Country Living Series

Friday, March 20, 2020

More on solar panels

A couple weeks ago, I put up a post entitled "Are solar panels worth it?" The post sparked a lively discussion on the issue.

Reader Mike wrote a very long email about his experiences installing solar panels on his California home. I asked permission to reprint his email. This is a long post, so grab a cup of tea. Without further ado, I will turn the microphone over to Mike.
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I could write a novel about the horrors of solar panels.

We spent $70,000 on a 7.5Kw system for our old place on Sonoma Mountain. It didn't cost us that much because Sonoma County had a "special" deal for people that installed solar of approximately $10,000 in rebates and tax incentives (since stopped), and my employer (County of Marin, of which I may tell you about my experiences there now that I'm retired and no longer in the PDRK [People's Democratic Republic of Kalifornia]) also provided the same type of incentives (since stopped as well). If it hadn't been for the incentives (local, State, Federal, PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric], we never would have done it because we couldn't afford $70,000. But, with the incentives, we could afford ~$23,000.00, so we got the system installed.

We were able to find a local solar company (Healdsburg) that had a excellent reputation and was in high standing with the State Contractor's Licensing Board, and they accepted ALL of the subsidies, no questions asked. In went the system. Excellent work, but I saw a problem right off the bat: the solar panels were installed too close to the roof (the Boss Lady and I had done TONS of research before jumping into this snakepit). I told the installer that the panels were too close to the roof, and that not only would we lose power due to the thermal interface (heat reflected back into the panels from the roof material), but that the birds and squirrels would build nests under the panels. The reply was: "Wah hail boy, we ain't nevuh had no problems lak thet with them critters ner any uh thet thermo interwhuteveh yer'r takking abit." Nevertheless, it was a quality install, even though I had my severe doubts about the "disclaimer."

Everything worked super-duper fine for the first six months (late summer into early spring) until squirrel mating season. I tried everything I could to discourage these nasty rodents (the big, nasty west coast gray squirrels) from building nests under the panels, just as I told the contractor. I used the hose, and a long pool brush at first, then had to resort to a pellet gun (being ever so careful to get correct shot alignment so I didn't hit a panel), and even that didn't stop them.

Then, we started having power-drops in full sun generating. Oh, my! It turns out that rodents have a "sugar craving" for the vinyl that coats electrical wires. I watched one of these tree-rats get electrocuted and fall to the ground (where my Rat Terrier immediately pounced and devoured the still twitching tree-rat). So, the calls to the contractor began. Since the system was still under "warranty" they had to come out and repair the damage at no cost to us. After coming out three more times to repair the rodent damage, they finally stopped answering our calls (seems that sometime between the first call and the third call, the company was bought out by a very large national solar company and their "policy" changed).

Fortunately for us, the guy that installed the system was still employed by them and he realized I was right and found a subcontractor that would come out, remove all the panels, install longer standoffs (as I had originally requested) so the panels sat about a foot off the roof, replaced all the damaged wiring, and put ALL the wiring in BX (flexible metallic cable), and all for only $7000. Such a deal! So, no more problems with tree-rats. After putting in a simple online search to "squirrel problems with electrical lines," I found TONS of articles about the problems tree-rats cause with all electrical systems, and most of the articles were from, ironically, PG&E.

So, there we were, all fat and sassy ... until one of the inverters blew out (our particular system had two inverters). Now we were fortunate in that all of our panels were made in the US of A before the Chinese started flooding the country with their cheap crap. Also, we got the very best inverters made ... from Germany. Now, when the system was installed, we got a 10-year warranty on the panels and the inverters. The inverter blew out about si years after the system was installed, so we figured we were gold.

Oh, not so fast, grasshopper! Turns out that the "10 year warranty" begins when the inverter is shipped from Germany. So, a solar company expects to make a ton of sales installing solar systems as it is the current rage, and orders maybe a hundred of these units for future installations. Sales just don't quite go as expected, and the inverters sit in a warehouse for a year or so before going to the installer, who may not install all the ordered inverters as quickly as expected. So, by the time our inverters were installed, they had languished in a warehouse for three years before going to the installer. We had to fight pretty hard to get the installer to "honor" the "10 year warranty." They did it, but our relationship with them was over.

Okay, here's the next problem with solar panels: The PDRK and PG&E will NOT allow you install a system that is larger than what your house is rated for. Hence, you are always behind the power curve (we needed a 9Kw system), and you never get to be ahead of PG&E. Additionally, unless you spend an additional $5000 to $10,000 for a UPS system and automatic switch gear, your solar system stops working when the power goes off, and you are still out of electricity.

Oh, it gets even better too. Then you find out that no matter how "optimized" your system is, it doesn't really do much during cloudy days, and especially during the winter (cloudy nearly all the time). Oh, yes, almost forgot the tree shade problem: when the State and PG&E first got rolling on solar they had a law passed that stated "offending" trees that blocked solar systems had to be cut down. That worked fairly well until some (wealthy, Democrat) treehugger had to have his precious trees cut down because they were blocking the sun from his neighbor's solar panels. Guess who won and who got screwed?

When we first had the system installed, PG&E had a special rating system for people that were willing to put up with a little "inconvenience." It was called "Time of Use." This program was an agreement where you got "stepped rates." If you agreed to NOT use very much electricity between 10 am and 6 pm, you got significant rate reductions. And, if you managed to not use very much electricity until after 8 pm thru 8 am, you got even better rates. Well, this worked out exceptionally well for us, as everybody was out of the house by 8 am, and nobody got home until 3 to 4 pm and we didn't start using electricity until around 6 pm.

Then everybody else and their relatives in the PDRK found out about "Time of Use" and started signing up. After the first year of "everybody," PG&E screamed "foul" and claimed "we're losing money." So "Time of Use" was immediately changed to screw everybody, and especially those of us using solar. How, you might ask? By changing "Time of Use" to extend all the way up to 9 pm in the summer, so that basically the only way we could get reduced rates was to NOT use electricity between 6 am and 10 pm. Then, PG&E "staged" the rates.

Fortunately, our house used a "fossil fuel" furnace, and we had a fireplace in the living room, and a wood stove in the family room and a whole buncha oak and madrone trees on our property. So, even though PG&E was trying to screw everybody on electrical rates, and especially people with solar systems (which PG&E had pushed to get everybody to install), if we hadn't had the solar system we would have been paying $600 or more a month in electrical bills (recall that this was 2007 to 2015 when PG&E started having supply problems, outages, lawsuits, and etc.), as PG&E kept getting permission from the State Public Utility Commission to keep raising rates, which they did every six months.

In some ways it was really funny: the State, PG&E, and the Counties went whole hog on solar providing subsidies, tax breaks, incentives, lower rates, etc., and trying to convince everybody to install solar to "save the world from global warming (remember that scam?) and climate change." Well, like ALL liberal drug-induced hallucinations, reality caught up with them. EVERYBODY jumped on the solar program to the extent that not only did PG&E lose money big time, but so did the State and the Counties. Well, nothing hurts a liberal more than losing other people's money, so the whole thing imploded.

Then there was the State/PG&E "buyback" scam. Originally, if you installed solar, any "excess" electricity your system generated had to be PURCHASED by PG&E at the current rate at the current time. This meant that if YOU were on Time of Use, and weren't using any electricity during 10 am to 5 pm, PG&E HAD to buy your "excess" electricity at the high rate. Well, you can imagine how that icewater reality enema hit the PG&E pocketbook. Yep, after a diaper fouling temper-tantrum in front of the (compliant) State PUC, the "buyback" was adjusted, and of course, "adjusted" in PG&E's favor. Then PG&E installed "smart meters" on everybody that had solar systems. On my days off during the week, I'd go out to the "smart meter" on the bright sunny days to see if we really were sending anything back to PG&E. Well, we were, but not nearly as much as we should have been.

And, don't even get into these rip-off "lease" solar programs! If you think PG&E was screwing people, these solar leasing companies screw you even worse: they OWN you!

So, all in all, we never began to pay off our investment in solar. Did it save us rate money? Yes, if we didn't have the solar system, we would have been bled dry by electrical charges, even with a solar water heater (that never worked properly: if the power goes out on a hot, sunny day (as happened a lot), the circulation pump shuts down, the system overheats, the pressure relief valve opens to relieve system pressure, creating a vacuum gap in the circulation system which causes the pump to burn out when the power comes back on) to save on water heating costs, and the fossil fuel furnace and fireplaces.

To answer the question: the only way solar will pay off is if you are in a southwestern state (Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas) where the sun shines a lot and the state isn't run like California. Anywhere else (like up here in the great wet Pacific Northwest, including Idaho), and there is no cost benefit because there just aren't enough bright sunny days to generate enough electricity to offset the usage.

I've covered just SOME of the stuff one has to look at and research before getting into solar electrical systems. The ONLY solar system that actually paid off for us was a solar-operated gate: the solar panel kept the battery that opened and closed the gate perfectly charged, even during the winter. Never had a problem with it.

Hope this tidbit answers some of your questions on solar systems.

Sincerely, Mike

21 comments:

  1. WOW! What a great testimony to the folly of solar power run by the government and public utilities. Mike's last paragraph shows that in small, specific applications solar is the way to go; but for powering homes and businesses solar is not viable. I hope the right people get to see this. Thanks for sharing. If anyone is interested in a good site about environmental issues please look at cornwallalliance.org

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  2. That being said, sometimes there aren’t any other options, other than solar + generator, for off-grid locations. I have family members in N ID who’ve had decent experience with their off-grid setup. Of course, they had no other option and it IS more expensive...

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    1. I think the key word here is off-grid.

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  3. When we were building our retirement home back in 2008 I looked very hard at both wind and solar. I quickly decided that I would be dead before pay back so did not go that way. I did go with an ICF walled home with polyurethane insulation on the inside of the roof. That had about a 5 year payback.

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  4. Whew! I bet he kinda felt better getting THAT off his chest. I feel badly for him though.
    I agree with the person who said if you want to go off grid figure out away not to use electricity.

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  5. There are poisons (warfarin) sold at Home Depot for pests like squirrels Put some on a piece of paper with 1/2 tsp peanut butter and put it where the squirrel can find it and they will magically disappear.

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    1. Unfortunately, in the PDRK, gray squirrels are considered game animals. Also, using poison as you suggest in PDRK is a definite "enviro-felony". Additionally, if one does try poisoning these vermin, the poison stays in the animal, and then whatever eats the corpse gets poisoned as well, especially the good critters, such as owls, your dog(s), foxes, coyotes, etc.. Additionally, as treerats are considered "game animals" one has to get a depredation permit from the CalDF&W department or go to jail if the local PETA person reports you. Never a dull momento in the PDRK!

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    2. If the poison is illegal how does Home Depot sell it???

      I'm not worried about dogs eating the corpse because of leash laws no dogs would get near them. You don't let your dog run free do you?

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    3. "I'm not worried about dogs eating the corpse because of leash laws no dogs would get near them. You don't let your dog run free do you?"

      Show me the squirrel that respects fences and property lines. I poison vermin---vermin runs to your yard before it dies---your dog finds it before you do and gets poisoned.

      Also if a gray squirrel is a game animal that means that people are hunting and eating them.

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    4. Understand that this particular 'poison' is also a medicine and it is the dose that makes it deadly. The amount that would kill a squirrel would not kill a dog.

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  6. As a follow on, this does not include things like battery replacement and the manufacture of the panels themselves.

    Solar, I think, can be a small short term solution for specific needs.

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  7. We installed our 5kW system in 2002, with 50% rebates, in NorCal. We had Time-of-Use (TOU), and it took PG&E 3 months to finally approve our set up (any later and they would have had to pay fines). We've had to replace our inverters twice, usually under warranty. It has worked very well for us (grid-tied), but due to so many solar systems, peak demand shifted from afternoon to early evening, when all our systems shut down and we now need PG&E power. So our very good rate system (peak was noon to 6pm Mon-Fri only) proved unprofitable for PG&E, so now it is 11 am to 7 pm (and only to 2022). The annual 'true-up' has gone from $0.00 to $500; monthly was $5 but now $10. We've made back our initial investment, but 2022 will change the rate structure again (to our disadvantage, obviously). Besides the wildfire shutoffs, PG&E has not found suitable storage options for all the solar power we're sending them. Home storage systems are super costly, as are whole-house generators for those 'Public Safety Power Shutoffs' to avoid sparking deadly wildfires. Wildfires are natural to the Sierra, but this past fire season really showed us how responsible PG&E's lack of maintenance and hardening have been for our deadly wildfires. Of course, home insurance has been withdrawn or become very expensive. End judgement? We didn't make money, we did make back our initial investment, but the future costs will resume parity with ordinary, non-renewable systems. It was good while it lasted, but power production is a business, after all. Whatever happened to Dean Kamen's Beacon system for poor countries?

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    1. The reason there is a 50% subsidy (and other hidden subsidies) and that the local utility is required to buy the power even though it loses them money and thus they must raise rates on everyone else IS solar power isn't practical!!! If it was practical it wouldn't need subsidies and mandates. Let that sink in...

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    2. Exactly. Natokadn

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  8. This is the problem with gridtie systems. If this had not been a gridtie system then the majority of these problems would not have been a factor. I think a small solar system, built up gradually, would not have these problems. Not a whole house system of course but maybe enough to power a workshop and emergency backup for select portions of a home. I have made several small solar systems for very little money (relatively speaking) by shopping around and doing it myself.

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  9. Solar can be awesome for families living off-grid where government is not on their backs, and they provide all of the installation and maintenance theselves. Some have propane for cooking and that does make life a lot easier, especially in the summer. They lead simple self-reliance life styles.
    Montana Guy

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  10. It all depends on what you 'expect'. If you use it for light and charging battery operated devices (especially if you are off grid) you will probably be happy. If you are close to the 'grid', it will be way more expensive than grid power. A long way away and it will be cheaper. If you heat/cook with wood, use a propane frig/freezer/dryer you will probably be happy. If you use it for heat 'energy intensive' appliances, unhappy. If an 'expert' installs it and you expect he/she/it to maintain it - unhappy. If you can put it together and keep it going 'happy'.

    I totally see where Mike is coming from. A huge investment in a system that cannot compete with grid power in his location and one he saw flaws in as it was installed. I wish I knew the things he didn't include. For his investment anyone would be 'displeased'.

    It all boils down to what you expect and what you can live with. (And what you belive you are paying for.) A big gentle slow horse is dog meat to a jockey, but worth his weight in gold to a family with 5 kids who ride and love him. The world's greatest racehorse would be disastrous, if not deadly, to that same family.

    Natokadn

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  11. As a number of people have noted, it is important to decide what you want your system to do.

    A small off-grid system with power stored in batteries to run a few critical circuits can be a nice thing.

    A small off-grid system to offset electrical expenses can be a good thing. You do have to understand what exactly your utility is doing though, and that can get complicated.

    You also have to understand state laws. Some States will let you lease your rooftop to the installing company. They pay the upfront costs.

    Not all States allow this. There you need to have sufficient income to make any tax credits worthwhile.

    And squirrels seem to have a preference for certain types of insulation. But that is a hit or miss proposition. Squirrels tear up all sorts of things. The rooftop system just adds to the list of things you own that they can destroy.

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    1. The insulation munching is due to the mandate that plastics have to be made with some renewable materials. Soy based fillers are common and apparently "tasty too". Mice will also eat the ducting, air filter casings, and wiring in cars.

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  12. As a person formerly in the solar collector manufacturing business, I have heard, but not caused, many of these scenarios. Expectations are high, and performance is weak. Solar is a good way to heat a swimming pool, and that's what we concentrated on. They pay for themselves in three years or so. Domestic hot water systems create more costs than they save, and solar electric (PV) is a complete waste of money because the rates are truly rigged against you, and the maintenance costs will never equal your savings. Even in the best circumstances, add up the costs of $23,000, plus the $7,000 re-installation cost, and ask yourself how long will it take to use $30,000 worth of electricity?

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