Tag Archives: alternative

Solar Power update (part 8)

(continued from part 7)

So here we are. February 2010. We had our solar array online for close to a year now.
What are the first year impressions of our life with a 1.2kw solar array in our front yard?

First, if you read the initial installment of my solar power posts you will notice that we built a post with a mount laid out to hold 12 panels. Because 200W panels aren’t cheap we only populated half of the array at first. These six panels were actually only 195W a piece, so to be correct they only add up to 1170w total. Since going online on February 11 2009 we made 1361kwh as of January 31 2010. The array has been producing power for just over 4010 hours. The power output during the course of a nice sunny day starts up around 8:30am (in the winter) with just enough wattage to turn the inverter on, typically 10 watts or so. Around 11:30am, when the sun clears our roof and hits the panels full on we are up to 800 watts which will quickly ramp up to 1050-1150 watts just around noon. It stays there until 2:30pm or so and slowly creeps back down to 50 watts around 5pm. On a sunny, cloudless day this will produce between 4.5 and 5.2kwh. In the summer we get up to 7.5kwh on some days. Of course if we have a very cloudy sky the power never exceeds 50 watts. January around here is like that sometimes. Total electricity usage in our first year with the solar panels was 14,320kwh. That means the panels contributed a little under 10% of the electricity used at our house.

As it turns out my installer, Alex Jarvis from Solar Systems of Indiana, helped me to sign up with a company by the name of Sol Systems which brokers SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Credits). Based on the size of your system you get a yearly check for offsetting carbon output. I actually did get a check of a couple of hundred dollars for the first year. More than the $85 I saved on my power bills.

One other thing is that my system over-produces sometimes. In other words it makes more power than we use in the house and we get credit for it from our utility company. Unfortunately the credit that we get back is a little more than half of what we pay (we pay $0.0631 per kwh while we only get $0.03357 for a kwh that we feed back in.) Unless we overproduce during peak times – then we get a credit of $6.67 per kwh! During last summer we were actually able to still produce around 500 watts during evening peaks and it turns out it is a good time to turn off everything non-essential in the house for an hour to feed back as much as possible and get the peak time credit. If you can feed back half a kwh on 10 days in a month it adds up to a $40 credit on your power bill – pretty substantial.

Then, on January 5 2010 Alex came over and we added six more panels for a whopping 2370kw. This what our array looks like now:

Why, you ask, would I spend another $4,500 to add six more panels? I mean, I really *only* made about $285 last year. If nothing else happens, nothing changes, the price of electricity stays the same or the days become longer it will take me 33 years to break even, not counting at least one inverter replacement for about $2k in that time – and that calculation does already include a 30% tax break.

The answer isn’t exactly simple.

1) While looking at my power bills, we developed strategies to use electricity when we get it for free from the panels. We learned that dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, computer tasks involving multiple computers, etc. are better done during the day to use power from our solar panels rather than the grid.

2) With the help of a Kill-a-watt, which shows you how much energy a connected appliance draws over a given time, I was able to locate some real energy wasters in the house. For one, the dehumidifier in the basement is now turned off – that things sucks 300-400 watts! That’s about 3000kwh in a year! The solar panels make me really conscious about that stuff.

3) We have about 4-5 months in which we can actually overproduce and feed back power during peak times. With 12 panels we should be able to maximize our credits considerably.

4) While at the moment the 1/2 ratio between what we pay for a regular kwh ($0.0631) and what we get credited for ($0.03357) seems quite unfair, this will change eventually. Even in Indiana the law says utilities are required to pay retail rates for power fed back into the grid. It’s just that our power company is a coop and they are still excluded.

5) While our initial six panels were $1200 a piece and rated at 195w the new ones we put on just three weeks ago where $800 and are rated at 200w. So prices have dropped.

Today was really the first full day of sunlight since we installed the additional panels. Just before shutting down the inverter read 10.41kwh produced. And that’s pretty cool. Considering that on average we use about 39kwh in a day that’s about 1/4 of total electricity from solar. I am sure we will find more holes to plug in the walls and more ways to save energy. It should be an interesting year.

Solar Power bucket of salt (part 7)

(continued from part 6)

After all the good vibes coming out of our solar installation I really need to reinforce something I knew long before I decided to spend almost $15,000. You can’t really predict the weather so we can only estimate our yearly average power production. Right now, in mid-February, on a cloudless day my PV system produces about 5.5Kw from sunup to sundown. Let’s assume during the summer we might get up to 8Kw per day. That’s an average of 6.75Wh and for simplicity round this up to 7Kw. If we have 365 cloudless days we would produce 2,555Kw in a year. At a cost of $0.105 per Kwh that should save me about $268 in a year. I realize that I can only get realistic numbers after monitoring my power output for a year but this amount is pretty close.

Here are two facts to consider about PV panels and alternative energy:

1) If I can produce all the electricity I need at my home during the day with my panels I will still need power after the sun sets. There is just no way around it, I will need the power from the grid until something better comes along. My PV installation will only cover about 15-35% of my usage unless I increase the number of panels four or five times and buy a few tons of batteries for storage. A system of that magnitude would cost me close to what I paid for the house.

2) Driving through my rural neighborhood I notice that many homes have outside lights. And more than half of them are on whenever I drive by. Day or night.
Now assume that’s a 200W bulb in there. Leave it on for 24 hours and your meter will move by a whopping 4.8Kw. That’s almost as much as my PV system makes at the moment in a day. If you leave that turned on 24/7/365 it will use 1,752Kw in a year. Now throw in another 100W for phantom loads such as VCRs, DVD players, cell phone chargers – all stuff that’s not turned on but still sucks a few watts while it is connected. All of a sudden you are looking at 2,628Kw per year that you could save just by switching that outside light off and investing in a few switchable outlet strips. That’s $263 in a year. Pretty close to what I save with my panels! And you almost get it for free!

There are a few reasons why I got the panels anyway.

1) In the long run – 20 years or so – I’ll break even and then the system still has 15-20 more years which will be savings in my pocket.

2) I wanted to learn how this is done. The digging, the wiring, all of it. There is nothing like some hands-on experience.

3) I wanted to do something else than just donate a few bucks to various political causes.

4) Not a week goes by without somebody stopping and asking about that strange thing in front of my house.

But frankly, unless there are some seriously cheaper and more efficient panels, a modern power grid and practical storage of overproduced electricity I don’t see how solar panels can make a significant impact in the overall energy budget. It’s a drop in the bucket as are many other alternative technologies at the moment. Of course many drops also fill the bucket eventually. But I think whoever claims solar power alone, or wind power alone can replace all the nuclear and coal power plants is delusional. At the same time it’s equally delusional to think that things will just go on as they have been.  Lots has to be done and everyone has to be more conscious about energy usage.

If nothing else, the PV installation in my front yard, and several others in and around my town show that things are changing. People are waking up. We should have paid attention after the oil crisis of the early 1970s. We could have altered our course a bit after 9/11/2001. Instead, we stick our heads in the sand and pretend everything is cool.

To conclude: For me the installation of a PV system in my yard is only a beginning and not the solution – but it can be a seed for a small part of a solution.

(continued in part 8)

Solar Power (part 3)

(continued from part 2)

Together Alex and I started digging in my front yard in early October while our supplies were on their way. There was to be a big 3×3 feet hole, almost seven feet deep.

This was where our steel post was going.

The main hole soon got too narrow for two people and I started digging the 24 inch deep trench for the electric line going from the post to the house. You want to keep that as short as you can. The longer the cable the more power you loose on the way to the inverter. These are pretty hefty cables, too.

Of course, in the pretty Fall weather our two girls wanted to have a part in the fun.

Eventually the digging was complete. Most of the supplies had arrived. The first step was to set the post. This is one hefty piece of metal. Since we didn’t have a crane we devised a way to roll the 16 foot pipe with five people off the flatbed trailer, onto a four foot pipe of the same kind – so we could roll it towards the hole (it was a 20 foot post but since we needed only 16 feet we had one four foot piece left over). After the post was in the hole Alex started to prepare it for a concrete pour.

After that there were two days of electrical installations. There are actually two separate cable pairs going from the post to the house. Only one pair will be used at first. If we decide to add on a second row of panels all the wiring will be in place. These wires go into  the basement and connect to the inverter.

Made in Germany (I am proud to say). This piece of equipment turns the ~400V Direct Current (DC) coming from the panels into 110V Alternate Current (AC). After the actual solar panels the inverter is the most expensive piece of equipment needed. It’s also the one you will have to replace after ten years or so.

Then it got cold and we had to wait for the final paperwork from our power company. We will be the first grid tied solar installation of all their customers. I think they will watch us with great interest.

Currently (January 2nd) everything is ready to go. The panels are in the basement,

the mounting brackets are sitting under the deck,

and the post is waiting for a few days break in the weather.

(to be continued)

Solar Power (part 2)

(continued from part 1)

Alex, my solar assessor – his company is Solar Systems of Indiana – came over one cold winter day early 2008 with his Solar Pathfinder and a device called a Kill-A-Watt. The Solar Pathfinder is used to determine the best place on your property for a solar installation and how much sunlight you can actually harvest taking into consideration stuff like tree line and geographical location. The Kill-A-Watt is such a good investment that I got one myself and it makes the rounds through my friends’ houses. Do you know how much electricity your refrigerator uses in a day? Your computer? (with all attachments such as external drives and scanners etc. on?) How about your waterbed? Or your cell phone charger (which you probably leave plugged in even while you carry your cell phone around with you)? Even though I have been frugal in my power use all my life (and believe me, my wife and kids hate me for being after them all the time to turn the lights off when they leave the room), after Alex had measured the power usage of some stuff in my house I was able to cut back even more. In retrospect, the sheer process of measuring this stuff, and learning as you go, how much it costs to build power plants, etc. makes you very conscious about waste – and that’s a good thing.

Of course being the only Solar Assessor in my state means that this guy is busy. After his visit to my house he prepared a report for me. Pretty detailed. It turned out that my property had potential if we mounted the panels in the front yard on the ground or on a post – not on the roof. There are other considerations with roof mounting, especially penetration and possible weight issues. In the time from the assessment until Alex finally located some free time to start the actual planning of the installation (around June 2008) I went to a seminar at Indiana University dealing with many aspects of home solar technology. I learned a lot and thought for a while that I might actually learn some more, take a weekend seminar in Wisconsin, get certified and become the second Solar Assessor in Indiana. It didn’t go that way.

I spent most of July in Germany and then August, back home, writing down my energy usage to determine the base load to be able to size the system we were going to get. Base load is essentially all your power users which are on all the time such as refrigerator, computers, whatever. In the hot Indiana Fall, with the geothermal doing the AC,  I was able to determine the base load at just around one kilowatt. Then we started to devise a system.

  • 1)  We never had plans to go off the grid. I didn’t want an over sized six kilowatt solar array ($60,000) and a truckload of lead-acid batteries in the basement and then still face the possibility of running out of juice in the middle of February because of lack of sunlight.
  • 2) While utilities in Indiana are required to pay retail for what you overproduce and feed back into the grid our power supplier is a Co-op and they do not have to do that. They pay wholesale rates. So too much overproduction was not feasible. This pretty much sized our system at 1.2KW. Six panels, pole mounted, in the front of the house.

Then, in late September, came the $15,000 shopping list to the supplier. And early October Alex showed up at my house with a shovel and said: “Let’s dig!”

(to be continued)

Solar Power (part 1)

In the last year or so the term ‘alternative power’ has really come to the forefront again. High fuel prices, talk about peak oil and dirty coal. Good thing, too, because we need to talk about it. Especially during 2008 I kept getting emails from countless action groups and organizations such as the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund mentioning it. The issue is actually on people’s minds….

For some reason it has been on my mind since I was a teenager. If you have read some of my other entries here you will be aware that big, complex engineering holds high fascination for me. All sorts of power plants fall into that category. From giant dams to nuclear power plants, from wind turbines to geothermal. And there are of course the more esoteric, fantastic or futuristic things such as fusion, solar power satellites, deep geothermal, tides, etc.

But what is an ordinary citizen supposed do to about all of that? Sure, you can contribute to some of the organizations who lobby for clean power and oil independence in Washington. But still, somehow somebody has to do the dirty work, build something, make something work. Only scientists get to do the cutting edge stuff. We consumers just have to wait until product becomes available at our local hardware stores – sometimes ten years after you first read about it in Scientific American, often never.

Here’s the first part of our ongoing story:
We bought our home in 1995. After paying rent all my apartment-life it came as quite a shock that not only could you do stuff to your house and garden but unless you wanted to call somebody to fix that drain or dig that hole YOU had to do it yourself.

When we moved into the house we had a brand new gas furnace installed. It was fairly efficient but a few really cold winters convinced us that some other heat source might be more economic. I spent the first half of 2001 looking for a local contractor who knew how to install a geothermal heating & cooling system. Around May I found somebody – 90 minutes drive south. In August, in the course of a few days, the system was installed. We spent a bit over $10,000 on it but it works much more efficient than the gas furnace. Since then the gas prices have gone up even more and my latest calculations show that we did break even already.

After that I started seriously looking into solar power. But, really, in the first years of this decade nobody wanted to hear about it. My car mechanic and my dentist both told me they had solar panels installed in the early seventies after the first energy crisis. Their experience was not a good one – non-standardized systems, no spare parts available and nobody close by to maintain it. So, for about six or seven years I kept looking around for somebody to help me. Sure, there was (and is) plenty of the needed material for sale at places on the internet. There are plans, layouts, articles. But I really wanted somebody to come to my house, look at the property and tell me whether this was feasible or a pipe dream.

In late 2007 there was a little press about a few houses being built in the city of Bloomington, IN (my hometown). Some of these houses had solar panels on their roofs. Through the real estate company I found the person who had put these on. And guess what. He lives about a mile from my house, is a well known rock drummer in town and happens to be the only certified Solar Power Assessor in the whole state of Indiana.

(to be continued)