Several years ago the guy who lives upstairs from me had solar panels installed on the roof of our building. It provides all the electricity his apartment needs. He took advantage of various subsidies and whatever creative financing was available at the time. Back then he paid $13,000 for the project. Since then the cost of the panels has dropped significantly, while government incentives have been reduced. So the overall installation expense has remained about the same. Most of the cost associated with this kind of arrangement is labor and administrative complexity: licensed contractors, permits, inspections, required ancillary technological devices, insurance, and a long list of health and safety prerequisites.
I’ve long wanted a solar power system myself, but there are things about this setup that bother me beyond the high price point. This is a grid tied system with no battery component so when the grid goes down my neighbor doesn’t have electricity even if his panels are still generating power. Even during daylight hours he has no way to tap his own juice without the grid functioning. Emergency backup power is my first priority and his system simply doesn’t provide that.
I always favor smaller, simpler, more cost effective arrangements that I can install myself. The minute I need to engage with a collection of officials, professional experts, and financiers I back away. I’ve been using travel batteries for years for my portable devices and I wondered if there was something halfway between a fully engineered whole house system and these little battery bricks. And it turns out… there is.
Manufacturers have been catering to niche markets for some time now and the product options are increasing each year. I found a 2400 watt portable battery with integrated charge controller and inverter that’s primarily marketed to people with recreational vehicles. It does everything I need it to do in an emergency including keeping the big freezer in the garage running. It’s made with the same lithium ion battery cells used in electric cars and it’s very similar in size and shape to the sewing machine my mom had when I was a kid.
I then bought four 170 watt solar panels at $159 each and set them up on the roof myself with simple mounting hardware. I dropped the electrical cables down the light well and through a window and voila the battery is charged. The entire setup can be quickly dismantled and placed in the car for transport if need be. Now I know I’ll have a steady supply of electricity in the next power failure and the equipment can do double duty in a variety of other applications. And I can add two more panels without overloading the battery.
There’s a significant gap between these two approaches. One is complicated and expensive and fails when you need it most. The other does everything that really matters at a reasonable price with a lot more flexibility. Spot the difference?