It is t-minus two days until the utility’s electrical inspector comes over and gives us approval to turn ON our solar panels. Just in time for the end of one month of pure sun and a future of short, cloudy days. Do I sound cynical? Burned out might be a better description. The amount of time and energy it has taken to get a solar system that will provide about one third of our electrical needs has been, well, just too much for the average human. And of course I don’t think of myself as average. Nor are any of my friends. But if a friend asked me about getting a solar system, I would have to tell them that unless they have a lot of extra time on their hands, it’s just not worth the trouble.
I should back up and say that financially, we are getting a great deal. When all is said and done, the payback of our solar panels should be in the 2-3 year range — much better than the typical 10-20 year payback. The range is so big because prices of systems vary, the price of electricity varies, and the tax incentives, rebates and grants vary greatly by region as well as by neighborhood.
I also want to express how excited I am to have the panels working. Our Enphase Microinverters will allow me to go online and see how each of our 16 panels is performing at any given time and since inception. How cool is that?!
But the process it took to get there (and we are not really THERE yet) has been hard. Where do I begin? I can start at the concept of our “dream home” when we bought our first house and tore it down. When we initially met with our architect, I expressed the desire to have solar panels integrated into the design of the house. To placate me, he had included some panels that also served as window awnings — a dual-function that I think is brilliant. Somewhere along the line he removed them and decided that solar panels are better unseen. We designed the roof of my office to structurally hold the panels and ran an electrical conduit up to the roof so it would be easy to install a solar system down the road. Okay.
Next, I learned about a new company, tenK Solar, that is manufacturing solar panels specifically for flat roofs (which we have). They also produce more power per square foot of panel, AND are manufactured in Minnesota. I visited their offices, got a quote for a system, and made the March 31, 2010 deadline for a Minnesota State rebate. Then I waited, for they were not yet UL listed, which they promised they would be soon (and which is required for all kinds of important reasons). They DID get UL listed over the summer, but they did NOT get approval for installing residential systems because there is some radio frequency issue.
Decision point number one: do we go with another similarly-sized system and continue toward our goal of a lower carbon footprint, or do we postpone going solar for another year or so and wait for tenKsolar to get into the residential market? The rebates, incentives, and pricing available to me at this point all converged into my decision to go forward with another system now, rather than wait. In order to get the Minnesota state rebate, though, we are operating under a deadline. The system had to be installed and operational by September 30th. My installer said the panels were ready, but the racking system would take 4-6 weeks to get here. The timeline was a little tight, so I gave the go-ahead around mid-July.
What are they installing? 16 solar panels, size 39″x64.5″ — 4 rows of 4, in landscape format. What angle will they be installing them? The best angle for maximum electricity output, which is the GOAL, is 45 degrees. But hmm…with the size of our roof, if they were all at 45 degrees, the front rows would shade each row behind it some of the time, dramatically diminishing the electricity output (again, the goal is MORE electricity produced per square foot of panels). So, my installer tells me we have to lower the angle to about 15 degrees, which reduces our output. By how much? I have to go figure that out through an online calculator. Good think I know what I’m doing. Turns out we only lose about 109 kilowatt hours per year, or 2.3% of the total. Not a big deal; just a little irksome.
September 13th, 17 days before the deadline, the installers show up. It should be enough time, I am told, to get them all installed and have all the electrical inspections performed. But, oh. Someone had done the measurements incorrectly! The roof only fits three rows of four, not four rows of four, so that equals only TWELVE panels. But we bought SIXTEEN! What are we going to do with the other four? Return them? Then our rebate would get the boot (we would have to reapply, and the money in the state coffers is running out for 2010), and we lose 25% of our expected output. That IS a big deal, and is quite hugely irksome!
We spend the next week trying to figure out if there is another suitable spot on our house for the other 4 panels. We could put them on the roof of the main part of the house, but there is no electrical conduit there, and wires would have to be run up and down our house to connect the four with the twelve. I don’t like that idea. We could put them on a south-facing wall at a 45-degree angle, where they would look a little like awnings. Good idea! Except that we have a trellis above our windows, and awnings above a trellis would look pretty silly. My husband and architect do NOT like this idea. Our project architect comes up with an idea: put them on the WEST facing wall above the windows of my office, where we really do need awnings because the western sun beats into those windows every afternoon in the summer, and it is hard to keep my office cool. That sounds okay! But what happens when we turn solar panels from facing south to facing west? Those four panels would produce about 72% of the total output that we would have expected were they facing south. Not too bad. The interesting thing is that for west-facing panels, the output gets better the flatter the angle. If we go entirely flat, we only lose about 19% of the output we would have achieved at 15 degrees-south on the roof. That, combined with the reduction in cooling needs for my office during the summer, makes it almost a wash in total electricity reduction, in my opinion. From a design perspective, flat awnings on the west windows would look a lot better with the rest of our house than would awnings at 45-degrees. So, it seems like we have a solution.
But wait. What does the mounting rack look like, asks my architect. Now that we can actually see the solar panels, we care about how they are mounted. It’s just an aluminum racking system which costs about $100. Our installer will cover that cost since he screwed up the measurement (nice gesture). No – that will not fit in with the design of the house. I have to make another decision: do we mount the solar panels temporarily with the ugly aluminum racks, to make the September 30th rebate deadline, and then reinstall them later when we figure out how best to do it? Nobody is thrilled with that scenario.
In the meantime, two things happen: (a) our project architect draws up a plan for galvanized steel mounting racks, which would match all the other galvanized steel we have that both holds up the house and holds up the trellis along the west side of our living/dining/kitchen area; and (b) we find out that rebate deadline has been extended to October 30th. Is this finally some good news?
We find out that the metal fabricator can get us the steel brackets in a week to ten days (which means ten days to two weeks) and that our builder can install them when they are ready. We get the steel brackets in by October 14th for the remaining four panels to be installed October 15th (which actually happens October 18th). It now seems like we are cutting it close with the new deadline, because we still need the State of Minnesota electrical inspection and we need the Xcel inspection to get operating. The Minnesota inspector shows up October 20th, and the Xcel inpsector is scheduled for Monday, October 25th. There is really no room for error here!
But wait. The man who is hired to get us through the process of dealing with Xcel emails me the Friday morning, October 22nd, saying the inspection cannot happen Monday the 25th because he just found out about many more hoops we have to jump through for Xcel. The Xcel “process” guy says maybe we can shoot for the 28th for the electrical inspection, but he will be out of town helping his daughter move until November 2nd. Ummm….isn’t there an October 30th deadline? Yeah, don’t worry about it, we’ll get it done. I go a little crazy. We need to deal with this NOW.
Alright, I take a deep breath. What, exactly, are the hoops? One of them is that I have to show proof of liability insurance. This is in the Xcel PV contract I am supposed to sign. Do I have this contract? No, I have never seen nor heard of it, but showing proof of liability insurance was easy enough; I scanned a document and emailed it over. One hoop gone. What else is there? Xcel needs to see a final invoice of the system, but our installer is out today (on vacation?) and can’t get it done. What?! I go a little more crazy. My installer senses that by my text messages to him (his voicemail box was full). He moves some mountains and gets a copy of the invoice.
Just one more hoop: the State of Minnesota wants pictures of the installed system. Okay, the process man says, I’ll come over this afternoon to take pictures so we can have them printed. Printed? I ask. Can’t we do this electronically? Oh, yes, I suppose so, he surmises. We say goodbye and hang up the phone. Two minutes later he calls back: do you have a ladder to get on your roof? Yes, the installer leaves his huge ladder at our house (and in fact has left it here all summer). Okay, see you soon.
He shows up at my house with his digital camera. Luckily my husband is home to help him move the ladder. But oh, darn, the battery in his camera is dead. Luckily, we have a digital camera that is charged. Why did he have to come over again? I send the pictures to the Minnesota Solar Rewards contact, but she cannot see all 16 installed at one time (because I can’t high enough above the roof to get them all in one photo). So I get our little Flip video camera and film all 16 installed. Is that good enough? Please?[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv5k5Eqz0y4]
There is another glitch, which pains me even to write about since it is so inane. For Xcel Energy customers, in order to qualify to even have grid-tied solar panels, we need to either be enrolled in the Energy Star Homes program or have a Energy Audit conducted. That makes sense from a policy standpoint — Xcel wants to make sure the house is efficient as it can be so the solar panels are optimized. I never called Xcel to have an energy audit conducted because we are going through the LEED for Home process and have had an extremely thorough verification process conducted through our Green Rater (who happens to also be the main point of contact for all Xcel home energy audits). To be clear: the man who has inspected our house many times, conducted a blow door test, a duct leakage test, etc., would be the same guy scheduling a home energy audit. So, wouldn’t that be redundant? Nobody seems to care. I still have to call and schedule a home energy audit ($30-$60) just to get it in Xcel’s “system” – whatever that means. So, I schedule one for December and cancel it after somebody else figures out how to enroll us in the Energy Star for Homes program. I am confused, but thankful somebody took that initiative on our behalf (as long as it does not cost me more money and there is no redundancy in effort)!
Let’s just take a quick review of public policy on solar: the federal government has a 30% tax credit (with no cap) to motivate people to install solar electric systems. The State of Minnesota’s Solar Rewards program generously provides about $1.75 per watt (close to $6,000 in our case) to reduce the cost of solar – they must want people to install solar electric systems, too. And the third key player here, Xcel Energy, rebates customers a whopping $2.25 per watt (over $8,000 in our case)! Why? It is in their best interest to have homeowners and businesses produce clean power where they are located. They want people to install solar systems! SO WHY IS THIS SO HARD?!
It is now the day before our Xcel electrical inspection, and three days before our deadline. I am stressed. There are so many hoops, and I am relatively on top of operational processes! I am hoping all goes well after tomorrow. The solar system will work. We will save on our electric bill. Our carbon footprint will go down. We will get a few more LEED points. I’ll get all my rebates and tax credits. I’m sure it will all be smooth sailing. I like to think we are pioneers in sustainable living. But I am honestly so burned out on just the solar process that I could hardly recommend that anyone else go through this. And that depresses me.