Welcome to my Solar Site

This website documents my activities in energy efficiency. I have long had an interest in going solar and when I took the plunge, I found that there is a lot of information related to this topic. So this is my attempt at documenting my thoughts, actions and research.
The first step in being energy efficient at home is tackling the consumption of electricity itself rather than its generation. Towards that end, all my lighting is CFL, major appliances are energy-efficient types, gas clothes dryer, gas kitchen stove, gas water heater. I installed a whole house fan a few years back and that made a big difference.

The Case for Solar

I live in the Sacramento region of California. My electricity service is PG&E, an investor owned utility that has among the highest electricity rates in the country.

Recent 1 year electricity usage
Figure 1: My Electricity Usage Past Year

Looking at the above figure, it doesn't look too bad. I'm close to, or better than the average 

2011 kWh Cost 2012 kWh Cost 2013 kWh Cost
Jan 449 $56.20 Jan 272 $35.02 Jan 468 $66.60
Feb 482 $60.36 Feb 380 $48.92 Feb 557 $85.50
March 410 $50.97 March 363 $47.00 March 332 $44.07
Apr 373 $45.74 Apr 321 $41.32 Apr 401 $53.80
May 372 $45.62 May 456 $58.70 May 647 $87.11
June 754 $119.00 June 517 $67.86 June 827 $139
July 853 $156.00 July 771 $130.00 July 1013 $187
Aug 840 $152.00 Aug 778 $139.00 Aug
Sept 653 $85.50 Sept 548 $71.65 Sept
Oct 371 $45.52 Oct 285 $37.81 Oct
Nov 418 $52.03 Nov 468 $60.43 Nov
Dec 379 $46.77 Dec 633 $108.00 Dec
Total 6354 $915.71 5792 $845.71
Avg/Mth 529.5 $76.31 483 $70.48

Looking at the tables above, it seem I've reached my peak conservation in 2012 and my usage is creeping up in 2013. Notice the big jump in May-Present (July) 2013 versus past years. This is to be expected due to the recent addition to my family (or maybe it's global warming). Whatever it is, it's darn high.

Solar Prices

Despite the drop in prices, solar is still very expensive from my perspective. A 4kW DC system runs about $17,500 with string inverter or $19,000 with microinverters. The California CSI state rebate for solar ran out. PG&E doesn't provide any financial incentives. My friends in neighboring Roseville still qualify for rebates from Roseville Electric. So all I can bank on is the 30% Federal Tax Credit. That brings the price down to $13,500 installed. Even if I upped my usage to $1000/year, that's looking like a 13-year payback period, not counting rate inflation.

The Case for a Solar Lease

You've seen the ads. $0 down, guaranteed savings! The case for leasing is uglier. Everybody in my neighborhood with a solar PV system is running a lease. I think this is one of the bigger scams of the decade. The typical ones I see in my neighborhood have the following terms:
  • 5kW - 6kW DC system
  • $0 down, $0 install
  • $100 per month for 20 years
  • Maintenance, repairs under warranty
  • Pay extra to keep system at end of lease
Let's look at the pros and cons.

Advantages of a Lease
  1. No money down
  2. Warranty, maintenance, repairs all covered
  3. Rate increase guaranteed lower than your utility company
Disadvantages of a Lease
  1. Not for someone like me who pays less than $100 most months.
  2. You'll pay $24,000 total over the life of the lease, not counting rate increases. Buying is half the price.
  3. Inverter and Panels are warrantied by manufacturer. At least they'll cover the labor.
  4. Lease model is broken if your electricity usage drops due to $100/month expectation.
  5. Who pays to take off the panels if you need to do roofing work in the next 20 years?
Why I dislike leasing

Leasing or Third Party Ownership (TPO) is expensive! The business model works like this: System prices are inflated so that the tax credit (pocketed by them, not the homeowner) pays for the system cost. The rest (your $100/month for 20 years) is profit. Wall Street is funding a lot of these schemes and bundling them as investment vehicles. It just doesn't make sense to pay $24,000 to lease over 20 years when $20,000 buys you the same system. Don't forget the rate inflation and escalator clauses built into the lease agreement.

The only argument the TPO industry makes is "Operation, Maintenance and Support". My experience tells me this is total BS. When my neighbor's solar (leased) went down, it took them weeks to repair. Since it was in summer, his electricity bill shot up, but they will not compensate him, arguing that the contract stipulates a minimum annual energy production. As long as output doesn't dip below that, they won't pay up. Another neighbor had a bunch of loose wires and pigeon crap under his panels. This is after 5 years. Will they come out and clean that up? Nope, again that same argument about minimum annual energy production. 

In California, with the CSI rebates winding down, the new tactic is to push for taxpayer subsidies for solar for new homes. These (in my area) are typically smaller systems (e.g. 2kW) but again, massively overpriced. The new home buyer doesn't pay for it, state grants do and since the individual homebuyer has no say in this, the installers can charge whatever they want as long as the developer tolerates it. Even worse, when something goes wrong, the developer and the solar company can point fingers at each other. Way to go, Centex and Suntech. This is right here in Roseville.
For most homeowners who use a lot of electricity and can't afford to own, leasing can be a win-win situation. They pay a little less and the solar company pockets the incentives originally intended for the homeowner.

The situation is far better in neighboring Roseville. That city has its own electric service. They DO NOT allow solar leases. They provide a rebate for residential solar installs (currently up to $0.80/W). Wow, that knocks down the price of a system like mine to less than $4000! Geez, I'm purple with envy. 
Update: Roseville Electric just dropped the rebate down to $0.48/W. Homeowner incentives are going away fast.
Update 2: Roseville Electric rebate is now $0.32/W (April 2014)

By now, if you're still not convinced of the scam called solar leasing, take note of these facts. As reported to the California Solar Initiative, take a look at what SolarCity charges in 2011.

Average Cost of System Sold$6.94/W
Average Cost of System Leased$10.06/W
Source: The State of Solar California - Run on Sun blog, by Founder & CEO, Jim Jenal

PS: I really like Jim Jenal's blog. His data shows that his company is not gouging customers and his blog has strong indications of commitment to customer service and work quality. Note: I have no relationship with his company but I am impressed by the CEO's writings.

The Case for Self Install

Seeing solar systems popping up in my neighborhood, I found on average it takes 2 crew members 2 days to install, or 4 crew members 1 day to install. A search on the Web shows prices of parts to be around $9,000. While I'm all for paying for good work, it is tough to swallow paying nearly $10,000 for labor. Of course, I do realize that companies have a lot of overhead - salaries, rent, operational expenses, etc.

Final Update:
In 2013, according to Jim Jenal's data mining of CSI data, the average cost is $5.82/W. My cost comes to just under $2.25/W. That doesn't include a 30% Federal Tax Credit. For my friends interested in self-install who are living in Roseville, there's also a $0.48/W rebate.

But I Don't Want to Self Install

Yes, solar PV DIY is not easy. You need to be comfortable working on the roof, you need to know electrical work and have some basic engineering skills. In some cases, your roof layout is such that it makes installing difficult. In cases like these, I highly recommend engaging the professionals.

For those in my area, Sacramento, Roseville, Rocklin, I strongly recommend Capitol City Solar

Don't lease. Purchase the system outright. Want no money down? Simple - take a loan to pay for it. It can even be a HELOC loan. Placer county has a loan program for solar. So instead of paying the leasing company, your monthly payment is fixed and you get to own it. It will also increase the value of the home without increasing property taxes (until you sell the house).

Why Start This Website

I started by looking at the Web for tutorials, how-to's and videos but didn't really find one that went to the level of detail that I am interested in, especially for tile roofs. Most sites and videos document what they did but not what the rules/guidelines are, what approved methods are available, what is the permitting process, inspection, etc. There's next to no info for tile roofs. So I did further research and here's where I'll document what I found out. I did find some scare tactic postings/videos about how this should be left to the pros. I'll address some of this in Chapter 2.

Along the way, I made a lot of notes and saved a lot of links. That started the idea of putting a site to document everything I learned/did in one location.

BuildItSolar has a lot of good articles and projects. Check out the project titled Designing and Installing Your Own Grid-Tied PV System. It's very informative but it is a ground install.
Art Tec by Guy Marsden is also very informative.
TheSolarPlanner is another educational site.

Now I am not good with websites and such. I'll try not to hot-link as much as possible, so that I don't have to worry about dead links. Where you see text in Bold Italics, that simply means you can find out more about it by doing a search.