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.
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.