ER Outlook- Sustainability – My missing article


A “computer glitch” when the reporter sent my story to copy editing added an extra “o” to the word “Outlook” in the title, sending my entry into “etherland”.

You can view the entire Outlook Special online at: (takes awhile to download, my article on Page45, which they added afterwards)

Or you can read it below. If you have been thinking about putting solar on your home, here is a guide. Enjoy.

ER Sustainability Outlook 02/27/07

Sustainability is a trend that is growing not only here, but also throughout the world.

It is an attempt to provide the best outcomes for the human and natural environments both now and into the future. Essentially you could think of it as balanced use of the planet, where the use doesn’t outstrip regeneration.

Locally there have been a number of movements towards this goal, particularly with solar power. Butte County is particularly well suited for solar power. Climate records show that we have 219 sunny days and 57 partly cloudy days per year on average, which makes solar power viable. It wasn’t always that way, and it’s only now that solar power is becoming economically viable due to increased electricity costs, increased solar cell efficiency, and state rebate programs to help home and business owners kick-start the process.

There’s three reasons to do solar power on your home or business:

1 – You want the economic benefit of reduced power costs.

2 – You want to do something environmentally sound.

3 – You have no other power options available, such as a summer cabin.

Most often it’s the first two, but there are some limits you should be aware of related to economics. Solar power can be an expensive proposition to install, even with rebates. Thus unless you have money to burn you have to plan it carefully to ensure that you get payback on your investment. You also need an unobstructed view of the southern sky.

I myself have placed two solar power systems into use, one on my home, and another for Chico Unified School District on Little Chico Creek School, which is the largest solar power system for a school north of Sacramento.

In both cases, there were high power uses going on, which made the economics easy. My home had a deep well, a pool, and an upper and lower A/C unit, making my power bills hit as much as $500 per month in the summer! I’m studying a design for a third solar power system on my new home, purchased just last year, but its more energy efficient, making the planning task more detailed.

Typically, you’ll need to have a power bill of at least $150-200 per month or more to make solar viable for your home as a retrofit. However, if you are building a new home, planning solar into the building process is less expensive.

Some forward thinking developers are now offering turnkey solar built into new homes, such as is being done in Fresno. So far, I haven’t seen Chico developers offer such an option, but I think the time is right for our Building Industry Association, Chamber of Commerce, and City Government to work together to make such an offering practical.

The way solar power works for homes and businesses is by a reverse metering scheme based on Time Of Use (TOU). During peak power need times of noon to 6PM on weekdays, electricity is far more valuable than during off-peak times. PG&E will credit any power generated during those peak times as much as 4 times the value of electricity used during off-peak times.

It’s sort of like the stock market, sell high and buy low.

To achieve this, your home or business has to outfitted with a TOU Meter, so that PG&E can track when you use power. Then when you connect a solar power system to that, it will log when you are generating power during midday peak times, and when you are drawing power during off-peak times. The trick is to generate exactly enough power to result in a net-zero energy use, because PG&E does not pay you back for any excess power generated.

A solar power system generates DC voltage from the solar panels, and when they are working at peak you can expect a 15% solar to electricity power conversion efficiency. The DC power from the solar cells must then be converted and phased to match the 60 cycle AC power grid. This is done with DC to AC inverters, usually mounted near your mains breaker box. There’s about a 10% conversion loss in that process.

If you are planning to do solar, there are a few things you should know:

· Pick a reliable contractor experienced with the process, particularly with the California Energy Commission rebate process, because a mistake there can cost you a lot of time and money.

· Be prepared to spend money or to seek financing. There are low cost state-sponsored finance programs available.

· Be patient. The process takes time, often more than you think, especially in a retrofit. There are applications, permits, tests, and government interactions involved.

· Solar will immediately add to the resale value of your home, that value never decreases. So when you get a state rebate, say for $10,000 towards the purchase, you get to keep that as equity.

· Financing should be balanced in such a way so that it is equal to or less than your average existing electricity bill, so that you are paying yourself back. When the system is paid off, then you’ll have zero payments for energy.

· You’ll be switched to a yearly billing system rather than a monthly. If your solar system doesn’t produce enough electricity to cover all your use, at the end of the year you’ll have what’s called a “true-up” bill, which could be large, but averaged over the year will be much smaller. Be sure to plan for that.

· Right now, solar isn’t for everyone as its still a rather expensive and complicated process to install as a retrofit. However, as solar panel efficiencies increase, and more companies get online producing solar cells, the costs will come down, as happens with any new technology.

· There are state and federal tax credits for any solar installation which when figured in with rebates, can make the project quite attractive, and in some cases, a very low cost.

Given that energy demands are only going to go up, and prices will naturally follow that demand, if you have high electric bills or have a business that could benefit, solar power is certainly worth looking into.

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February 28, 2007 9:56 pm

Anthony…this is an excellent example of what happens when you just trust people to do the right thing…and stand back to watch the entrepreneurs and geniuses solve REAL problems. This “trend” and others will blossom as long as they work.

Tom Barrett
March 6, 2007 7:04 am

Loved your article, too bad it got lost. FYI and EEI (everyone else’s information) the rebate system is now in the hands or the utility providers in the State. The CEC doesn’t not handle solar rebates for existing buildings only new construction per the requirements of the California Solar Initiative. So anyone looking to add solar should contact their utility and start the process that the utility companies have set up.
A requirement before you can add solar is that you must have an energy audit. Anthony Watts I know you know that negawatts are much cheaper than solarwatts (sorry I had to say that), but there is no requirement to do anything the energy audit finds like replacing a typically oversized inefficient AC unit or inefficient refrigerator or get rid of the second refrigerator in the garage or dealing with all the extra phantom loads we all seem to be accumulating these days.
So in the interest of your readers, you should be referring them to their local utility company for information on rebates for installing solar systems on existing buildings. BTW solar is up on the agenda of the Redding City Council tonight.

August 21, 2007 2:56 am

Good article but shouldn’t you reference your sources ???…
ie the
“It is in fact an attempt to provide the best outcomes for both humans and natural environments for the immediate time and the indefinite future.” bit …

David S
March 15, 2008 10:58 am

Anthony, I know its a bit rude to ask how much something cost, but in the interest of science can you tell us the installed cost of the 10Kw system?
Of course you are entirely within your rights to say it is none of my business and I certainly respect your right to privacy.
REPLY: It was about $70K installed

March 24, 2008 4:02 pm

Thanks for providing this information. I’ve just started a search as we anticipate replacing our furnace, A/C and roof over the next two years. This was great information to have as we make our decision.

May 12, 2008 10:05 am

[…] first week. Of course this sort of energy efficiency isn’t anything new for me, since I put solar on my home, and on one of the local schools when I was a trustee. But never mind that, I’m still […]

November 1, 2008 9:14 pm

[…] of being one of the few people on the task force that actually walked the talk, as I had put solar on my home and a local school, plus I drive an electric car (though I’ve since upgraded to a newer model […]

Robert Stegmier
December 6, 2008 4:09 pm

I live in Rockford Michigan not sunny california and I installed 2Kw solar PV on my roof and below are my results. I am now approching my second full year and project to produce the same amount of electricity. i feel it is worthwhile even here.
I am interested in the fact that PG&E credits you at 4 times during peak time vis off peak. I’ll certainly work to get that in Michigan because 44% of what I produce does go into the grid during peak load time.
Solar Energy Results 12-15-06 to 12-15-07
Why did my wife and I install a 2K solar photovoltaic (PV) energy system* on our house? Because we feel strongly that we need to reduce our carbon footprint. We believe that the huge amount of industrial and human activity is causing GW/CC. We feel it is our responsibility.
From December 2006 to December 2007.
• Our system produced 1,821 KWH of electricity.
• Eliminated 1 ½ tons of CO2 gas.
• 22 ½ % of our electricity usage.
• 56 % of the 1,821 we used while 44 % was sent into the grid.
• If our neighbors usage is similar to ours then our system is supplying 16 ½ % of their electricity. Pretty cool! Two for the price of one.
Because solar’s peak production is during the middle of the day we send the extra into the grid, I like to say to our neighbors. It is exciting to see the indicator arrow on the net- metering meter pointing towards the street indicating the grid is being fed our excess electricity.
• One of the beauties of solar is that the electricity doesn’t travel very far therefore
resulting in very little “line loss”
• Peak production coincides with Consumer’s peak summer loads created when many air conditioners are running. Helping reduce the peak requirement.
• Solar emits no greenhouse gases.
Consumers Energy pays us at the same rate they charge for the electricity we send to the grid less the electricity distribution charge of $.026594 KWH.
I believe that we all should be willing to pay something extra for clean energy that results in healthier air to breath. While on bright sunny days the air seems clean and fresh but it has health damaging pollutants and particles in it. Solar creates none! Rain also washes some of the pollutants out of the air and into our streams and lakes resulting in mercury in fish and more acidity in lakes and the oceans.
If you are interested in seeing our system just give me a call.
Ps. Our home is located in a woods which undoubtedly reduces the amount of electricity we can produce. I estimate in an open area we might produce 50% more.
Bob Stegmier, 616-866-4769
*Eleven 208 watt solar PV panels, roof mounted and 1-SMA 2500 watt grid tied inverter.
** I also believe that AESs (alternate energy supply) like me should be compensated extra, similar to what Consumers Energy is. Consumers Energy is charging 24% extra for “Green” energy they sell.
*** The State of Michigan should establish some incentives to encourage solar energy investment

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