Thinking of Going Solar? Let the Sunshine In.

renewable energy
Mark D’Antonio, ERS, for Zondits

This is the first in a multi-part series about solar PV systems that will cover several topics, including approaches to and considerations of going solar, actual installation examples, performance, details of system components, the economics thereof, and what is going on in the market. According to the Solar Energy Information Administration (SEIA), the pace of solar energy expansion in America is rising rapidly, with a new solar system activated every 1.6 minutes (as of Q3 2015). It’s a market on the move and there is a lot to talk about.

The pace of solar energy expansion in America is rising rapidly, with a new solar system activated every 1.6 minutes.
Let’s start off the series at the nexus of where humans meet the machine – yes, engineers. Engineers are people too, (I can say that because I are one). These lovable quirky humans share a common trait of curiosity and demonstrate a keen interest in details. That said, not all engineers think alike or approach the world in the same way. Let’s take a look at how five engineers working in the same energy consulting company (ERS) independently approached solar installations on their own homes. Interestingly enough, each took somewhat different paths to installation. Perhaps there is much to be learned by how someone chooses to “let the sunshine in” to modify energy usage in their homes.

Meet the geeks; names have not been changed to protect the innocent:

Mark

A mechanical engineer with a 30+ year history of working on energy related topics, either as a consultant, in manufacturing, or in labs. Hands-on by nature, and always happy to grab a hammer and build/fix something (yes, hammers fix many things), he’s had a long time interest in installing solar.

  • Ownership/installation approach Direct purchase, contractor installed through community solarize program, operational since October 2014.
  • Performance: Beating expectations.
  • “What finally put you over the edge to go solar?” Well, I’ve been seriously interested in installing solar for a number years now, but wanted to do it for more than altruistic reasons. When our community adopted a “solarize” program and contracted with an installer who offered tiered discounts based on how many systems were actually installed, it moved me to action. In conjunction with the market shifts, this brought the cost down, made the economics favorable, and brought the community together. Overall, I’m very pleased with the system and am happy to say that I no longer am fixated on the web dashboard several times a day to see how it is performing.
  • Points to note: Micro-inverters for shade optimization, community solarize approach yielded collective discount, guaranteed production for generation and SRECs, created a dangerous snow shedding issue that needed to be addressed.

markpv

 

Richard

A mechanical engineer with a 30+ year career as an energy guy in the consulting, energy services and utility industries. An avid gentleman farmer, outdoorsman, and pontoon boat aficionado – he’s a man always ready to share his perspectives on energy issues.

  • Ownership/installation approach: Direct purchase, installed by private contractor. Operational since April 2015.
  • Performance: Initially underperformed estimates due to shading, but now operating as expected.
  • “What finally put you over the edge to go solar?” Two things were the drivers. First, the fact that the prices were dropping to the point that it made economic sense and was justifiable, and second, we wanted to start making a difference wherever we could and this was an opportunity for us to do so. We built our home 25 years ago and oriented it with the intent of someday incorporating solar. It took quite a while for us to get there, but that someday was last year and we are thrilled. Making the investment in the PV, and now having daily reminders of generation and consumption has made me more aware of our energy consumption and led to behavioral changes that have persisted.
  • Points to note: Post installation tree cutting was required to achieve predicted performance.

richardpv

Saty

A mechanical engineer with 15 years of experience as an energy consultant with a specialization in industrial efficiency. With an interminable smile and somewhat obtuse and curious intellect, this guy has an infectious personality and unstoppable drive to do good in the world.

  • Ownership/installation approach: Power purchase agreement with Solar City – 20-year term, with a 5-year purchase option
  • Performance: Meets expectations
  • “What finally put you over the edge to go solar?” I’ve always been interested in doing my part with clean energy. I had a plug-in Prius and then recently purchased a house for my growing family. The logical next step for me was to go solar to feed my Prius and power my home. Given my recent capital outlays, I selected to move forward with a power purchase agreement with Solar City, which enabled me to install solar on my roof without putting a huge dent in my wallet. I’d do this even if it wasn’t saving any money as it’s the right thing to do, but I am glad that I’m saving money, too.
  • Points to note: Power purchase agreement, no capital outlay, guaranteed electric bill, was subjected to a service charge from the IOU post-installation.

satypv

Adam

A mechanical engineer with over a dozen years of engineering experience in the energy services and consulting industries. Adam is the type of guy who builds and installs a customized energy monitoring system in his own house to monitor everything. He can tell from 100 miles away whether the brisket he is cooking in his meat smoker is happy or not, and if not, change the temperature so that all comes out well.

  • Ownership/installation approach: Purchased, installed by an approved Connecticut solar contractor. Operational since August 2015.
  • Performance: Exceeds expectations.
  • “What finally put you over the edge to go solar?” Paying 21 cents a kWh and watching rates continue to escalate put me over the edge. I already had demonstrated my interest in solar when I lived in Colorado and leased a system with a fifteen year purchase option. When I moved to CT it was clear that purchasing would make greater economic sense. I did not have good roof orientation so we opted for a ground mounted system and it cranks.
  • Points to note: Ground mount system, generating 100+% of annual consumption, required to sign away SREC rights to acquire the state incentive.

adampv

Jim

An engineering scientist with 40+ years of entrepreneurial history developing heat transfer components, renewable energy systems, and providing energy consulting services. Jim’s a real innovator and tinkerer; he has an insatiable curiosity to invent things, some of which are even useful (he holds several patents).

  • Installation Approach: Self-designed, developed (or perhaps cobbled together). Two systems: 1) Roof mounted operational since February 2012; 2) Small critical system (supports some lighting and steam boiler controls) operational since July 2009.
  • Performance: Beating expectations.
  • “What finally put you over the edge to go solar?” I’ve always been over the edge, so I just started gathering components from a prior endeavor I was involved in and cobbled together enough parts to develop an operable system. I’m a do-it-yourselfer type and solar was no exception for me. Now I’m working on integrating solar cells into windows. Stay tuned for my next patent to revolutionize the industry and drive how we integrate power generation into buildings.
  • Points to note: Small homegrown systems, one of which includes battery storage for critical system operation targeted for resiliency to support lighting and boiler controls to keep the house bright and warm during an outage. The other system is west-facing.

jimpv

The table below provides a summary of the system characteristics of each engineer’s installation.

pvchart

In closing, there are many observations and questions that arise from looking at the various systems that were deployed. Clearly, there are a number of different technical details to choose from and also multiple purchase and installation models that can be utilized to deploy solar power generation. Interestingly, all participants in this statistically insignificant population reported a high satisfaction rate with their system, approach, and performance – even though they varied widely (not to mention they all self-declared their systems to have a high, if not very high or wicked high, “geek appeal”). It’s no surprise either that economics played a big role in the decision to finally pull the trigger and install the systems. The rapid convergence to making solar affordable has taken shape for numerous reasons, including the reduction in equipment cost, available tax credits and utility/state incentives, increasing electric rates, active SREC markets, and increased competitiveness in the marketplace. In subsequent installments in this series, we will take a deeper dive into the various elements discussed and address these and other topics related to solar. Stay tuned.

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