UPDATE: I’ve answered questions from commenters below in the FAQs, and added additional diagrams – Anthony
Much to the chagrin of people who are sure I’m evil, in the pocket of big oil, and highly carbon positive, I’m actually an independent and pretty energy efficient guy, and I challenge any of my detractors to show their solar and energy efficiency projects. Put your money where your mouthpiece is, I say. For example, do loud climate campaigners Joe Romm and Bill McKibben have solar power on their homes? Do Jim Hansen and Michael Mann have solar power while telling us we all must cut back our energy usage linked to fossil fuels? Inquiring minds want to know.
Readers may recall last summer that I put up my third solar power project, my first being on my older home, then a large 125KW solar project I started as Trustee for the Chico Unified School District. My third project is doing quite well, and a number of readers have asked for an update on my original article as they are considering doing what I have done. This being the day of the electricity denying “Earth Hour”, I thought it would be a good day to write about how I’m beating my electric bill. You see, while many tout the supposed CO2 saving properties of solar panels, my impetus is entirely different: I’m hedging against California’s exorbitant green-driven utility rates.
For example, see below from my bill last year when temperatures went up in the summer, and tell me if where you live you come anywhere close to paying what I do.
Above: my actual rate and costs from last summer June-July 2012.
Thanks to PG&E’s new smart-meter system, they can now gouge me more efficiently and on schedule, when I need electricity to keep cool the most. I doubt there’s anyone reading this entry that pays 93 cents per kilowatt-hour to keep their home cool in summer.
I (along with millions of others in California) pay what I call a “location tax” due to my living in California’s Sacramento Valley, where summer temperatures regularly hit and exceed 100F. The majority of California’s population, living along the coast, don’t see temperatures anywhere near that, and thus don’t have similar air conditioning issues.
And, with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) running amok with cap-and-trade regulation frenzy, with refusal of coal and nuclear energy, relying on green wind power mostly for the future, combined with a looming national Carbon Tax, finding a way to generate your own electricity is in my opinion, the best hedge against future cost increases. Climate concerns don’t even rate with me on this issue, I’m thinking more about my financial future and the health and comfort of my family, and that’s why I got a solar system – it’s a hedge against the green energy and climate madness.
Here’s how I beat the green menace and PG&E.
Remember back in December when climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann was so out of touch that he couldn’t even conceive that I could do calendars for myself (I sent him a free one), but instead it must have been some nefariously funded production? Well, he probably can’t conceive of how I put up my own solar system either, since like the Josh Calendars, I did it using COSTCO and some sweat equity.
Here’s a few FAQs.
1. Did “big oil” or some other entity pay you to do this?
Did you use government grants to do this? No. Did you get money from the WUWT tip jar or calendar sales to do this? No.
So how did you pay for this? Simple. I took out a low-interest loan against my savings account the contents of which was then converted to a certificate of deposit spanning five years. I’ll have the solar system paid for in five years, and the CD will be free at that time. Then I’ll have a solar system and my savings principal intact plus I’ll get interest on the certificate of deposit. Basically I’m trading my PG&E electric bill for a financing bill for five years.
How much did it cost? About $25,000 and change, fully installed, plus shipping and tax on the hardware portion.
2. Why didn’t you get one of those “no money down” solar systems being advertised today?
I’m borrowing and adapting a popular credit card slogan to best explain this: “ownership has its advantages”. I looked into several of these other plans, and when I penciled out the entire scheme, it didn’t make much financial sense, and at the end of the lease, I either had to buy the system at “fair market value” (to be determined) or they come and remove the system. And given the number of solar company bankruptcy/failures out there (think Solyndra), I was concerned that I’d be straddled with a system that was orphaned due to the company going out of business and the debt purchased by some holding company, who could then argue that previous contracts were “null and void” due to such bankruptcy and “oh, by the way here’s your new payment schedule”. When you want to control your own destiny, relying on others is not a safe bet.
3. Grid-tied or battery storage?
It is a grid-tied system. Battery storage systems really don’t make any sense for a city dweller, as they are primarily off-the-grid type applications where you need independent power 24/7. This was primarily a financial consideration, not a power security one.
4. Did you get any government rebates?
No, there was a PG&E rebate program, which put about $1200 (based on my system size) back in my pocket, but as I said earlier, I got no government money related to this. There will be some small tax advantages for me.
5. Does it make any noise or heat?
No, the inverters are essentially silent, except for one small fan. The inverters do make some waste heat, but they are mounted outside, and not an issue. The solar panels actually help keep the house a bit cooler, as they absorb sunlight for a good portion of the roof space, which otherwise would have gone to heating the attic.
6. Has it saved you money?
Yes, absolutely. More details follow.
7. How does your power bill work now?
We get a quarterly summary showing our electric use/surplus, and a year-end “true up” bill to balance any difference. We still have to pay for natural gas usage separately.
8. How big is it? How much power?
36 panels, of 250watts each, for a maximum DC output of 9000 watts (9KW). Of course that’s under optimal sun angle and atmospheric conditions, and with DC to AC power conversion loss, the real max is closer to 6500 watts of AC power. Typical days run anywhere from 4500-5500 KW at peak sun. I opted for the better monocrystalline (blue color) panels rather than the polymorphous (brownish) solar panels as they are more efficient and longer lasting.
9. (added) How soon do you expect to be able to pay back your investment?
If I assume a linear payback rate, it would be about 12 years. However, I think it will be closer to 9 years based on my estimates of what the future holds. First, a look at recent rates by state:
Now, look at the forecast for residential electricity prices. It isn’t linear.
Source: US Department of Energy
10. (added) What is your cost of capital?
The way my loan is setup, guaranteed against a certificate of deposit earning interest, the APR works out to 0.8%. Over 5 years, that works out to be $511.66 for the cost of the loan.
11. (added) How does the mounting system affect your roof integrity? Will you get leaks?
The installation was guaranteed to be leak free, and after this winter rains, I can testify to that. The way the roof mount works, the screws used to secure the rack support post are put under a metal “flashing” cone, and screwed in with a sealant applied to the screw threads. This guarantees that there’s no rain penetration because the flashing not only prevents the screws from getting rain in the first place, the flashing acts just like another shingle. Here’s a diagram I prepared showing how it works:
See a descriptive animation here: http://www.unirac.com/video/animations/solarmount-i/index.html
12. Why didn’t you go with larger panels (like the 300 watt panels of the same size).
Because the volume pricing COSTCO had arranged (at that time) did not offer that size. Adding my 2% COSTCO rebate combined with the lower overall cost made the 250watt panels a no-brainer.
Specs on the panels are here: GRAPE SOLAR 250W MONO PDF
13. How was the system shipped?
It arrived by truck as two large pallets, plus a third long package of rails. I stored these in my garage, unpacked them, and hauled the shipping materials to my office dumpster.
14. What about possible hail damage?
The rated impact resistance: hail diameter of 28mm (1.1″) with speed of 86km/h. (53mph)
These panels are really tough. My installer says you can drop them from the roof onto the concrete and they’ll survive just fine (he’s done it by accident more than once). here is a video and a news item that suggests the panels are tougher than the roofing.
Surprisingly little damage to rooftop solar panels
The epic hailstorm did surprisingly little damage to the tens of thousands of pricey solar-power arrays built on metro Phoenix rooftops in recent years.
Purchasing the system
I actually wanted more power than that, so I contacted Grape Solar directly, described my needs, showed my house roof plan and power bills, and they came up with a custom design for me at no charge. Here’s the line item summary of what I bought:
I did a lot of research on this system, and found it was well designed and likely to live up to its claims, 8 months in, so far so good.
NOTE: Detailed instructions on how to order your own system from COSTCO follow at the end of this article.
Here’s links to manuals (PDF) on the items above:
- Grid-tied Solar System Layout Example
- Solar System Install Guide
- Solar Panel Specification Sheet
- PV Power Inverter Manual
- Solar System Quickstart Guide
I particularly like the Kaco Blue Planet DC to AC PV inverters, which are compact, quiet, efficient, and good-looking to boot. Here they are (5000 watt and 3500 watt models) on the side of my home with the PG&E SmartMeter. DC power comes in at the conduit from the solar panels at top right, AC power exits at bottom left in the curved conduit to junction box to tie into my AC mains breaker box.
Installing the solar system
While I “could” have done the entire installation myself, having mad electric and electronic skills, I opted to have someone experienced in this particular technology do it for me. The Grape Solar company contact gave me a list of certified installers in the area, and I called each of them up and asked them questions. The guy who held up under my intense questioning (A fellow in Redding named Baran Galocy) got the job. For some of the installers, I knew more than they did, never a good sign. Choose wisely.
Plus, this fellow was willing to work with me to trade some sweat equity for a lower installation cost. Since a good portion of time is spent in transport, unpacking, staging, and disposal of packaging, I opted to perform those tasks in sync with his job schedule to save labor time and thus money. Check with an installer you might choose to see if they will do the same for you.
Permits, of course are required. The first step was getting a city work permit, so that the city could get their “cut”. I say this because their inspection was total BS, the inspector never opened a panel box or climbed on the roof to inspect panels. He was most interested in whether mandated warning labels like this below (to protect the stupid) were properly applied. Your mileage in your city may vary. Fortunately the installer handled getting these, keeping my blood pressure down.
The next step was to put up the UNIRAC mounting system on the roof:
This took about three partial work days to complete, since only mad dogs and Englishmen work on rooftops in the midday summer sun. Here it is completed:
The next step was placing and securing panels, while doing base panel wiring:
Note the ladder contraption at the right. This is carpet remnants secured to ladder and rooftop. Shown in red to the left of the ladder is a nylon rope hawser with clips I designed that allows the man on top to pull up the panels while I push from below. This saves your back, plus virtually eliminates the possibility of dropping them and/or an injurious fall. The carpet prevents the panels from being scratched or damaged while they are pulled up.
This paneling operation took about two partial work days to complete.
Finally, the last step was to hang the inverters on the outside wall and to finish all the interconnect wiring. which took about another day.
Waiting for the city building inspector and for PG&E to “approve” the installation for grid connect took far longer than the actual installation. Then I discovered that PG&E changed one of their forms in the middle of the process, and we had to re-do the paperwork. While the install was competed in August, we didn’t actually get the final connect and switchover to net metering until December. Ain’t bureaucracy grand? I was just unlucky, you can figure about 2-4 weeks in most cases.
Here is a photo of my SmartMeter running today at about 940AM:
The 5.01 kW reading is my instantaneous generation, note at the right side it says “Received”. If I am using more power than I generate (or it is nighttime) that will switch to say “Delivered”. So now as I’m writing this, I’m 5kW net positive at my home.
At the top, in the big numbers is the summation of Kilowatt-hours over the lifetime of the meter. When the meter is delivered, it is set to read 00000. If I am using more electricity than I generate, it will show a net positive value (i.e 00234) if I have generated more electricity than I used, it will go backwards from 99999 and as this shows I’m at 99340, leaving a surplus of 660 Kilowatt-hours since the system was switched over in December. most of December and January was fairly overcast here, so my biggest gains have been recent, as shown in my SmartMeter summary online (highlighted in Yellow), I’ve now surpassed energy-efficient homes in my area:
My usage has gone negative:
Nice to see the money flowing to me too, here’s my quarterly bill:
Unfortunately, I still have to pay all those taxes and fees amounting to $4.66, even though I’m a net generator rather than a consumer, but I’ll take the deal.
How this works
The strategy is simple, generate/save as much electricity as you can during non-summer months, bank it (as shown on the meter) and then draw against that bank of generated energy during the summer or when you need power. Hopefully at the end of the true-up period, I’ll end up with surplus, in which case PG&E is now mandated by state law to send me a check. Amazingly, it didn’t used to be that way, and they were getting free surplus electricity.
If at the end of the true-up period, I used electricity, I pay for that then. Since I’m able to watch usage online and on the SmartMeter, it should be manageable to ensure we come out ahead (unless we have an extended heat wave). No matter what though, we are pretty much free of the tyranny of the 90 cents per kilowatt-hour in the summer when tiered rates kick in to punish us valley dwellers.
More info on the net metering program is here: http://www.pge.com/en/myhome/saveenergymoney/solarenergy/solarupgrade/index.page
Do you want one for yourself? Here’s how you can help yourself and help me in the process.
Since I’ve done all the work of documenting the process, the Grape Solar Company has agreed to offer me a finders fee for anyone who purchases a similar system through them via COSTCO. Here’s how to do it:
1. Contact Steve Bouton or Garret Towne at Grape Solar via telephone or by email:
Grape Solar, Inc. 1305 South Bertelsen Road, Eugene, Oregon 97402
Tel: 541.349.9000 Fax: 541.343.9000
Email: steven.bouton “at” grapesolar.com or garret.towne “at” grapesolar.com
2. Tell them you read this article, give them my name so they will credit me.
3. Give them your details, they will design a system to suit your needs free of charge. They’ll need your address, description of your view of the sky to the south (sometimes visible on Google Earth) plus your goals for electricity saving, (full replacement, supplemental, add as you go, etc.). Arrange financing if need be – note how I used my local bank to finance a loan against my savings account for a win-win.
4. Grape Solar will set you up with a custom order you can place on COSTCO.com that will include everything you will need. Then contact an installer. They’ll also supply a list of installers in your area if you don’t wish to do the work yourself. As I mentioned, you may be able to do some work yourself to help the installer to save money. Be sure to ask.
5. You’ll make the order with COSTCO, either you’ll need a credit card with a high limit or you’ll have to wire the money to COSTCO (which is what I did). BE SURE TO ASK TO HAVE YOUR COSTCO MEMBERSHIP NUMBER APPLIED TO THE SALE. This will ensure that if you have an account that gives you a rebate for year total purchases, you’ll get that year-end 2% cash back. 2% of a $20K system is $400, well worth the effort!
6. You have your installer get work permits and do the paperwork with your local utility company – this is key. Without these being done right, you are dead in the water. make sure your installer will do these for you.
7. Install the system – get it inspected and turned on. Submit final paperwork to your local utility company for any rebate programs they may have.
8. Keep all your paperwork for tax time – you may be eligible for tax credits – check with your tax preparer.
9. Enjoy a lower or zero power bill
I hope this gives everyone who is interested the path forward. if you have questions about this please ask in comments. – Anthony