Sunday, August 31, 2008

Seven Reasons to Go Solar

Here are reasons customers of mine decided to install photovoltaic systems (PV) for their homes or businesses. Usually three or more of these reasons motivated them to go solar.

  • Immediate Savings on electricity costs
  • Hedge against future rate hikes
  • Ideal sun exposure on roof or ground
  • Clean energy avoids greenhouse gas emissions
  • Reduce dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power
  • Sets an example for children and neighbors
  • Backlash at energy monopolies

1) Savings: A PV system will save electricity charges from the moment it is turned on. Called commissioning, owners can see first-hand the benefit of their system; the standed meter wheel immediately slows and, in many cases at residences, the meter actually runs backwards. It's not unusual to see homeowners jump for joy at this sight. Their system is producing more than the house needs and the surplus is going into the power grid for which the new owner gets credit, called net metering. Heavier consumers of power, of course, will see the most savings.

2) Hedge against rate hikes: The roof top or ground-mounted system is always the primary daytime source of power. So, no matter how high future power rates go, the PV system will always defray what the customer would have paid without solar power. Furthermore, PV systems will last 30 years and longer at which time solar components should be off-the-shelf items and reasonably priced.

3) Ideal sun exposure: Ideal placement for a solar array is a rooftop tilting south to southwest; east/west works but with much less output. Rooftop chimneys, skylights, AC units, etc., and tree shade must also be deducted from total available area for panels. The roof must be in good condition to last the life of the PV system. Such factors are considered in the bid process by solar professionals.

4) Clean energy: Fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal release carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air when burned. A basic 2500-watt home PV system can avoid greenhouse gases by about two tons per year.

5) Reduce fossil fuel/nuclear dependence: Long-term use fossil fuels is heating the atmosphere melting ice mass at the poles and heating oceans that contribute to hurricanes/typhoons. Particulate from fossil fuels--coal in particular--contribute to respiratory ailments and ensuing absenteeism impairs labor output and GNP (Germany actually quantified this). Oil and gas are depleting commodities, too, so ever-increasing costs have already begun. Nuclear power is clean but accidents can be catastrophic and nuclear waste was, is, and probably always will be a storage problem unless safe, reliable recycling can be achieved. Even if achieved, nuclear accidents will always be a problem in an imperfect world.

6) Solar sets an example: A rooftop PV system advertises that homeowner's astute investment for the present and future and his commitment to a clean, renewable energy. About 18 months ago, I sold a PV system to a retired couple here in San Diego who were already frugal electricity users. In fact, they probably will not live to see a payback on the solar system--their electricity use being so low. I told them they really didn't need to buy to which the wife said: "We're not concerned that much about the savings. We want to be a visible example to our neighbors of the importance of clean energy. We also want our grandson to learn all about it and to remember his grandparents as concerned, forward-thinking citizens." Thinking back, I shouldn't have been surprised; they owned a hybrid vehicle and had a solar hot water unit on the backyard cottage that also supplied the house.

7) Backlash at utility monopolies: In 2000 and 2001 California had an "energy crisis" that involved rolling blackouts and tremendously spiked electricity rates for residents, renters and small businesses. Some ill-conceived legislation set the stage for energy price manipulation by Enron, Duke Energy, El Paso Corporation, Reliant Energy and Sempra Energy (parent of SDG&E). California ratepayers of the three major utilities were gouged by the billions in the process. Sempra/SDG&E customers were particularly outraged for being taken advantage by their own utility in their own backyard. A $24 billion (with a "b") class action lawsuit against Sempra is still in litigation. Some Californians are getting back with solar power. PV system owners get more control of their energy costs by producing it for themselves and not being beholden to a utility monopoly.

Did this article convince you to go solar?


Friday, August 29, 2008

Common Solar Electricity Terms: A Primer

The following terms should help you understand more about this blog's content. For more detail on each, Wikipedia is a good source. Also, most makers of panels and inverters provide technical data of their products online.

AC/DC: Alternating Current/Direct Current. Tesla developed alternating current in the 1880s, selling the patent to George Westinghouse. AC systems overcame the limitations of the direct current systems (used by Thomas Edison) by distributing electricity efficiently over long distances.

Amorphous Silicon Cells: Silicon that does not have a crystalline structure and which is not conductive. Such cells are often called "thin-film." Uni-Solar, Nano-Solar and First Solar all make their own types of amorphous silicon photovoltaics.

Array: The sum of all solar panels linked together in a system.

Cost per Watt: Used in the solar industry to determine solar panel costs. This is a changing value related to panel technology (thin-film usually costs less than crystal silicon modules) and the market availability. Thus, a 200WAC panel priced at $4/Watt would be $800 per panel to the solar integrator, usually more to a self-installer.

Crystalline Cells: High-purity, semiconductor-grade silicon (only a few parts per million of impurities) is melted in a crucible, usually made of quartz. Dopants such as boron or phosphorus can be added to the molten silicon changing it into n-type or p-type (negative/positive) extrinsic silicon. A seed crystal, mounted on a rod, is dipped into the molten silicon and pulled upwards while rotating at the same time. By precisely controlling temperature, rate of pulling and speed of rotation, it is possible to extract a large, single-crystal, cylindrical ingot from the melt. Like slicing bread, wafers are carefully sliced from the cylinder and polished for use as semi-conductors or solar cells.

Framed modules or Panels: Most photovoltaic cells come as framed modules and produce DC power. Also known as panels, they are composed of a small group of five to six-inch silicon wafers mounted on thin metal to which is attached electrical leads and framed in either silver or black anodized aluminum. Other forms of cells similar roof tiles and shingles; another is a laminate for bonding to steel seam roofs and single-membrane roofing materials.

Grid-tied: All systems featured on this blog are tied into the area power grid (AC) and this likely entails net metering. Whatever surplus energy a PV system produces goes back into the grid and the ratepayer's meter will run in reverse thereby deducting kilowatt hours from the bill. Credit is usually given at the wholesale rate per kilowatt hour.

Inverter: All photovoltaic panels produce DC power which can be stored in batteries. An inverter changes DC power to AC for connection to the area electric utility. Large systems can require many inverters to handle/convert the DC load.

Kilowatt Hour: The kilowatt-hour (symbolized kWh) is a unit of energy equivalent to one kilowatt (1000 watts or 1 kW) of power expended for one hour (1 h) of time. The kilowatt-hour is not a standard unit in any formal system, but it is commonly used in electrical applications.

Off-Grid or Stand-Alone system: A PV system that is not connected to a power grid. The DC power generated by PV cells is stored in batteries sufficient to meet the demand of a specific situation.

Photovoltaic (PV): Converting light into electricity. Photo means "light" voltaic means "electric". Often referred to as "PV" for short. Other terms are "solar power" or "solar electric".


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Solar in the News

This feature provides objective, third-party articles about solar power worldwide. Press releases and stories obviously generated by entities in the article will be avoided as self-serving.

Solar Power Heating Up in Florida
ORMOND BEACH -- Solar power technology, once exclusively used for hot water heaters and raising the swimming pool temperature a few degrees, is now powering homes, may soon power cities and may even be collected from outer space... Read more:

Solar Power Dawns in the Northwest
Marple's Pacific Northwest Letter, out of Seattle, has summarized the huge amount of capital flowing into solar-related businesses in the four-state region of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana...

Thin Films in Energy Applications to Reach $3.9 billion
According to a new technical market research report, THE GLOBAL MARKET FOR THIN FILMS IN ENERGY APPLICATIONS (EGY060A) from BCC Research, the global market for thin films in energy applications was worth $1.1 billion in 2007. This is expected to increase to $1.4 billion in 2008 and $3.9 billion in 2013, for a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23.5%...

Kansas City: Interest in solar power heats up
Jeffrey Schmidt is part of a team that's working to trade out electricity for sunshine at a River Market loft...A solar water-heating system will nearly eliminate the need to buy power to heat water for the 5,500-square foot, two-story loft, said Schmidt, an architect with Greenlee Schmidt Architects...

Solar Generation Costs on Track to Achieve Grid Parity
Even though the cost of solar power today from sources such as photovoltaic [PV] and solar thermal is more expensive than traditional forms of power generation utilizing resources such as coal and natural gas, many believe that in the long term solar power will achieve cost parity with traditional forms of grid power...

Photovoltaics Underestimated, says SunPower Co-founder
If the growth of photovoltaic (PV) solar cell installations were to continue at the current rate, they would be able to satisfy all U.S. electricity demands by 2040, according to Richard Swanson, co-founder of SunPower Corp...

Japan: More Good News for Solar
Japan's Mitsubishi Electric Corp. said Wednesday it will spend 50 billion yen (458 million dollars) to boost solar power cell production four-fold by early 2012 amid growing interest in renewable energies...


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Commentary: Who needs a tax credit?

Many of you already know the solar investment tax credit will expire on December 31. This tax credit was part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. True, Congress could try to extend it for the umpteenth time but President Bush will likely veto any legislation that would diminish tax credits for the oil industry given by the same energy act.

The oil and gas industry were provided a $17 billion tax credit from 2007-2011 in the latest energy bill passed last December.* That's $3.4 billion in tax credits for each of five years. Last February, Exxon-Mobil announced $40.6 billion in net profits for 2007, the most in American corporate history, beating their own record set in 2006. By the way, $40.6 billion is $4.6 million an hour. Profits of the five biggest international oil companies have tripled since 2002.

Whether Republican or Democrat, that sort of profit begs the question: Why do they need tax breaks?

The solar industry for larger-scale projects of 100kW or more is slowing at this time. If, but more likely when, the 30% tax credit for solar installations expires at year's end it means these projects must be completed by the deadline. With design, engineering, sometimes environmental reviews, permitting, procurement, construction and commissioning, timing is crucial. Many solar customers and financiers backed out of solar projects starting in May for fear projects could not be completed in time. The 30% residential solar tax credit (capped at $2000) likely will stunt the industry's growth, too, in areas where rebates are non-existent. Further annoying to solar, the tax credits combined industry-wide are just a fraction of what oil and gas is getting.

Solar power (photovoltaics or PV) is still an emerging industry in the U.S. If PV here had the federal help that Big Oil and nuclear has gotten for generations, it would be more affordable to all and would be cleaning the air as we speak. With no real national push for solar, most panels are made outside the country--further exacerbating the trade deficit. Germany, Japan, Spain, China, Taiwan and India are now key players in PV panel manufacturing. Simply put, our non-involvement is costing us dearly.

When Germany made a commitment to go green in the late 90s, some 389,000 jobs were created in solar--in a country of about 90 million. When the Bush Administration said committing to the Kyoto Accords would cost jobs, it did. It is costing the U.S. countless jobs in renewable energy research, development, sales and installations. If some oil and gas jobs are in fact lost, let the Big Oil and Coal make the transition to solar or wind. Panels, inverters, racking hardware, trackers, monitoring systems all need to be made by Americans, installed by Americans, for Americans. Imagine a day when coal workers are relieved of their dangerous, dirty jobs and retrained to install solar power systems in the natural light of day.

A solar power explosion could be as large as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. When virtually every roof in the country is a potential place for a PV or a solar thermal (hot water) system or both, the scope of what could be is gargantuan. And with most of the power infrastructure already in place, this is no idle dream.

* See
"Exxon: Profit Pirate or Tax Victim?
chan=rss_topEmailedStories_ssi_5) and
"Exxon Mobil's Profit in 2007 Tops $40 Billion"


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Five Steps to Solar Power

Get familiar with the word "photovoltaics" or "PV". The term basically means converting light to electrical current. Today, most PV systems--both residential and commercial--are connected to their local utility grid. Being grid-tied means no batteries are required and most incentives require connection to a utility. Now, here are five steps to buying a residential PV system:

  1. Know your power consumption
  2. Estimate PV system size
  3. Get three estimates
  4. Ask questions
  5. Select "Best Fit"

1) Know your consumption: Check your monthly kilowatt-hour usage (kWh) over the past year or, at least, six months including summer and winter months. Get the total charges and divide it by your total kWh for the whole period. (If your utility also supplies gas, be sure you're only calculating electricity charges.)

Example: Total Annual Consumption: 5000 kWh
Total Annual Charges: $600
Average Per kWH: .12

NOTE: Keep in mind your average monthly kWh usage; it will help you gauge system size. If you're paying 10 cents/kWh or less, solar power at this time will probably not save you money, expecially if your state or country has no solar incentives (See The largest utilities in California have a base rate of .13/kWh goes up depending on consumption to as high as .485/kWh--nearly 50 cents per kilowatt hour!

2) Estimate system size: Let's keep this simple. A 2500WAC system (2.5kW) will generate about 4500 kWh annually in Phoenix, AZ. The same system in San Diego, CA 4200; Miami, FL 3970; Augusta, GA 3574; New York City, 3180; Ann Arbor, MI 2780. Need more power? Double the 2.5kW to a 5kW/AC system or find an appropriate size in between.

3) Get three estimates: Check with your relatives or friends first to see if they have or know of someone with a PV installation. Referrals can save you time and money but you still might get another bid for comparison. For safety's sake be sure installers are licensed electricians. You can also Google for local PV installers or go to

NOTE: Don't overlook the smaller PV installers; they can be more attentive than larger contractors and offer better pricing. Prices should be around $8.50 per AC Watt. Thus 2.5kWAC system (2500 watts) would be around $21,250 installed.

4) Ask questions: The three or more PV sales pros will perform an on-site survey of your house. Have your bills ready or a print-out of your billing history from your utility account online. Ask questions during the survey. If the salesperson gets the feeling you are fairly knowledgable about your power needs and PV in general, he will likely only propose what is necessary and not oversell. Ask for three references with contact numbers for inclusion in the proposal.

5) Select the Best Fit: Consider pricing, references, equipment and timing of installation process. Most installers will also handle rebate/tax credit paperwork as part of the total process. Also, the quality of the salesperson usually reflects the quality of his company. In California, as a requirement of the CA Solar Initiative (rebate), all systems are warranted for 10 years (panels 20-25 years by the mfrs). In short, feel good about the installer you chose; it's a long-term relationship.

A comparison of crystalline panels to thin-film PV will be featured soon on this blog.

Energy $aving Advice:
Before Looking into Solar

There are many ways to save real money on energy costs before going to solar or wind systems. Several of these ideas will be passed along in this feature, Energy $aving Advice.

Having sold photovoltaic (PV) system kits over the phone around the country I've been amazed at the range of electricity rates. In fact, I had a customer who was paying just five cents per kWh and thought he was paying too much! Well, compared to the three cents he paid just awhile back, the rate hike was alarming for him. As they say, it's all relative.

SAVING AT HOME: If you want to cut your family's electricity bill, here's a clever friends of mine in Phoenix did it. Discussing the plan beforehand, the parents went over the most recent electricity bill with their daughters after breakfast one Saturday morning. In an amiable, non-threatening way, they suggested to the girls that together the family would work hard to reduce the bill next month. The usual things were laid out:

  • turn off lights when not in use
  • use power save modes on computer screen & harddrive
  • turn off computers when away for more than two hours;
  • turn off radios and DVD players when away
  • keeping the air conditioning at 77 degrees
  • don't use the TV for background noise
  • unplug different "instant on" appliances that use stand-by power.

These parent said conserving energy was going to be a team effort AND the girls would split the savings from the last bill to the new bill. That galvanized the daughters into action. The younger girl even followed her Dad around one day shutting off lights after him! The savings can be meager or significant but it's easy money for kids and a great lesson is learned. Repeat once or twice a year to instill those good habits.

SAVING AT WORK: Whether a business owner, CEO or COO, electricity charges are a major part of overhead cost. Chances are--just as at home--there are several ways to cut or at least, control power costs. Things to do:

  • replace any incandescents with compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) or LEDs
  • update overhead lamps to efficient fluorescents
  • install automatic shut-offs in restrooms or "Turn Off Lights" signs
  • set air conditioning to 78 degrees; AC can be an energy hog!
  • turn off all non-essential computers overnight
  • install energy efficient windows, if only on the south and west sides
  • be sure copiers are set for "Energy Savings" mode
  • install awnings or plant trees, if only south and west sides
  • check to see that your on the best rate schedule with your utility

Of course, the benevolent business leader can also take the savings from a month or a quarter and add it to annual bonuses. Or use the savings to take the staff out to lunch or to fund the Holiday party. Smart energy use can save a ton in the long run.


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