"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Solar Planning

As part of my crazy, OCD-like planning for the "zombiepocalypse" I did a very sane thing: I made an appointment to go down to Western Solar in Bellingham and learn as much as I can about solar electricity. Prior to the appointment, I read an entire issue of "Home Power" magazine, so I felt prepared.

So how about I tell you what I learned about solar electricity. First I learned that we use a lot of electricity, even though I go around turning things off all day and night. We use approximately 12,000 KwH/year. Buying an installed system that generates one third of that would cost - today, from these guys I went to see - $31,000. What is that, like 100 years of electricity bills?

However, here are some more facts that make it cheaper:

1. federal rebate: 30% of installed cost. Bing, we're down to $22,000.

2. Since the system is grid-tied without battery back-up (more on this later) we'd be selling surplus electricity to the grid. The grid has to buy it from us at an artificially high rate - whereas we pay $.08/watt when we buy from them, they have to pay us $.15/watt when they buy from us. The law says they have to do that at least until 2020, and it might even go up.

2.a) What surplus energy? I thought this system only produced one third of your energy? Right, but that usage is concentrated at certain times of the day/year. And our system would produce most of it's energy at different times of the day/year. We use most of our energy in the winter. The sun gives us most of our energy in the summer. We use at night; it produces during the day. So, on any given sunny summer day when we aren't at home or are outside doing something that doesn't use electricity, our system is spinning our meter backward. We save the nine cents we pay for each watt, plus, when the meter goes back to zero for that month, they pay us fifteen cents. So theoretically, each watt we produce is actually worth 24 cents to us. Some of them, anyway. The piled up surplus from the summer months will lower our bill in the winter. Some people with big systems actually get checks from the utility.

But wait a minute. I though independence was the goal here. How does a grid tied system give you that?

It doesn't. The power goes out, it goes out for us too. But batteries are WAY more expensive than I thought. And the system requires more maintenance. And the batteries need replacing every five, ten, or fifteen years depending on how much money you spend on them in the first place. And an off-grid system is totally incapable of producing anything like the amount of power we actually use unless we literally stuff the attic with a hundred thousand dollars worth of batteries. I'm not worried about the occasional one or two day outage. I'm worried about the day the grid goes down for good. And I doubt that day will come within twenty years. I think electricity will get much more expensive fairly quickly, but I doubt it will become unavailable that soon.

So my thinking is, it makes sense to save money on the batteries and maintenance now, and worry about adding that expense in ten or fifteen years, or twenty, when the shit can be seen from the fan. Or alternatively, when it becomes clear that I was wrong and the shit isn't headed this way at all, I will have saved a huge amount of cash and hassle.

Now I know I'm going to hear from a fair number of smart, handy people who understand electricity and like to build stuff. You guys are going to say "$30,000 my ass. I can build that system for $242 and a mile of string." Well bully for you. You should go into business then. I can't, and I'm not interested in spending the next few years of my life learning how. I have other stuff to do.

Like go milk the goats, which I have to do right now.


AnyEdge said...

Aimee, I have a good friend who is near you, in Vancouver BC, who is a Cornell and Washington University trained Civil Engineer and co-alarmist re: the coming zombipocalypse. I talked to her about solar panels not long ago.

When wife and I get a new house, we're planning (tentatively) on putting up a few solar panels to run the water heater/fridge. My friend said that that's one way a lot of people do it. Hook 2-3 panels to a specific appliance. The fridge uses 11% of most home's energy, and the water heater is not far behind, even though a lot of them are gas.

A few small panels can be cheap. This65 watt Kyocera, for example, is about $350. Won't come close to running a home, but properly hooked up (which will cost at least again if not more than the purchase price) they will save you a lot of money.

What solar panels don't yet do, and if they did I'd buy today, is let you just plug them into the wall and jack up the energy running into your house.

Aimee said...

um, I must be missing something then. Oh wait, I know, I'm missing the "tied to the grid" piece. I have looked at solar hot water systems and at solar heating systems, and they have advantages. But I like the idea of having a system which is wired into my whole house, for the eventual conversion. I was told - and here's where my lack of understanding about electricity gets in the way - that you can't just take your grid tied system, untie it, and add a bunch of batteries. If you want to convert a grid tied system to an off-grid system, you have to change many components and re-wire stuff. When I asked how much that might cost, they rolled their eyes back in their heads, hemmed and hawed, and said "$5,000?"
Well, Id spend a lot more than that on batteries over the next twenty years, so it makes economic sense to use the grid while it's here and deal with the situation if it looks like things might change.
By the way, the system I am looking at uses 230 watt panels, and they cost about $850/each. The panels themselves are about 60% of the package price, so installation and ancillary hardware are less than half.

Gavin said...

Hi Aimee, I have a grid tied 2.8kW system and it was the best investment i have ever made. It cost me AU$30,000 but I received govt rebates of $9500 so was only out of pocket for $20500. If you want to read a bit more about my installation have a look at my post called The Solar Revolution. I have never looked back and now make about 85-90% of our electricity needs. We too will soon have a premium feed-in tariff that pays us $0.60 per kWh so I will use that to save up for a wind turbine to suppliment baseload.

Hope this info has helped.


Aimee said...

Thanks Gavin, I certainly will check it out!

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