EJ’s Solar Dilemma

Florida’s governor just vetoed a bill that would have made solar a really stupid choice, at least with grid tie. The bill had been watered down a good bit, but it was still very much anti solar. A similar, but much worse, proposal is still up in the air for California and there are bad deals all over the country.

Just this morning I read a story of folks in Mississippi who spent a bunch of money on solar, with government encouragement, only to find there was little or no money saved. We have a local example with EJ, my neighbor.

As I have mentioned before, we are on a power co-op, supposedly run by the members. Instead, it is run by a small group, it does not have to abide by Public Service Commission laws and it has managed to immunize itself from lawsuits by its members. This is a recipe for trouble and troubles we have.

EJ was sold a tidy little system of just over 8kw, with 16 panels on the east roof and 16 more on the west. Conventional wisdom would have them facing south, but that can’t happen with EJ’s house. Besides, east-west actually works great!

The house is an older one of cinder block construction, which was a popular building choice in the past, but not very energy efficient. Cooking and hot water are gas. Since moving in, he has taken countermeasures to improve the energy efficiency, including windows, roof and siding upgrades. All well and good, but the bills still go up. The silver-tongued salesman announced that solar was the solution.

In some places, most any kind of solar solution will do, but most places, grid tie is not ideal. In our area, grid tie is a really bad idea and after EJ signed the contract it only got worse. Here’s the deal. He pays $120 per month to the solar financier for pretty much forever, given his age. Solar power offsets his daylight loads and excess is bought by the power company. Sounds ok, right? Wait, there’s more.

In some areas, the difference between what you make and what you use is the basis for billing. In a few places, the power company will pay the same as what they bill you for every KWH and that is a very good deal. One fellow we’ve mentioned in this blog actually runs at a profit in Texas and one in South Carolina pretty much broke even. Usually, though, the power company will pay less than what they charge, but still on a net difference. Not so, here, and there have been other recent changes, since EJ got the installation. Our co-op tallies every outgoing kilowatt-hour for payment and every incoming KWH separately. Worse, they pay only a penny per KWH while charging much more.

Bad, huh? On top of that they charge a steep fee for the solar connection. The fee seems to be based on capacity, as neighbor Brad says he pays an extra 80 bucks for his big system and EJ says his is $40. The co-op finally connected his solar at a time that really accentuates the issue. In the February to April time frame we have overall temperatures that do not require much a/c or heat. So EJ sees a credit that might buy him lunch at Denny’s…if he has an AARP card. That is much smaller than the extra $40 he is charged for the privilege of donating power to the company. Oh, and there’s the $120 he pays the solar company. It is pretty clear to see that solar is not saving him money.

What to do about it? EJ was blaming the solar company for his dilemma. They are partly to blame, yes, but the power company changed the rules between the time the panels arrive and the time they were finally turned on. Where I blame most solar companies is in concentrating on straight grid tie.

Can anything be done to fix this? Let’s see. First of all, the situation will improve when the weather gets hot. We’re having temperatures in the mid 80s, now, so a/c units are being run a little. Come summer, temps will be in the 90s or higher during the day and about 80 at night. The a/c will really be buzzing, especially at EJ’s, because he likes to keep it at 72 degrees. The solar will completely offset his daytime a/c, but won’t help a bit at night, when he likes it cooler. I suggested using a programmable thermostat to just ice down the house during the solar hours and back off at night, compensating with the ceiling fan in the bedroom. That is going to be his best bet.

An energy audit is in order, too. You don’t have to call in a pro for that. You can get plenty of DIY advice on that online. Where I suggest he look is at his 3 refrigerators, checking that they are in good working order and not set excessively cold. A Kill-A-Watt or other portable power meter is helpful in this. Also, it seems he leaves his shop lights on most of the time. Swapping out the fluorescents for LEDs will help.

I don’t know all of the details on his system–EJ is kind of private–but I have learned some details. The grid tie was installed in what may be the worst possible for modification. Instead of a master inverter in the utility room, each panel has its own micro inverter. There is hope in that some microinverters have communication and even islanding provisions. This is of limited value as only a fraction of the panel capacity can be used and every puffy little cloud has the potential to shut it down.

Let me back up a second. A microinverter is a little module that fits behind the solar panel, taking, say, 40 volts from the solar module and connecting it to a 240v power cable. There is no easier way to use solar in your house.

Islanding is the ability to provide that 240 volts to your house to keep the fridge and other loads going even when the power lines are down.

EJ mentions he has an app he can use to monitor production. That’s good, meaning there is a communication controller in the system. Even better, the communication controller may be able to work with a box and sensor coils that could convert his system to Zero Export. With this, he would not be able to sell power back to the grid (there goes lunch at Denney’s), but it would allow him to eliminate the grid tie fees with the power company, saving him that expense.

We’ll watch the situation as the weather gets warmer and see if the audit and modest changes make enough difference to may him happier about the system. If not, we’ll look into what might be done to modify the system at minimum cost.


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