Beware of Solar Sales Pitches and the Whims of Your Power Company

Two of my neighbors got solar power systems. They were completely different setups and the results were very different. Neither neighbor is very happy about his situation.

Brad’s system is BIG. 27kw, with 3 Tesla Powerwalls and a propane generator for backup. The modules are all facing west, because of trees on the neighboring property. It is a hybrid grid-tie system, meaning sun power fills up the batteries, runs the house and then any left over goes to the grid. At night, the batteries keep the lights on until the battery bank gets punky and then switches to grid. It knocked about $500 a month off his bill, but his last bill was $378. Spend $120,000 on a system and you are thinking the power bill is gonna go away. Maybe not. The power company gave him only $13 for his excess power and billed a bunch for the connection.

Then there’s EJ. His is a straight grid tie system, 8+Kw. 16 panels to the east and 16 more to the west. Each panel has its own microinverter, so there is no master panel with a big inverter. Just a breaker. This is a super simple way of doing a system, though I think a master inverter is cheaper and, depending on model, may offer other options. EJ isn’t sure if his bill went up or down. Usage is hard to gauge this time of year in our area. He suspects his bill is up.

What went wrong?

Salesmen may not outright lie to you…not always…but they will always give you the good points and might overlook the negatives. Then, sometimes, the rules change. I think that happened here.

Brad’s system got turned on 16 months ago. He noticed the rule change and the bump in his bill. EJ’s system got turned on just as the new rule went into effect. Brad says he is being charged $80 a month just for the use of the grid tie. It did not look that much to me and EJ says he did not think it was that much, but he agrees that he is being charged for the privilege of sending power to the power company. To add insult to injury, the billing is not based on the net difference between what he consumes and what he exports. They give him a penny for every kilowatt-hour he sends out and then he has to pay around 12 cents to get it back at night. The net result is that EJ may actually have a higher bill with solar than without.

Our power company is not under the Florida Public Service Commission regs, so we generally get a raw deal. The PSC recently tried to enact regs very similar to our co-op’s, but ended up with a phased in change for existing grid-tie users. New users get screwed. This is happening all over the country, with California simultaneously mandating solar and making it a ridiculous choice. There are ways my neighbors can improve their situations.

In Brad’s case, he can call his solar company and have them turn off grid export. Next, call the power company and tell them where they can put their grid-tie meter (on the big white truck). Any excess power will be wasted, but he will not have the grid-tie fee, which is higher than his production. If he gets a few bucks ahead he can add more Powerwalls. The more battery he has, the closer he will be to 24/7 on sun power. There’s more, too.

EJ has more of a disadvantage. There is a good chance that his microinverters are compatible with a communication controller. Heck, it may already have one. I don’t know because he has a dog that would really like to chew on me and two more that would probably bow to peer pressure and join him. Anyway, some of these communications controllers can be fitted with sensor coils in the main breaker panel to prevent export. He could then tell the power company to shove that grid-tie meter back on the big white truck. Changing a few habits like doing the power chores like a/c and clothes drying and baking during the sunlit hours would offset the power company input by a lot AND he’d be rid of the extra fees. Getting into battery storage would be tricky and likely involve a good bit of expense. The most effective change would be to ditch the microinverters and add batteries and a hybrid inverter. Unfortunately, that would cost a bunch and add to the $120/month he is paying for the hardware he has.

Both of these guys have another problem with their bills. They use too much power. Seriously, something is wrong. We are looking into that and I will report on that investigation and the progress they make.


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