This is Part 5 of a multi-part series about my attempt to install solar panels on my house. For the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!
No Solar Array is an Island
Many people who don’t have solar panels mistakenly assume that solar energy will free them from their electric company. But those who do have solar panels have learned the disappointing news. No, if anything it’s the opposite. Solar panels leave you married to your utility company in a kind of symbiotic relationship. You provide electricity to them, when you’re generating a surplus, and then they provide it to you when you’re enduring a deficit.
But, you may reason, suppose some drunk asshole collides his car into a power pole, or lightning strikes a transformer, or for some other reason all the power goes out in town. If the sun is shining, you can smugly enjoy all the benefits of electricity, such as using the internet and watching TV. Meanwhile your neighbors have to sit around entertaining themselves through medieval measures, such as storytelling, endless games of backgammon, or jousting.
But wrong you would be, for no solar array is an island. Solar arrays connected to the utility company’s grid have an anti-islanding feature. This feature shuts your solar array down, anytime the grid loses power. “What?!” you may pound your fist in rage. “Why should I have to suffer the same as my non-panel-owning neighbors?! By God, I paid a lot of money for my panels!” Be careful. Don’t pound your fist too hard. I nearly broke mine.
Anti-islanding is a safety feature. It protects utility workers, who are busy trying to glue the downed power lines back together, or whatever the hell they do. If your solar array was generating electricity during a power outage, it would backfeed any surplus onto the grid, and that could electrocute the utility workers.
For this reason, the inverter or inverters that convert the DC power produced by your solar panels, into AC power, are designed to detect power losses from the grid. And any time power is lost, the inverters shut down. When power is restored they wait five minutes, just to be sure, and then they start working again.
This type of inverter is mandatory, and no utility company will approve your interconnection agreement with them, unless you have this type of inverter installed.
An interconnection agreement, by the way, is a contract you make with your utility company prior to being allowed to activate your solar array. This contract spells out how you will be compensated for the excess electricity you generate, what type of equipment you’re allowed to use, and several other particulars.
After your solar array is installed, you’re not allowed to use it. Nope. Easy there, buddy. You may feel eager and anxious, but don’t flip that switch on yet, or you could get into a heap of trouble. No, you can’t legally use it until your solar array has been inspected by your utility company, and they are assured you are using approved, anti-islanding inverters. Then they sign off on the interconnection agreement, and you are allowed to activate your solar array.
And it can take a few weeks for them to come around and inspect your shiny, new solar array. So in the meantime, you have to keep using your utility company’s electricity, while your solar panels languish away in the Sun. This can feel very frustrating for new solar owners.
I have asserted that no solar array is an island. But that’s just a play on words, inspired by the famous quote from the 17th century Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne. This great Englishman delivered a sermon where he proclaimed:
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
This beautiful quote illustrates our interconnection with each other. Buying solar panels won’t make us independent from the utility company’s grid. In fact, in some ways it just makes us more a part of it. Interdependent. We produce for our neighbors, then receive back at a later time, when we need it. In theory, it’s a wonderful cooperative.
In theory. But sometimes the theory is not as wonderful as the reality. If you live in an area that suffers from frequent blackouts or brownouts, you may rue the day you connected your solar panels to the grid. But take heart. Much to John Donne’s consternation, there is a way to turn your solar array into an island.
But it will cost you. If you’re willing to spend about 10- to 20-thousand more dollars for your solar array, you can add a battery storage system. And then when the power goes out, your batteries can keep the juice flowing through your home. It requires a special inverter for this, which must be approved by your utility company, but if the expense is worth it to you, and your pockets are deep enough, then this is something to consider.
You may also want a battery system if you live way out in the sticks, far from the nearest power line. If the cost to install battery storage is less than what the utility company would charge to extend its lines to your house, then such a system would likely be worth the expense.
And then you can truly be an island.