The Solar Burn, Part 3: Power Line Tug-of-War

This is Part 3 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!

Power Line Tug-of-War

Solar owners and electric utility companies have been playing a game of tug of war with power lines, for decades. That’s because of the way solar owners like to “store” their excess electricity.

When the Sun’s out, your panels are pumping out power, and lots of it. Often, it’s a lot more than what you’re using. What do you do with the excess? You don’t want it to go to waste.

You could set up a battery storage system, to store all that excess electricity. But unfortunately, these systems are very expensive. Batteries cost one hell of a lot, plus you need to install expensive controller equipment, and maybe a special inverter.

Probably the best battery is the Tesla Powerwall lithium-ion. It will set you back about $11,500, including installation costs. But it only has a 10-year warranty. Also, it can only store 13.5 kWh of electricity. At our household, that’s only good for about a half day, before we go back to the Dark Ages.

The Tesla Powerwall battery.

The cost of battery storage is so prohibitive, most solar owners opt for what is called a “grid-tied” system. This system connects your solar array to the grid, which is the infrastructure of power plants, substations, transformers, power lines, and so forth, that the electric company has built.

When your solar panels are producing more electricity than you’re using, the excess power is backfed onto the grid, and made available for your neighbors to use. And your neighbors are charged for it, at the full retail rate.

This eases the burden on your electric company to produce electricity, but in spite of that, they regard this as trespassing. It’s their power lines, after all, and they’ve paid a lot of money to put their lines up. Of course, they won’t complain if you’re willing to give them your electricity for free. But otherwise, you’re trespassing.

But it turns out, solar owners are greedy bastards, and they don’t give a damn if they’re trespassing. Not only do they want to trespass on the electric company’s power lines, but they also want the electric company to pay them for the electricity they backfeed to it.

“Okay, fair enough,” says the electric company. “But you still have to pay a flat monthly fee of about $14.00, for the use of our power lines. Then we’ll pay you what we pay the power plant for our juice.” Wholesale prices, in other words.

Nobody seems to debate the flat monthly fee. It truly does seem fair enough for covering the cost of maintaining the power line infrastructure. But what has been hotly debated is the policy of paying customers the wholesale price for their excess electricity.

The wholesale price is a fraction of the retail price. For instance, we pay 30-cents per kWh, retail, for our electricity. But the wholesale price averages about 5-cents per kWh. So under this arrangement, we’d be selling our excess electricity to the utility for 5-cents. Then, when we need to use it, we’d be buying it back for 30-cents. That’s a great deal for our utility, but it stinks for us.

Naturally, those in the solar industry have protested such arrangements. It discourages people from installing solar arrays. So state governments have stepped in to resolve this tug-of-war over the power lines. They’ve imposed something called Net Energy Metering (NEM).

NEM differs from state-to-state. In some states, you sell your electricity at retail rates, then buy it back at the same rate. But in other states, you sell it for less than retail, but buy it back at retail.

California likes to number their NEM arrangements. NEM 1.0 was the most generous for solar owners. With NEM 1.0, you sold your excess power at full retail rates. But that ended in 2016, with NEM 2.0. With 2.0 (our current arrangement), you sell your excess power for a few pennies below retail rates. The difference in the markdown is set aside to help poor people, by giving them a discount on their electric rates.

Utility companies have not liked NEM 1.0 or 2.0. They’ve pushed hard for a new NEM, where they’ll only pay wholesale rates for excess power generation. And they’re going to get most of what they want. On 12/15/22, the California Public Utility Commission voted to scrap NEM 2.0 and impose NEM 3.0. With NEM 3.0, solar owners will only get a few pennies above wholesale rates for their excess generation, but will have to buy back the electricity they’ve sold, at full retail rates.

So the utility companies in California have mostly won the tug-of-war.

This really sucks, and it makes investment in solar panels far less lucrative. Californians will be feeling more hesitant to install solar on their houses under this arrangement. And that would include my wife and I if it wasn’t for one nice thing about NEM 3.0. That is, it doesn’t take effect until April 14, 2023. If we can get our solar array installed and approved before that date, we’ll be grandfathered into NEM 2.0 for 20 years.

We’ve already signed a contract with a solar installer. We’re now waiting in line behind many others who have also signed contracts, hoping to beat the deadline. But we’ve been promised by our installer that they’ll probably have our system ready by March 31st. If they come through and accomplish this, then we’ll be on the NEM 2.0 plan.

Our fingers are crossed. The race is on.

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The Solar Burn, Part 2: The Nuts and Bolts of Sunshine

This is Part 2 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. Thanks for reading!

The Nuts and Bolts of Sunshine

If you really want to burn your brain cells out from the Sun, try studying the technical aspects of solar power. There’s a lot to the nuts and bolts of sunshine. I could write a whole book, but by the time I finished my brain would look like a pile of ashes.

If you’re as nerdy as me, you can go online and find some good books on solar energy that will turn you into a true know-it-all expert. You know, the kind that leaves professionals rolling their eyes, because you know too much, while not being familiar with the practical aspects of the subject.

I really hate those eye rolls.

I found lots of info online, from Wikipedia and many other sources. I also found a pretty good book entitled, Power From the Sun, by Dan Chiras. The copyright is 2017, so the information is somewhat dated, but I found Chiras’ easy-to-understand explanations very helpful.

There are technical terms that are nice to know, so you can look cool while speaking solar language with the solar pros. One of the most basic terms is, “solar array.”

A solar array is what lay people often call a “solar system.” But I always feel funny referring to a solar array as a solar system. Solar professionals build solar arrays. Whoever builds solar systems is a matter of theological debate.

A solar array, in its simplest form, consists of solar panels (technically known as modules), one or more inverters, and perhaps some power optimizers. It’s the whole system that you buy and have installed, which generates electricity from the Sun. It’s also known as a PV array, with PV standing for “photovoltaic.”

A rooftop solar array.

Solar panels are those big, black photovoltaic rectangles that affix to your roof, and that absorb the Sun’s rays, converting them into electricity. They’ve come a long way these past few years. About five years ago, the best panels for residential use produced 300 watts under optimal conditions. But nowadays the best panels produce 400 or more watts. In fact, the panels I’m buying produce 410 watts each.

“What?! What’s a watt?” you may ask. One watt is a tiny amount of electrical power. One-thousand watts is a lot more power, and is called a kilowatt. If you use one kilowatt for one hour, you’ll use one kilowatt-hour (kWh) of power. A typical home uses 20 to 30 kilowatt hours (kWh) of power every single day. At 30-cents per kWh (which is what our utility charges), that’s $7.80 per day for 26 kWh (which is what my household averages), or $234 per month. That amounts to $2,808 per year.

A solar array can be expected to last at least 25 years, but probably much longer. That’s longer than my wife and I expect to live, since we’re already approaching fossil age. 25 years, times $2,808 per year, amounts to $70,200 in electric bills. But we’ve been quoted $21,000, before the 30% federal tax credit, to have an array installed. So as you may be able to tell, while sliding the beads on your abacus, this deal could save us a lot of money.

But maybe not, as we’ll discuss later.

It helps to do your homework before contacting a solar installer. Get your prior year’s utility bills together, along with a calculator. They’ll need to know how much electricity you use in a year, to design the right-sized system to meet your needs. This will help them determine the correct amount of panels, and size of inverters, so that you can avoid The Solar Burn.

An inverter, by the way, converts the direct current (DC) electricity provided by your solar panels, into the alternating current (AC) electricity that your house uses. There are two different types of inverters. A microinverter installs directly behind each solar panel. But a string inverter accepts DC current from all your solar panels, and converts it to AC. If you go with microinverters, you’ll need one for each panel. But if you go with a string inverter, you’ll only need one.

Microinverters are less expensive than a string inverter, until you add them all up. Then they’re more expensive. But they’re typically warranted for 25 years, while a string inverter is typically warranted for only 10 or 12 years. To replace a worn-out string inverter, it will cost you a few thousand dollars.

The size of the system you’ll need depends on a lot of different, mind-boggling variables. Latitude is one. How far north do you live? The further north, the more panels you’ll need. Can you imagine what the roof of Santa’s house looks like?

Cloudy climates are also a big factor. You’ll need a lot more panels if you live in Seattle, than if you live in Spokane. Tilt and azimuth are important factors, too. The tilt of the panels is generally determined by the slope angle of your roof. The azimuth is the direction your panels will be pointed. 180-degrees due south is always the best azimuth for power production.

But shade is the big granddaddy of all variables.

Ever have someone throw some shade at you? Not a pleasant experience, is it? And when some offending tree, building, or other object throws shade at your solar panels, it’s also not a pleasant experience. Power output will plummet to near zero. You’ll want your panels placed where they won’t get much shade. So you might want to chop down all the trees around your house.

Your solar installer will probably input all the variables, including the shade around your house, into a computer program, that will calculate the size of the system you need. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory offers such a program online, called the PVWatts Calculator, at https://pvwatts.nrel.gov/pvwatts.php. It seems pretty accurate, because when I used it, it gave me a similar number to the one my solar installer got. Which is 4.9 kW. I’m very impressed that our government has produced something that actually works.

Our solar installer has designed our system to include 12 solar panels rated at 410 watts each. 12 times 410 equals 4,920 watts, or 4.92 kW. That means the array will have the potential of producing up to 4.92 kW at any given point in time. But usually it will produce less, since the 4.92 kW can only be produced under the very best, absolutely, positively optimal conditions.

Real-world conditions are hardly ever that optimal. So, the PVWatts Calculator factors in expected inefficiencies. Based upon this, it calculates that our 4.92 kW array will produce about 9,500 kWh of energy, per year. This is enough to meet about 100% of our electrical needs.

And yet how can this be, since the Sun only shines by day, and we use electricity at night? I’ll answer that very important question in a later post.

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The Solar Burn, Part 1: Playing with Fire

This is Part 1 of a multi-part series about my attempt to install solar panels on my house. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

Playing With Fire

The Sun is 93 million miles from Earth. Only one one-billionth of its energy reaches our planet. And about a third of this energy is reflected back to Space, by clouds. That’s pretty damned inefficient. Yet in spite of this, just one half-hour of sunlight shining upon the Earth can supply enough energy to satisfy everyone’s electrical needs for a full year. Including condemned prisoners sentenced to the electric chair.

But only if we can harness it. And we humans are trying our best to do just that, with ever-improving technology, and the latest and greatest, highly efficient solar panels.

This series of posts is about solar energy, as well as my personal endeavor to grab some of the Sun’s rays and use them for my own electrical wants and needs. There’s been a fever burning lately, for solar energy. I’ve caught the fever myself, but I think it’s best for me and everyone else to calm down. If we don’t approach solar energy carefully, we’ll be playing with fire. The fire of the Sun. And we could be scorched badly by what I call The Solar Burn.

Humans have been working at generating electricity from the Sun since 1839, when a French scientist named Edmund Becquerel immersed two brass plates in a conductive liquid and shined a light on this apparatus. To his surprise, he found that an electric current was produced by the light.

But at that time, electricity was not widely used. So no one knew what to do about this discovery, and simply regarded the finding with mild curiosity.

Then in 1873, a British engineer named Willoughby Smith accidentally discovered that shining a light on selenium bars created a tiny electrical current. A few years later an American inventor named William Fritts was inspired by Smith, and got in on the action. Fritts devised the world’s first electricity-producing solar cell, made from from a thin layer of selenium, covered by a thinner layer of transparent gold film.

But scientists felt skeptical. To them, Fritts’ invention seemed to violate the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. So they regarded his invention as a fraud, and accused him of trying to fool people with a magic trick. But try as they may, they couldn’t figure out how he accomplished this magic.

Also, his solar cell was only about 1% efficient. That means that it was only able to convert about 1% of the solar energy reaching it, into electricity. This wasn’t much juice, and even after scientists came to accept the authenticity of the strange invention, they regarded it as impractical. In their eyes, it was a mere oddity or curiosity, and without any real potential.

That is, until the 1950s. That’s when researchers discovered another element that produces electricity when exposed to light. Silicon. Silicon is one of the most common minerals on Earth. Basically, it’s sand, and if you’ve ever been to a beach, well, you know how common sand is. Bell Laboratories began playing around with this discovery, and managed to invent a silicon-based solar cell that was 6% efficient.

This was a giant leap from Fritts’ solar cell, but still not enough to make solar energy practical. The silicon has to go through an expensive purification process. Therefore, the manufacturing cost was too high for the small amount of electricity produced. So nobody wanted to buy these solar cells.

Except the government. Yes, leave it to the government, that free-wheeling spender of our tax dollars. We were trying to beat the Russians in the Space Race, and at any cost. And we needed a way to power our satellites. So NASA turned to Bell Laboratories’ solar cells. Finally, solar energy found respect within the scientific community. And the aerospace industry has used solar cells ever since, to power satellites.

Model replica of Vanguard 1, the fourth satellite ever to be launched into space, and the first satellite to have solar electric power. About the size of a grapefruit, it was launched on March 17, 1958. It remains the oldest human-made object still in orbit, although communications with it were lost in 1964.

Then, in 1973, the Arabs decided to get revenge on us for helping Israel kick their asses in the Yom Kippur War. They imposed an oil embargo that caused the price of gas, heating oil, and electricity, to skyrocket. One of the ways we reacted was to seek alternative forms of energy. We fervently hoped we could tell those Arabs to stick their oil tankers up a place where the Sun doesn’t shine.

So we turned to a place where the Sun did shine, and that was to solar cell technology. By the mid-1970s, people started putting solar panels on their roofs. Unfortunately, these solar panels were very expensive, and only rich people could afford them. It could cost several hundred thousand dollars for a solar array system that might supply the needs of an entire household. Also, solar cells had only improved to being about 14% efficient.

But since then, solar panel manufactures have figured out ways to bring down the cost of production, while increasing the efficiency of panels. Today, the cost of a full, solar array system ranges from about $15,000 to $30,000 for most homes. And today, solar panel efficiency has reached over 22% for the highest quality panels. Such efficiency means less panels have to be bolted to your roof, to supply all the needs of your home.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a bill that passed Congress in August 2022. Many have argued it will increase inflation, while purporting to reduce it. But that’s a whole other controversy, which I won’t get into. However, one of the provisions of the IRA provides a 30% tax credit to anyone who installs solar panels on their home. Thus, if you buy a solar system that costs $20,000, you’ll receive a $6,000 tax credit, reducing the cost of your system to $14,000.

I’m a strong believer in the law of supply and demand. I suspect the tax credit has driven up demand for solar panels, which in turn has driven up the price by about 30%. Thus, I believe there’s no real break here. There’s just the illusion of a break, like the mirage of water over pavement on a hot summer day.

Nonetheless, when you’re paying an average of 30-cents per kilowatt hour, as I am in California, solar panels can be a tempting way to tell the electric company to shove their high bills up where the Sun doesn’t shine. Which is what I’m in the process of doing. We’ll get into that, and how I’m trying to avoid The Solar Burn while playing with the fire of the Sun, in future posts.

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