that while the energy cognoscenti have learned the lessons of LUZ, the rest of us have not. We’re enjoying the same pointless debate about the government’s proper role in energy markets that we had in 1991. In the meantime, the grid and the power markets have evolved from the punch-card world of 1981 to the day-trading Internet of today We need to up our game.
In some ways, reality has overtaken the moribund conversation. A day or two after I interviewed Desmond, a tree fell across a power line near my house and left me without power for almost 24 hours. I hadn’t lost power in five years, and the last time it happened I was miserable. I had just a few battery flashlights, the battery in my laptop only lasted two hours, and the phone was dead. Not this time. Now my laptop’s battery lasts seven hours, my cell was fully receptive, and I had a cheap solar-powered LED light from Ikea. With my gas stove and the IKEA lamp I made dinner, called the utility to report the wire, and did an evening’s work on the computer. I even watched a movie on it. Between the batteries, the 3G network, and the solar light, my evening was not too different from a night on the grid—just darker.
It made me wonder if maybe we were missing the whole point about solar. I called John Perlin, a solar historian and author of From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity. Perlin is now involved in the installation of solar photovoltaics at UC Santa Barbara. He believes we’ve gotten too wrapped up in trying to make solar power compete with fossil fuels, distracting us from its real advantage, which is that it’s right on the roof, independent of the grid. You don’t need wires, or power plants, transformers, or dispatchers. “Doing away with high-voltage lines is not a Luddite view,” says Perlin, “It’s a futuristic one. The revolution will come as we cut down the utility lines and up with the rooftops.” We’ve put decades of effort into making solar conform to the grid—even down to converting solar panels from DC power to AC power and then turning that AC power back to DC power for our TVs, computers, and electronics. House by house, we’ve created redundant costly equipment. Perhaps what we need instead is a more contrarian viewpoint. “All our appliances are DC, trapped in an AC world,” said Perlin. “The history of technology is full of these discontinuity stories.”
If we’re going to take advantage of the discontinuity of our times, then we (the public, policy makers, and the media) need to start talking about what power means now.
Lisa Margonelli is a fellow at the New America Foundation, the publisher of http://energytrap.org, and author of Oil On the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank.
"Several states and countries have adopted targets for deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but there has been little physically realistic modeling of the energy and economic transformations required. We analyzed the infrastructure and technology path required to meet California’s goal of an 80% reduction below 1990 levels, using detailed modeling of infrastructure stocks, resource constraints, and electricity system operability. We found that technically feasible levels of energy efficiency and decarbonized energy supply alone are not sufficient; widespread electrification of transportation and other sectors is required. Decarbonized electricity would become the dominant form of energy supply, posing challenges and opportunities for economic growth and climate policy. This transformation demands technologies that are not yet commercialized, as well as coordination of investment, technology development, and infrastructure deployment."
They model a number of scenarios to come up with one that achieves the reductions. The scenario they come up with essentially preserves the "life style" of the state and ends up with rather minimal costs, on balance.
The basic scenario is staged, with gains in energy efficiency coming first, a decarbonization of electricity and then the electrification of transportation. Basically they see the need to replace our "local" fossil fuel use with electricity use. Then the production of electricity by technologies that don't put GHGs into the atmosphere. The large use of fossil fuel for transportation is the last technology transition, which about three quarters of the "light duty vehicles" transitioning from gasoline to electric vehicles and plug in hybrids.
The goals for roof top photo-voltaics is small, but is 10% of the electricity demand.
The electricity generation would then transform from nearly 100% Fossil + Hydro to a mix of carbon capture and storage generation, renewables and nuclear.
The model allows a pricing of the scenarios with the net costs the difference between the paying for the move and the savings because of the move... the 2020 point the net costs are $15B ($320 per person), 2035 $45B ($910) and by 2050 $65B ($1200). California is the 6th largest economy in the world and the 12th largest GHG emitter. The Gross State Product (GSP) is about $1900B, today with a per capita income of $43,000.
We can afford it...
the concluding pargraph:
"Assuming plausible technological advances, we find that it is possible for California to achieve deep GHG reductions by 2050 with little change in life-style (although the potential for life-style change deserves further study). The logical sequence of deployment for the main components of this transformation is EE [energy efficiency] first, followed by decarbonization of generation, followed by electrification. This transformation will require electrification of most direct uses of oil and gas. In California, no single generation technology (renewable energy, nuclear, or CCS [carbon capture and storage]) can be used to decarbonize all electricity; a mixed generation portfolio is required. If it is true that the low-carbon path features electricity, then the question is how best to mobilize investment and coordinate R&D and infrastructure rollout to achieve this end, and what climate policy modalities will be most effective. If the oil economy is replaced by the electric economy, it is instructive to consider the implications of the price of a decarbonized kilowatt hour replacing the price of a barrel of oil as a benchmark for the overall economy."
Chris is on the leading edge of California's laudable goal of responsible energy use.
Thanks for the awesomely informative and inspiring post, CMac!
Great point about "the cleanest kilowatt is the one you never use".
I'll just share a few highlights on our project of living in a net-zero home:
In 2009 we bought a fixer-upper (that's putting it charitably. The inspector deemed it "uninhabitable", but with some cajoling removed that designation so we could get a mortgage). Initially, we just wanted to make it liveable, but then my husband got psyched to up the anti to strive for a net zero house.
Basic rule of thumb: Put all the investment in efficiency (insulation, windows, appliances) until investment in efficiency becomes more expensive than an investment in energy generation.
We brought our heating bills down about 75%(!) by installing mega-insulation and new windows.
Our solar panels are going up right now. We should be online selling energy to the grid in 1-2 weeks. The best solar potential on our lot wasn't on the roof, so we ended up building a structure to capture it.
We debated many scenarios before deciding to go with PV now. After this, we'll be looking to replace our natural gas furnace with a different heating system (ductless mini-split heat pump) and that should get us to a net-zero house that doest not rely on fossil fuels.
Just want to say: There are so many ways to go with this stuff! It is amazing the possibilities and the know-how that is already out there! People are doin' it!
Furthering education or considering future applications this July conference and expo in San Francisco on just about anything to know about solar even don’t throw away grass clippings in the yard and bottles you will be able soon to make your own with paint on cells.
I write solar information websites as a hobby, and I have to say - this article nails it.
Chris listed a few aspects of the decision, but let me draw attention to his most important one: the price you're paying for electricity. Here in northern California, we have tiered rates, and after consuming about $50 of electricity in a month, we're in tier 3, paying 30 cents a kilowatt-hour, and tier 4, paying 34 cents.
I just bid a install here in Marin county (yes - I'm in solar sales) and by agreeing to a prepaid lease, the homeowner will be getting 20 years of electricity for 10 cents a kilowatt-hour. Right now he's paying 34 cents.
Look at that math. His panels could all break, utility rates could drop - every worst-case scenario could happen, and it's still a no-brainer!
Most of us have a tougher decision. But if you're in PG&E country, solar probably makes sense. And there are lots of good companies out there. Just always get a few bids.
Inverter and PV System Technology Forum – February 27-28, 2012
Solarpraxis will host its inaugural Inverter & PV Systems Technology Forum in San Francisco on February 27 & 28. This event will bring together those involved in the manufacture, planning and construction of a PV system, with a specific focus on the electrical systems and their interfaces, and how these can be optimized.
CALSEIA’s Executive Director will be moderating a session on Certification Requirements and Permits.
More info: solarpraxis.de It is English look for conferences
Yes, at night we buy power from the grid (generally at a low rate). During the day, when it is sunny, we are almost always selling power back (generally at a higher rate). And if there is a power outage, we no longer send power to the grid.
Chris... Nice solar article. curious have you reviewed any of the bigger Goal Zero setups? I've been using the Escape 150 setup and two panels for the past few months. I've been on the road working remotely, living out of a car, and have successfully used the system to power my macbook for daily use as well as all of my electronics/lighting. Maybe I can write an article?
I have been using the Extreme 350 Adventure kit. I am actually just about to post a review on it. I have not used the escape kit. Just the Goal Zero Sherpa 120 Kit. I will create a page for the Escape kit and it would be awesome if you could post your experience. Thanks! Ill message you soon.
Great article, love the micro-inverter concept, glad to see it works well. I put in a 3kw system 4 years ago and am adding a 2.4kw system I bought on craigslist for 4k dollars. The new system provides power to charge a GEM neighborhood electric vehicle (craigslist 4k dollars). I am putting as much as 200 miles month on the EV, driving it for free.
Everyone that owns a house in California should be doing this.
Chris, well done (both installing the solar and writing intelligently about it)! There are a whole lot of myths and misunderstandings about solar, so thanks for doing your part to provide solid, practical information.
Your only mistake was not choosing Sun Light & Power for the system design and installation. I'm just kidding, of course. SolarCraft is a great company. In fact, we have partnered with them in the past and worked on each others' projects, and they are definitely a quality outfit.
For anyone in the Bay Area / Northern CA intrigued by the idea of going solar (commercial or residential, PV or solar thermal), feel free to contact me with any questions:
Blake Gleason, PE
Director of Engineering Sun Light & Power
I live in Marin as well. Solar is the way. The digital PG&E meter you may want to change that out. It transmits a very high watt cell signal. No big deal really so long as your bed is not right there on the other side of the wall. Because it is not a hand held it dose not have to follow the same laws. Not trusting large corps. I did a little research, no matter what they say it is not good to have a high watt signal traveling through your head. PG&E transmits all the time. Take a look at this video in SF. Youtube
Chris, we recently went to a geothermal heat pump and are now thinking about solar panels. There is no property tax increase for inside improvements here. My main concern around here going with solar panels is the increase in property taxes. Our house is now valued for tax purposes at 70,000 here in South Dakota, and are tax is at 1,600 a year. Our property tax increase will be close to a 600 dollar increase a year with the increased value, and that is about as much as we pay in electric now a year.
Seems like it will take an awfully long time (more than we got) for the system to pay for itself when I take into account property tax increases.
How much have your property taxes increased yearly since adding this?
Also, my Friend Tom A (many of you know him as a prolific Bay Area climber) said he had a pretty sweet lead on how to do a DIY installation for about the 1/4 cost I paid. So if you are DIY minded (or have great friends who are) solar panel systems can be installed for pretty mind-boggling low costs
Great article! I'm excited to explore a similar TPO roof and solar panel installation for my low-profile roof (Eichler) in Lucas Valley. Can you recommend the roofer you used? I've done a search for roofers in the area that handle TPO but can't find any that do it specifically. I've currently got a worn built-up roof (tar and gravel) that would love to be upgraded.
you can control the temperature of your house from your iPhone (see if you forgot to turn off the heat when you left the house)
it has a motion sensor that will automatically turn off the system if there is no movement (I am pretty sure it factors in when you are sleeping)
it also supposedly just learns what your habits are and what you want the temp set at when.
At $250, its expensive and will not necessarily pay for itself in under five years (my standard for good eco investments). It's just hard to spend much money on heating where we live... the thermostat is only on 4 months a year. But the fun factor makes it worth it to me.
Where it will REALLY will pay off is at my Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals. Renters will leave all the time without turning off the heat in the dead of winter. I've come in and the house has been empty with the heat set at $82 degrees for days. Needless to say, the gas bills can give me indigestion. So I anticipate that the Nest's I have installed in Tahoe will pay for themselves in under a year.
We pay all of $0.08 per KWh in Spokane, no sliding scale for time of day. Would be a long time to pay off a solar upgrade, and there is no pay back for feeding the grid. We've put in all LEDs for all lights that are on more than an hour a day; anything that is on regularly is at least a CFL. Once we completed the conversion, our bills dropped by ~20 KWh per month. It will still take a long time to pay off the upfront expense.
Thank you SOOOOO much for sharing the results of your many years of research into solar as a viable option. This is something we've wanted to do forever and we're now in a position where we can. As we've started to looking into the options, there is so much unclear or conflicting information.
Also, (I'm sad to say,) most claims coming from a solar company itself are suspect because we simply don't know what's true and what isn't. It's so great to find info like yours! We're in SoCal with SCE and feel practically held hostage by our electricity rates. Can't WAIT to get solar!
I don't know if you still reply to emails since it seems like this article must have made you mega-popular by now, but I know that my husband will probably have a couple of questions about the specifics of what we should end up getting after he goes through everything you've put up here. The possibility that we might have access to someone as knowledgeable as you is amazing!
Looks great! A friend of mine (electrical engineer at Tazer) will be testing his 100w heat power generators on my wood stove this winter. It lights up in Oct and stays on for 6 months, and he has patented a way to keep the thing going through too much heat (the others burn out pretty quickly)
I'm jealous that you can sell back to the grid like that though.... we buy at 13 cents and can only sell at 3cents. So I'll be selling a lot back in the winter, just have to attach panels and figure out how to keep 3' of snow from covering them up in the winter...
Just switched to a sweet time-of-use metering program for electric cars through PG and E. I buy electricity at $0.03 at night and sell back electricity to the grid via the panels at up to $0.31 during the day.
More details on the PGE rate: its called E-9, Rate A. In the summer, it is $0.03855 per kWh to charge between midnight and 7am. Winter it is $0.048. That means it theoretically costs $0.93 to charge the 24kWh battery from 0 to 100%
I can then drive about 90-110 miles. So less than a dollar to go 100 miles. I like! My wife's 2012 Prius, about the most fuel efficient car out there, costs $8 to go 100 miles.
you are lucky to have a public utility, we get raked in San Diego because we have a corporate utility. They buy power from us at half of what they charge regular customers. 7 cents per kWhor so I think. They justify it by the fact that 7 cents goes to transmission and distribution and 7 cents goes to the actual generation of the power.
Very relevant article for the times we face. Very good information and numbers making economic sense for Chris's location. Solar is getting closer to widespread use, but still has some way to go to compete with coal or natural gas in efficiency. Geothermal supposedly gives the biggest bang for the buck when used commercially, and would be a worthy investment for a colder, cloudier environment.
Without government help, solar would be a challenge to be profitable. As with time, efficiency will increase, before solar is mainstream.
Nuclear is not environmentally safe and doesn't make sense because the risk is never worth the savings.
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