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Replacing the Decks

  Solar  
 
 

Our need for a new roof plus a sense that energy was only going to get more expensive meant that it was time to research solar. Adding a sense of urgency: California had initiated a solar-rebate almost a year earlier, but that rebate decreased every half-year. The rebate had started at $3.50/watt; was now $3.00, and in six weeks would drop to $2.50. The size of the system that was eligible for rebate was determined by most recent electrical bills. Our electrical consumption meant that we would be eligible for a $7,200 rebate on a 2,400 watt system, if we acted quickly.

It was time to shop for solar. By chance we attended a "Green-Lifestyle" exhibit at the Marin Civic Center where we met a half-dozen solar vendors - all eager for our business. Working with these companies was a treat - each showed up at the property when promised, and each seemed to be knowledgeable. 

The following is a price comparison that I created back when I was shopping. One challenge when comparing bids: every incremental watt is inevitably cheaper, so basic cost-per-watt calculations will always favor whoever quotes the larger systems.

  KW Price $/LW Price Rank

$> Greenlight IF2.4 KW

Marin Solar 2.9 $13,380 $4,614 1st -$138
           
SunFirst 2.5 $12,256 $4,902 6th $555
           
SunPower 2.4 $13,278 $5,533 8th $2,067
SunPower 1.7 $11,113 $6,537 11th $4,478
SunPower 2.4 $12,200 $5,083 7th $989
           
SolarCraft 2.6 $12,408 $4,772 3rd $243
SolarCraft 1.8 $10,100 $5,611 10th $2,256
           
Giam/RealGoods 2.9 $14,137 $4,875 5th $489
Giam/RealGoods 2.2 $11,970 $5,441 7th $1,847
           
GreenLight 2.5* $12,011 $4,804 4th $320
GreenLight 2.4 $11,211 $4,671 2nd $0
           
Co-Op 1.8 $10,045 $5,581 9th $2,182
Co-Op 2.4 $12,052 $5,022 6+ th $841
Co-Op 2.2 $11,114 $5,052 6+ th $913
 

* plus cost for penetration-free anchoring system.

Green Light Solar (150 Shoreline Highway, Ste. 1A Mill Valley, CA 415-381-2400) got the business. The price was great, and more important - the owner of the company really seemed to care about each project.

My Thoughts on Solar:
· In purchasing solar I would guess that a panel is a panel. So for me, the decision came down to a vendor that cared about the installation details. After all - what you will be doing is authorizing the placement of multiple holes in your nice roof.

· I don't have the perfect house for solar. My lot slopes to the east, and I have a row of tall trees on the southern property line. The best location for the panels was clearly as far out from the hill as possible - they would need to be atop the new wing. Unfortunately, that's a flat roof, and putting holes in a surface where water could sit didn't appeal to me. But I had no choice. I worked with the panel installers and roofing crew to do everything possible to assure that the penetrations would be watertight for years to come.

· My panels are tilted to better capture the sun. This means that they also catch the wind. It's one more reason to periodically inspect the seals around the roof penetrations.

· When purchasing solar, it makes a lot of sense to pay our local utility, PG&E, $288 for a "Time-of-Day" meter. A Time-of-Day meter means is that the energy we provide to PGE is purchased by the utility at the higher daytime rates (when our panels are working), and the energy we consume is purchased by us at the less expensive evening rates (when we're home, using electricity).

· Solar does not seem to be a no-brainer, financially. One needs to compare the fixed cost today with savings that stretch out 30 years. While you can grab a finance textbook and determine the present value of a future stream of payments (those "payments" being the free electricity you'll receive every month) a simpler way to do this is to simply shop for a loan to pay for the panels. Since it is a home improvement the loan will be deductable. 

Here's how the calculation worked for me. 2004 was a good time to get a home-improvement loan. We have a 15-year fixed loan, at 6%, with a monthly payment of ~ $90. Our electricity bill was roughly $50-$60. With the interest-portion of the loan deductable, our loan payment approximates our electrical bill. Fifteen years from now, our loan payments end, but our panels still have another 15 years. (I will need to spend a few thousand replacing the inverter, I'm told.) Even ignoring the extra 15 years that the panels have, remember that 10 years from now, by loan payment will be the same, while the cost for power will have steadily increased. Note: My understanding is most financial experts do not consider a deal with a 15 year breakeven to be a wise investment.

· You may be surprised to learn that your $20,000 investment in solar will be useless during blackouts - even when those blackouts are in the middle of a sunny day. That's because you're feeding the grid, rather than your house.

Note: It's been four years since solar was installed. Our electrical bill has been 100% covered by the panels. Three notes here:

Terry and I are thrifty.

PG&E still charges us ~$6/month for admin.

Every 12 months, PG&E resets your account. If you owe them money, they will demand payment. But if they owe you money, too bad. They erase the credit, and start you off again at zero. This is a PG&E policy, and it's criminal!

Update: Effective 2010, PG&E will compensate me for any excess energy I've produced at the end of the 12-month cycle. Excellent! Apparently the credit goes to a politician, as the legislation is known as "Assemby Bill 920-Huffman-Wind and Solar Generation." Thanks Assemblyman Jared Huffman!

 
 
 
 
 
The easternmost portion of the roof had the best sun-exposure, but I was worried about putting holes in a flat roof. Right before roof work began, I used a garden hose to wet the roof, then marked-off the areas where water pooled, so that the roofing crew knew what areas to build-up.

The panels, looking back toward the hillside. Afternoon sun is impacted by the hill and trees.

The panels, and the view.

The inverter, and shutoffs.

 
 
 
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Last Updated Feb 2014.