Thoughts On Going Solar

54 thoughts on “Thoughts On Going Solar”

  1. We live in Vegas and keep the thermostat at 78 during summer and use ceiling fans. Solar PV for the house would cost about 35K outright. A leasing payment would offset any electricity cost savings. So we passed on solar. Also, as mentioned, a lease gets iffy, locks you in, not quite sure what happens when you sell the house.

    A solar-powered attic fan makes excellent sense and we’ll be getting one. We installed dew dual pane windows after moving in. They make make a huge difference, especially on south and west facing windows.

  2. This sounds very similar to the calculations I’ve been making about electric cars. We already reduced the mileage we do by biking more and have only one small old economical car. The investment in a Leaf or something similar just doesn’t add up.

    1. I’ve been wondering the same, as I don’t drive much. Not until recently has total cost of ownership data appeared that suggests plug-in battery electric cars have a lower operating cost (primarily due to lower fuel and maintenance expense) than hybrids or gas. So still pondering. But when the beater dies I’ll revisit.

      1. I’m not anti electric cars. Nor am I pro gas cars. I’ve just come to the conclusion that owning fewer vehicles of any kind and driving the ones you do have a lot less is the financial option that suits me best.

  3. We installed a 5 kW (pk) grid-tied system 3-1/2 years ago. Some of the factors that we considered follow. Our shingles were 20 years old, so ready for replacement. Don’t put solar panels over an old roof! A community-purchase program selected the supplier for us, so we didn’t have to puzzle that out. The community-purchase program included an agreement between a solar company and a roofing company to guarantee that the two systems would be a package deal. I believe that electricity rates are likely to rise faster than inflation, never mind why, so being a producer isolates us from rate changes. We had cash and no debt, so this looked like a risk-free investment (as part of a broad investment portfolio). And we support the environmental benefits.

    The result is that our electric meter is at least 700 kWh backward from where it was when we turned on the panels, and we’ve gotten (small) checks for the difference. Our excess production has also covered the $8/mo. system connection charge (which is a small price to pay for having power at night!). We’ve sold 16 1MWh Solar Renewable Energy Credits, at $120 ea, which nets about as much as we’ve paid for natural gas (heat). The value of SRECs is subject to change, and so is not typically included in a financial analysis.

    The electrical noise from the DC/AC converters interferes with my ham radio reception during the day, but I have turned off the system when I really wanted to use the radio.

    I also have an off-grid system: one 200W panel, one $40 charge controller, and two 12V sealed lead-acid batteries. When the sun is shining, I can transmit 100W of SSB voice on HF to communicate within the US Mid-Atlantic region, with the batteries recharging between transmissions. (The panel was a gift from Solar City, just for asking, when they closed down a local sales office. They had shifted to panels that were more efficient than this sales prop, and were happy to be rid of it. The copper cable from the panel to the charge controller is salvage from a damaged heavy-duty construction-site extension cord.) An expensive lesson learned: never connect a panel to a charge controller without first connecting a battery; always disconnect the panel before disconnecting the battery!

  4. What a fantastic article on truly living off the grid! We’ll be bidding on some auctioned Mendocino properties later this month and have been thinking of ways to disconnect from the grid. Thank you for writing about this!

  5. We did a big system with grid tie (and electric car charging), but we also did a 12VDC battery system. 400Ah of batteries, a charge controller, and I added my own DC LED spot lights and switches throughout the house. I did my research, added a DC breaker box, ran 10GA wire to boxes in the attic, and then down to DC switches, without asking anyone at the permitting office. Each room has a second switch that doesn’t add to the electric bill nor CO2 to the atmosphere, and it works during a power outage.

    You can buy those wire-mounted lights, toss the transformer, plug in MR11 LED lights and run them straight from the batteries–5W LEDs bright as 35W halogen. You can also buy light fixtures with GU10 light sockets and replace the bulbs with 12VDC LEDs from your favorite online supplier. 8 of those bulbs will easily light up a room brighter than you do now, so 40W or 3.3 Amps per room. If you use just 2 rooms at time, from 6 to 11pm, fully charged batteries will last 6 days.

    In other words, you can light your house off-grid with a few 12VDC batteries and 3 solar panels. Currently, all my appliance loads (fridge, freezer, dishwasher, etc.) run off of the grid (AC power), the point being you need very few of those during a short power outage. In case of extended power outage, I have a 1000W inverter hooked up to the panels via the batteries that can run the fridge or chest freezer when the sun is shining. I also have a solar oven to heat up all my pantry food.

    For your garden shed, you can probably get by with one large panel, a simple charge controller, one battery, and a few LED lights. The advantage over what you do now is that you can put in switches with the wires behind wooden molding. You can also get 12VDC fixtures that have USB plugs (they downgrade to 5VDC) to charge devices. So no need to carry around batteries, you just show up and the house-battery is already charged by the solar panel.

    1. I realized my wording was ambiguous: the battery system with the lights is off-grid, just parallel to the existing wiring. My appliances run on the regular AC power from the grid.

    2. My intention is to avoid permanent wires and switches of any kind. If I use portable temporary devices I’m not likely to cross a line the county authorities care about. I’d rather reverse engineer my personal habits than attempt to conform to opaque and byzantine procedures with undue costs and penalties.

      1. You would love my county. No building inspector. When we built the farmstead dairy for the goat herd, I called the well/septic inspector because if you don’t crap in it, Waller County calls it a grey water system and let’s​ you DIY it, and I had questions. For greywater, there is two rules, don’t breed mosquito, don’t​ flood your neighbors. With that he bid me good luck.

        Everything else about my county kinda sucks though.

        1. That’s the trade off. The wealthy desirable places with ready access to good jobs, culture, excellent hospitals, universities, good public schools, etc. are loaded up with rules and regs and are expensive. The really cheap places that cut you plenty of slack are kinda nasty in many regards. I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that there are sweet spots, but you need to pick your battles.

  6. Like you, I live in the mild NorCal fog-belt micro climate. My old wall heater thermostat broke a few years ago and I decided not to fix it. I only used it like 3 days a year anyway. Air conditioning isn’t necessary. My family’s PG&E (gas & electric combined) is under $100 and could be much less if I weren’t so lazy. Tough life.

    In our region, the only solar benefit I can see is emergency/backup power for major appliances: water heater, washer/dryer, stove, lights and most importantly, the fridge. Modern life is pretty reliant on a functioning fridge.

    What do you recommend that could power heavy appliances? How do you feel about the trade-off between going all electric (more expensive & less efficient, but can be produced on site) and gas (cheaper, but by definition relies on the grid)?

    1. If your goal is to keep Lean Cuisines frozen along with a microwave to heat them up than you’ll need plenty of juice one way or another.

      On the other hand, people lived for 5,000 years without refrigerators or microwaves. (Yes, yes, I know. The Black Death, blah, blah, blah.) My mother in law was born on a farm in central Nebraska that had no electricity until after WWII and everyone in her family lived to be nearly 100. They used root cellars, home pressure canning, dehydrating, fermenting… with technology from the 1800s. Works just fine.

      I already have an extensive pantry of home preserved foods that remain shelf stable without the usual electrical machinery. Nothing more complex than fire, vinegar, salt, etc.

      If you say you don’t want to reorganize your life because you’re too busy to make your own pickles and such, that’s a different question.

  7. “The problem with my property is that it simply doesn’t use enough power for solar to work given the established industry parameters.”

    That’s because of the fixed costs. They have to show up, stage construction, do paperwork, etc. If its a major installation, there are economies of scale.

    Somewhere in your house you might have a 220 outlet you can plug into? What if you had a 220 plug in your circuit breaker you could just plug a solar panel set into?

    But it will never be that simple, because if you are grid-tied the utility will require an automatic shutoff so if the power is out but your panels are on a utility worker won’t get fried because he thinks there is no electricity in the wires. And you need a lighting arrestor. And an inverter to convert DC to AC.

    Perhaps in India and Africa, where they don’t have grids, they’ll just skip all of this, along with wired telecoms.

    1. My primary goal is to avoid doing anything that would require me to interact with any of the usual authorities- public and private. I’d rather live without most of the modern bells and whistles.

  8. Appreciate your thinking on this. The use of simpler electrical systems and modifying our consumption of electricity- good for the environment and creates less complex living arrangements. Small is beautiful!

  9. I get that you are wary of taking on debt, but in the case of a solar installation, I would urge you to reconsider. This is one of those “good” debts. You’ll need to crunch the numbers, but if you were to take a HELOC loan on, say, a ten-year term, it is entirely possible that the savings on your power bill will be more than the monthly payment on the HELOC. In other words, this could be a cash flow positive investment from day one. This is what I did, and it’s working out great. It’s money in my pocket every single month!

    Something to consider.

    1. I just don’t want to find a way to satisfy other people’s requirements in order to install stuff I can comfortably live without. My goal isn’t to “go solar.” My goal is to have lights at night, a comfortable house, hot and cold running water, and healthy food. I can achieve all those goals faster, cheaper, and easier than getting a ten year loan and buying a lot of expensive do-dads.

  10. I’m an electrical engineer who built a 6 kW hybrid grid-tied system last summer. The “hybrid” label means that it also can function as an off-grid system if the power goes out, which is really the only sensible thing to do if you’re concerned about personal disaster preparedness. Otherwise, if you just have a grid-tied system as the vast majority of them are, your power will go out like everyone else’s because the grid-tied inverter no longer produces power without the regular utility lines operating.

    You may be surprised to learn that I completely agree with your post. Solar is greatly hyped and overrated as a solution to our environmental problems as well as a personal investment. I was surprised and a bit dismayed to learn how little advancement there has been in battery technology, despite all the hype. After months of research and a careful selection process that was as rigorous as any component specification for a new design, I wound up using century-old battery technology (lead acid) that had been updated in the 1970s (absorbed glass mat) with only slight refinements since then. My battery bank weighs 1000 pounds, cost me $4000, and will last about seven years if I’m lucky. It will power most of the loads in my house, except for the electric range/oven, water heater, electric space heaters, A/C, and outlets in rooms I don’t use much, for about two consecutive nights and cloudy days. Oh, and the batteries were made in China, despite my decision to buy them from a Canadian company. Apparently, it makes more economic sense to ship thousand pounds of lead halfway around the world rather than assemble it into plastic boxes with some sulfuric acid and fiberglass right here in North America.

    The inverter, charge controllers, ground fault circuit protection, wire, conduit, and batteries cost me nearly $20,000. The PV panels were actually the least expensive item, with a pallet of them costing me about $3,500. If this had been a completely grid-tied system, the cost would’ve been less than half that, but the idea of doing all this to just sit there with whole array of solar panels generating no power for me during an outage seemed ridiculous.

    I live fairly close to the Canadian border, and the system generates a tenth as much power on an average winter day as it does on an average summer day. The only reason it has any chance of paying back some of my investment is that my state still does net metering, which allows me to earn credits on my electric bill all summer long that directly deduct from my wintertime electric bills. Of course, that really does little for the utility company, which isn’t asking for my power to be crammed down its transmission lines on sunny days when everybody’s at work and still has to supply me with power in the evenings when the panels are shaded or dark and everybody’s home making dinner. And, because cycling power in and out of my batteries will reduce their service lifetime, I’m not interested in drawing power from them in the evenings because the amortized cost of that power will be several times with the utility company would charge me.

  11. So, basically, you’ve demonstrated that negawatts (using less energy by using it better) is the cheapest form of electricity?

    In Southern California, we saved money with a solar installation but the reason was summer air-conditioning bills, which used to push us into the next tier of electricity pricing (for those elsewhere, in California, the more energy you use the more you pay per kilowatt). Otherwise it would have roughly been a wash. We have an on-grid system so we’d go down with the grid. We’re considering something like the Tesla energy wall so we could have electricity if the system went down but it’s a lot of money for the “catastrophe insurance” benefit.

    1. Because humidity is much less of a problem than places like Houston or Atlanta most homes in Southern California could manage perfectly well without air conditioning if they were insulated better, oriented to (or away from) the sun more thoughtfully, and employed exterior shade structures and vegetation, etc.

      One of the reasons this house uses such a tiny amount of power is that I retrofitted the place with passive techniques incrementally over the years.

      Instead, I see brand new black asphalt shingle roof being installed on homes with fashionable charcoal paint jobs exposed to full sun with big expansive south facing windows. So… go ahead and use solar panels to run your compressor 24/7.

      1. My house has passable passive solar – all light colors and the windows face southeast so there’s little afternoon sun in the house, and tile floors on the bottom floor. It’s not too infrequently that I put on a light sweater to go outside only to discover it’s over 80 outside. For the most part (there are certainly exceptions) the insulation and colors are decent on new construction here. Windows are the one exception – big windows are in fashion, and the way they face is determined by the layout of the development. We’re just fortunate in the way my development faces.

        1. I’m working on a blog post about a new subdivision I photographed under construction about a year ago. By coincidence I made friends with a guy and his wife who actually live in one of those houses. That got me thinking about the various ways not-so-great homes (in terms of energy, etc.) in cookie cutter subdivisions can be inhabited by people who think about these issues.

  12. Johnny, rather than diving into the math (others have beat me to that), I want to applaud your attitudes. Corporate interests have turned environmentalism into a form of “green”-branded consumerism. Because their endgame isn’t a healthy planet, it’s a healthy balance sheet for their shareholders.

    Most self-described “environmentalists” are either unaware or deliberately ignore the inconvenient truth that you’ll do more damage to the planet driving a brand new Tesla or a pre-owned 2-year old LEAF 10,000 miles a year (which is under 30 miles a day!), than you do living a sane distance miles from work, bicycling for regular errands/commuting, and using a 10+ year old car the few times a month that it’s actually necessary.

    Your cottage is a great example of a home built when the American middle class lived like the global middle class does today.

    The average Mexican family has a similar income and composition today as the Californian family did when your home was built.
    The middle class of India, the Balkans, Turkey, Egypt or Israel isn’t far off.
    One (if any) car per household, an economy that’s still largely local, victory gardens, space to live in rather than to store possessions, climate control for survival, blankets when it’s cold, fans and water when it’s hot. Our planet could sustain 10 billion people living this way, and we could pay cash for it.

    Our planet cannot sustain 10 billion households with one car per adult, more bedrooms than people, one bathroom per bedroom, 15+ mile commutes, drive-to-your-mailbox built environment, sitting room, 6-car garage, walk-in closets, heated pool, perpetually kept at 72 degrees.
    Even if it’s all solar/wind powered with electric self-driving cars.

    Furthermore, we can’t sustain it. We don’t have the wealth to repave the streets that serve those enormous homes. 3 feet of sewer line per person works. 100 feet of sewer line per person doesn’t. We may be able to finance it, put it on eternal payments or a “smart choice” interest-only loan (a phrase that still makes me nauseous), but when it comes to end-of-life maintenance, there’s nothing left over.
    We’re underwater.

    Financially, if not literally.

    Your aversion to indebtedness is a survival instinct. I want every American household to posses it, but I’m scared of the kind of events that will need to happen in order to develop that instinct.

  13. Very interesting, and I agree that a small offgrid solution might better serve your objectives. Note that typical on-grid solar installations go dead when the grid fails, you need a special inverter with islanding capability. So your objective of added resilience is not met by the standard installation.

    Another interesting aspect, in line with a recurring theme of your blog, is the impact of regulation on economic activity. Out of your sample 2.25 kW system priced at $9,000, the ex-factory price of the panels as of today is $675, no more. Add some tariffs that the U.S. has slapped on the Chinese (~30%), some balance of system components and an insane overhead for installation, sales margin, compliance etc etc. The Google tool seems to exaggerate pricing – typical market pricing for residential in the U.S. should be around $3,000/kW. But still, that’s insane. Why can you get the same system in Germany for $1,400/kW, i.e., $3,150 for the whole system? The answer is not in the components, these are exactly the same…

    (Disclaimer: I work in the solar industry in Europe)

    1. The cost of panels is remarkably low these days thanks largely to Germans creating an economy of scale at the national level with the Energiewende and then by the Chinese decision to subsidize manufacturers to dominate the export market. The Danes made a similar decision on the national level with wind power and efficiency back in the 1970s and Vestas is now the global leader in that technology at scale.

      The US has been on again off again with inconsistent policies that start and stop various programs with each new conflicting administration. It never adds up to much. At the end of the day America runs on oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear. We’d rather find new supplies of the old stuff than ramp up alternatives.

      Renewable energy policy here is like our transportation policy. We widen our eight lane roads to ten lanes, then paint a green stripe on the margins and put up a bicycle sign that says “Share the Road!”

  14. Actually Johnny, I think you have a great plan. I’d love to begin home canning but I don’t have your drive. Lazy is the only way to put it, really. Solar Power to cover my needs during a major outage of some kind is well beyond me right now. But it’s always interesting to see what you are doing and I love the humility of your perspective.

  15. Thank you! Very helpful info. We do have huge electric bills in Texas with a large family but I like the idea of the backup solar panels and no debt.

  16. I’m curious…wouldn’t you need to minimally treat your stored rainwater to use it for consumption? I know there’s been a lot of effort put into low-cost water purification “technology” for Third World countries…there’s no reason it wouldn’t work in the US too.

    1. 95% of the water used in any home is for washing and irrigation, not drinking. It’s possible to use a Big Berkey to passively filter drinking water from a catchment tank with no electricity or chemicals. https://www.bigberkeywaterfilters.com/

      There are two other options for purifying rainwater. Charcoal filters and an ultraviolet zapper. Neither is particularly expensive. I used both for eighteen years at a beach cottage in Hawaii that was 100% supplied with rainwater. https://ultraviolet.com/uv-water-purification/

      1. Just wondering about the legality of storing water. It sounds like a crazy question, but I have heard people have been prosecuted! No water for you…

        1. Some western states like Colorado have laws against collecting and storing rain water because that water is already the property of other people downstream. I believe a recent change in the law allows small amounts of water to be stored. In my jurisdiction in California the building and zoning codes allow tanks up to 5,000 gallons (19,000 liters) without a permit. And you can have as many as you want so long as they conform to the set back requirements from the property lines. A 5,000 gallon tank like the one I have cost about $3,000.

  17. Your payback period can start approaching 20 years if you assume that your $9,000 could have been earning 2-3% interest (or even more if in a mutual fund for 20 years). It is often cheaper to buy your electricity rather than make your own.

    1. I believe the State of California has made the decision for you. You get solar, dosen’t matter if it pencils out. You didn’t need that $9000 for investment anyway.

  18. Welcome aboard, surprised it took you so long! One of the many things I’ve learned from reading fictional accounts of our possible future, is that we can live without electricity, but in many ways electricity = civilization. We’ve lived exclusively with a small 360w ground mounted solar array, for 10 years and only had one power failure (lightning direct hit, that also lit a fire). With backup equipment we were back up the next day. Yes smaller arays require thoughtful conservation, but that part is a fun game and the planet requires a rapid lowering of carbon emissions, this was one of our paths in that regard.

  19. I don’t know how solar guys go about calculating / presenting the figures over there, but I had a guy round to my house in the UK a while back. Everything was done on monthly averages…. (average monthly usage x units, solar should generate y units). The figures looked marginal from an investment perspective.
    After he’d gone I redid the figures myself based on my estimated usage each calendar month (Jan – Dec) and the average solar irradiation each month at my location (which I found on the internet). It blew all the sales patter out of the water! As it turned out, I’d be buying pretty much all my electricity usage all winter at standard rate, then generating a big excess in the summer that I’d be selling back to the UK grid at a much lower price…. Using monthly average figures had made it look as if I’d be using everything I generated, not selling to the grid cheap then buying electricity at full price all winter….. What I learned is that you’ve got to keep a close eye on how these companies do their calcs….

    1. This is true even in Arizona. Here it makes sense to install a small solar array to meet winter usage and mitigate peak daytime air conditioning costs in the summer. It makes no sense at all to install a larger array that meets the entire summer need.

  20. I’m completely off grid solar a choice I made because bringing in the grid was equally expensive and blocked by a troublesome neighbor who claims to own the nearest electrical pole. Overall I think you got it about right. I’m not a real fan. It takes some effort and, for me, re-eduction in basic electricity to keep the system working. Not a lot of effort but frankly any effort more than flipping a switch and having things work adds up. We also had a composting toilet system ala the Humanure Handbook. That also worked fine and required just a little effort. Add these small efforts up and pretty soon you won’t have time for a day job. We eventually dropped the humanure but we are stuck with checking the electrolytes in the batteries and clearing the panels of snow, etc. etc. Being your own utility has some real downsides I’d say and I’d avoid it if simpler options are available.

  21. I’m completely off grid solar a choice I made because bringing in the grid was equally expensive and blocked by a troublesome neighbor who claims to own the nearest electrical pole. Overall I think you got it about right. I’m not a real fan. It takes some effort and, for me, re-eduction in basic electricity to keep the system working. Not a lot of effort but frankly any effort more than flipping a switch and having things work adds up. We also had a composting toilet system ala the Humanure Handbook. That also worked fine and required just a little effort. Add these small efforts up and pretty soon you won’t have time for a day job. We eventually dropped the humanure but we are stuck with checking the electrolytes in the batteries and clearing the panels of snow, etc. etc. Being your own utility has some real downsides I’d say and I’d avoid it if simpler options are available.

  22. I like your overall idea of reducing complexity and increasing resilience. I also agree that focusing more on walkable, bikeable areas is the best route to lower energy usage. I do think you made a mistake when, in your first example, you said it would make no sense to spend $9,000 to save $6,000. By my reading, Google was saying the $6,000 was the net savings — that the gross savings would have been $15,000.

  23. This is what Husb and I have been looking at. We had the solar energy guy come round with the UK government approved scheme, but we’ve cut our usage down quite low and we’re taking more measures soon to cut it down even further and the money we’d have to pay for the panels amounted to far more than we would save. I think the government emphasis is to not reduce what you’re using but to keep on being wasteful but fund it through using expensively-installed renewables. I think that’s the wrong attitude, personally.

  24. Oh, goodness, I have been having these exact same conversations. I use very little power and I have come to the conclusion that it makes more sense to do a few more small tweaks like draft proofing doors and windows and investing in good canning equipment to avoid food spoilage and maybe a solar oven and a solar camp shower and some portable solar panels than spend thousands on solar (grid-tied) or tens of thousands with a battery. I already have a wood heater which is pretty important in chilly Tasmania and means that in a power outage I can still keep warm, cook and heat water. I think with a nice little rocket stove set up outside to cook on in summer I could live reasonably well without much power, especially as youngest daughter has started candle-making as a hobby..
    I think that sometimes as a society we all get a bit caught up in one-way, highway thinking; it’s all renewables, renewables, and certainly I appreciate electricity, but do we need so much of it in daily life? Look back one hundred years and most people were not yet on-grid and managed perfectly civilised lives without ‘renewable energy’ solutions.

    1. I’m a big fan of David Holmgren’s work in Central Victoria. Hepburn Springs, Australia is almost exactly the same as Sonoma, California in terms fo climate and economy. I have his new book RetroSuburbia. Good stuff.

      1. I have his book on order at the library. I think I am 37th on the list. I hate to buy a book without knowing it is going to be good, but if you are going to recommend it..
        I have been enjoying the blog Artist as Family:

        http://theartistasfamily.blogspot.com

        They call themselves neopeasants and live close to David Holmgren and do a lot of work with him. They are giving the peasant lifestyle a go in Hepburn Springs. Another family live with the Holmgrens on their land and blog about premacultury things at Milkwood Permaculture:

        https://www.milkwood.net/blog/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.