It’s Solar Time!

How to Make Solar Energy Work for You

So you’re considering switching to a sustainable energy source? Good for you! My husband and I are in the process of installing our solar energy system and wanted to share what we’ve learned  and offer suggestions to anyone considering this upgrade. Most people will tell you that if you pay less than $100/month for your electricity bill then you shouldn’t consider solar energy systems at this time. It makes sense given costs, but with some of the incentives for installing solar disappearing at the end of this year, if not sooner, you might want to reassess your future needs and usage. For instance, we pay  around $100/month but we are remodeling our house and expecting our first baby, so our energy usage is bound to go up. We also decided to jump on the electric car bandwagon and solar energy is the way to go in utilizing it. Once our solar installation is complete, the sun will provide the electricity needed to charge the vehicle on a daily basis. But before we get into those incentives and other things to consider, let’s make sure you know the basic reasons for choosing solar and how you’ll not only be impacting your pocket book, but also the environment.

Benefits of Solar

Our reliance on fossil fuels has been the main contributor to global climate change through the increased amount of greenhouse gas emissions. These include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that absorb infrared radiation and trap heat (almost like a blanket) within our atmosphere. The global temperature has already increased more than 0.5 degrees Celsius in the last 30 years and will continue to do so if things don’t change rapidly. Some effects of this temperature increase include a rise in sea level, extreme weather conditions, biodiversity loss and more. By switching to solar, you can effectively decrease reliance on fossil fuels, decrease pollution, save money in the long run, and raise your property value! So now that you know how positive solar energy can be for you and the environment, let’s talk specifics about how to save you money and pick the best system for your household.

Lease or Buy?

The first question homeowners ask themselves regarding solar installation is whether they want to lease or buy the system. I’ll make this easy, if you want to save the most money in the long run, and maximize incentives, experts recommend buying. Leasing is still a great option for those who consider any upfront costs prohibitive, but you will not save as much money. Leasing means you sign a document, and then a company installs and maintains the system. They keep all subsidies and will lease the solar energy back to you. Leasing will typically cut your power bills by about 15% -30%. If you own, once you’ve paid off the system you get free power for the remaining life of the solar panels. Most solar panels are under warranty for about 25 years. Here are links to a few articles that address the buy vs. lease option…

http://www.npr.org/2015/02/10/384958332/the-great-solar-panel-debate-to-lease-or-to-buy

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/want-to-go-solar-buy-the-panels-2014-09-15

http://www.foxbusiness.com/personal-finance/2014/01/29/buy-vs-lease-solar-panels-on-your-home/

Incentives Available

If you’re going to buy, make sure you get what’s owed to you for being a responsible environmental steward.  The time is now to act on some of these incentives! For instance, net metering is still available from SDG&E until the state mandated cap of remaining megawatts is reached. What is net metering you ask? Well, you basically get to earn bill credits for excess power you put back into the electric grid. These credits can then be used to pay for any power you need on top of the solar energy your system produces (i.e. you typically need energy at night). For an overview of SDG&E net metering, click here. By acting before the remaining megawatts run out, you are grandfathered into this program for 20 years. It’s expected that the cap will be reached by December if not sooner, and you have to have your system installed before that occurs to be grandfathered in. Since installations are quite popular and there could be a sort of installation bottleneck, some companies are suggesting signing up before June to ensure acceptance.

Some solar incentives have already run out. The California Solar Incentive payments, which were funds received based on the size of your project, ran out in 2013, much faster than expected. Another reason to act now is the 30% federal tax credit that is offered when you install. This incentive will end Dec 31, 2016.

An incentive that is not expected to run out, is the utilization of the HERO program. HERO stands for Home Energy Renovation Opportunity Program. This program makes energy efficient installations more affordable to homeowners. You can get your project 100% financed, and they offer low fixed interest rates up to 20 years. Plus, the repayments are made through your property taxes and the interest is tax deductible! And if you sell your home before it’s paid off, the remaining payments can be passed to the new owner (varies by bank/lender though). This program is currently available in the following San Diego areas: Carlsbad, Coronado, Del Mar, El Cajon, Encinitas, escondido, Imperial Beach, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, National City, Oceanside, Poway, San Diego, San Marcos, Santee, Solana Beach, Vista and Unincorporated areas. Click here for more info.

A final option to make money back is through Renewable Energy Certificates/Credits (RECs). Here’s a link to a short video about what RECs are. Basically once you accumulate 1,000 kilowatt hours, or 1 megawatt hour, you get a certificate you can sell to local power companies that are required to get a certain amount of electricity from sustainable sources. The price varies, but can be around $200. SDG&E claims this system is complicated and only financially viable for those who produce more than 12,000 surplus kilowatt hours/year. That’s because you have to pay a minimum fee and become an account holder. To learn more about RECs with SDG&E click here.

Which Company is Right for you?

The Solana Center for Environmental Innovation encourages you to take certain steps to make sure the company you choose is the best fit for you. Here’s a list of recommended steps to take before selecting a solar company to install your system:

  1. Talk to people! Ask your neighbors, friends, and acquaintances about their experiences with installing solar and whether they would recommend certain companies
  2. Check Active Solar Contractors on Go Solar California
  3. If you are going to utilize the HERO program, make sure a contractor is registered with them: https://www.heroprogram.com/Find-Contractor
  4. Check reviews on Yelp, Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau
  5. After you’ve narrowed your search of companies you’re interested in get AT LEAST 3 bids. You want to feel comfortable with the company, know who you’re working with, compare prices and products they use, and also hear their reasoning for choosing one product over another.

Types of Panels and Inverters

When you talk with different companies you’ll hear about the solar panels they choose, how many they would recommend using for your household, and whether they prefer using certain types of inverters. It’s helpful to know what in the world they are talking about during these discussions so here’s a brief overview of panel choice and inverters available.

First the company will look at your property, check your electricity bill, and determine if solar is an appropriate choice for you. They will likely choose a south-facing rooftop or land area with few to no trees that could partially shade the area. By looking at your bill they can determine how many panels they’ll need to install. Some companies offer different types of panels, or may stick to a certain type they prefer. You can do some research on brands to see what’s important to you. You’ve got options. Also you may prefer polycrystalline vs. monocrystalline panels. In simple terms, monocrystalline is made from slicing pure silicon wafers from a single ingot. Polycrystalline means the silicon cells have been melted down and poured together. In general, a monocrystalline panel can get better efficiency, but they also cost a little bit more. So if space is an issue, you might lean towards monocrystalline panels. But if space is not an issue, and price is more important, then many go with polycrystalline panels. The more important thing is that you are choosing a solar panel manufacturer that is reliable, and in it for the long haul. Remember that your warranty is only good if the manufacturer is still around.

String, Central and Microinverters oh my! Your solar panels generate direct current (DC), but in order to power electric devices, it needs to be converted to alternating current (AC). The inverter takes care of this, plus it allows you to switch off the current if repairs are needed, or there’s a power outage. String and central inverters were the only option until 2008 when microinverters came on the scene. String inverters typically only handle 8-10 panels. Central inverters can handle more, but are similar in that several panels feed into one inverter. Microinverters mean that each panel has its own inverter. Microinverters are more expensive, but allow for optimum performance for each panel. String and central inverters perform at the level of the least efficient panel. So if you have partial shade, microinverters are the way to go for efficiency. Microinverters typically last longer given they have lower power loads to deal with (one panel instead of several), but there are more parts to rely on too. There are definitely less moving parts in central inverters which is a plus. That said, if one microinverter fails, you lose one panel, but if your central or string inverter fails, the whole system goes down. By having microinverters you can also assess each individual panel’s output and see if there are any problems. When relying on central inverters, you won’t know which panel may be an issue when you see a decrease in your output. If you think you might need to expand your system later, you’ll likely want to choose microinverters since they can grow as you go. Adding panels to a central inverter system can be tricky, and may not work for the central inverter you currently have.

The Waiting Game

Maybe you’re not quite ready to make the leap into solar yet and that’s ok! Of course you might miss out on some of those incentives and be paying more for your electricity in the mean time, but you could get yourself a more technologically advanced system. Also, the popularity of solar should increase the number of companies providing services, which will bring the overall cost even further down due to additional competition. Already residential solar prices went from approximately $5/watt in 2013, to $3.48/watt in 2014. Solar technology is booming right now! Solar panels are getting more efficient, lighter in weight, and could even be included in rooftop shingles, glazing for skylights and windows. They’re even experimenting with making solar cells out of shrimp cells and have produced a spray on solar application! Who’s to say where the technology will go next, but expect that in the near future it will be included in your household in one way or another!

We’d love to hear from you! Do you already have solar and have tips of your own? Do you have questions or concerns? Please share them in the comments below.

References:

Bellard, C., Bertelsmeier, C., Leadley, P., Thuiller, W., & Courchamp, F. (2012). Impacts of climate change on the future of biodiversity. Ecology Letters, 15(4), 365-377.

Deline, C., Marion, B., Granata, J. & Gonzalez, S. (2011). A performance and economic analysis of distributed power electronics in photovoltaic systems. National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Energy.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2015, from http://energy.gov/savings/residential-renewable-energy-tax-credit

Hansen, J., Sato, M., & Reudy, R. (2012). Perception of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 109 (37), E2415-E2423

Hansen, J., Kharecha, P., Sato, M., Masson-Delmotte, V., Ackerman, F., Beerling, D., & … Zachos, J. (2013). Assessing “dangerous climate change”: required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations and nature. Plos One, 8(12), e81648.

Lee, D.M. & Raichle, B.W. (2012). A side-by-side comparison of micro and central inverters in shaded and unshaded conditions. World Renewable Energy Forum, Denver, USA.

Martin, J. (2012). Monocrystalline vs polycrystalline solar panels: Busting myths. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from  http://www.solarchoice.net.au/blog/monocrystalline-vs-polycrystalline-solar-panels-busting-myths/

Maehlum, M. (2013). Which Solar Panel Type is Best? Mono-, Polycrystalline or Thin Film? Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://energyinformative.org/best-solar-panel-monocrystalline-polycrystalline-thin-film/

Maehlum, M. (2014). Micro-inverters vs. central inverters – Energy Informative. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://energyinformative.org/are-solar-micro-inverters-better-than-central-inverters/

Munsell, M. (2015). Solar PV Pricing Continues to Fall During a Record-Breaking 2014. Retrieved March 21, 2015, from http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/solar-pv-system-prices- continue-to-fall-during-a-record-breaking-2014

Paul, G., Kannan, S.A., Johnson, N. & George, J. (2014). Modeling and analysis of PV micro-inverter. International Journal of Innovative Research in Electrical, Electronics, Instrumentation and Control Engineering, 2, (1), 1055-1058.

Renewable Energy Certificates 101. (2015). Retrieved April 20, 2015, from http://www.green-e.org/learn_recs_101.shtml

San Diego Gas & Electric. What is NEM? (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2015, from http://www.sdge.com/clean-energy/overview/overview

Sin Kim, Y. & Winston, R. (2014). Power conversion in concentrating photovoltaic systems:central, string and micro-inverters. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 22 (9), 984-992. DOI: 10.1002/pip.2317

U.S. Department of Energy: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The History of Solar. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2015, from https://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/pdfs/solar_timeline.pdf

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3 thoughts on “It’s Solar Time!

  1. Good, incentives from SDGE and California, maybe the best in the world.
    I’m curious about their economic problem -if too many residents put electricity back into the grid. Buy/sell. Could you update us on this,
    and about solar-hot-water, and solar cooking and heating in San Diego?
    Here in north China, 80% rooftops have solar hot water, practically none have solar-electric nor collector cooking. No incentives that I know of.

    • Great questions Craig! And the concern about too much energy going back on the grid is definitely real. It’s already occurring in Hawaii. Germany is also facing issues of too many subsidies, too many installations, and grid overload issues. So California, Arizona and other US states are concerned that they are looking at their own futures. Although there are solutions they are looking into. Grid updates need to occur which can be expensive, but will be necessary to handle the increased flow back and forth. Hawaii has the extra issue of not being able to easily transfer power to other locations given they are a string of islands. Whereas the contiguous US can send excess power to other locations. Some other solutions include upgrades on excess energy storage both with individual installations or with power companies. There are batteries that are already available (although they are very expensive and need to be replaced within a few years) to residents, but the hope is that the technology can improve. Right now California is required to get 33% of their power from renewables by 2020 and they aren’t there yet! Here are a couple of good articles on the subject.

      http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-solar-boom-so-successfull-its-been-halted/

      http://earthwiseradio.org/2015/03/too-much-solar-power/

      Regarding your questions about solar cooking and solar hot water, I think that would be a great topic for an another blog post! So if you don’t mind, we might postpone answering that one for now =).

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