When I replaced my aging torchdown roof with a new “cool” roof (white PVC membrane to reflect heat), I did so hoping to keep the house more comfortable in summer heat, and avoid having to install air conditioning, a known energy hog. But honestly I’ve had no real way of measuring the success of the investment, other than simply confirming that in the summers since, I haven’t needed AC.

But with my solar panels, I can get hard data, and lots of it, from multiple sources.

Enphase Energy, which provided the microinverters for my array, has a website that allows me real-time and historical performance data in monthly, daily, and even hourly views. If any of my 20 microinverters is malfunctioning, the site lets me know and specifies which one so the installer can fix the problem more efficiently.

Screen shot of Enphase monitoring website

The Enphase web-based tool shows how much power my array is producing every day. The better the production the lighter the box color. This shows that my best day so far came early on, with 14.1 kWh on October 19.

And if I forget to check the site for this information, Enphase bails me out by sending me a monthly summary email anyway.

As for Puget Sound Energy, the utility not only installed new digital meters when my panels went up, but they also familiarized me with how to read the pertinent information from the meters, and have included solar performance data on my monthly bills.

This level of feedback about my solar investment instills confidence that solar installers, the solar industry, and utilities are treating renewable energy as a viable, measureable option for consumers to consider on its merits. The numbers don’t always make me happy (I’m looking at you, November 28). But I’m grateful that this is one home improvement I can always assess accurately.

As many of you know, I’ve been volunteering for the Solarize Bellevue campaign this year. Here’s a quick announcement about one of my very favorite parts of the program: giving solar away.

Just a quick entry today, with performance data from the first four weeks of my rooftop solar array. The news is both disappointing and hopeful.

During this time span, we used an average of 12.3 kWh per day, which is more than normal for this household. More on that in a moment. To meet that daily demand, just a tick more than half (6.2 kWh) came from solar power production. 6.1 kWh had to be purchased from the utility.

Over time, I think we’ll see the percentage of my electricity needs offset by solar go way up, from roughly 50% to closer to 100% or more. Here’s what I think happened:

  • Household demand was up due to wrapping up a remodeling project from the summer. Lots of power tools plugged in in the garage, and at one point a high-powered fan blowing 24/7. (Don’t ask…it had to be done.)
  • Solar production was weak for days at a time, as we got soaked with much higher than normal rainfall in October. What I’ve observed so far is that the array is of course highly productive on sunny days, surprisingly productive with the indirect light of partly-cloudy days, but scarcely productive at all on those wall-to-wall rainy days that the Pacific Northwest can sometimes have.

As we head in to the darkest weeks of the year now, it’s possible the array will offset even less of my overall electricity needs. But I knew this going in. Spring and summer of 2015 will be the big test.

In 2012, the State Energy Office of the Department of Commerce compiled a directory of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable products companies in Washington state. They listed some 50 solar installers, about a dozen of which are right here in the Seattle area. Both counts may indeed be higher now, in 2014.

I’ve met with several of the owners and employees of these small businesses, and have come away mightily impressed with the combination of drive, business savvy, and environmental awareness I see in them. These businesses are growing to meet local demand for solar, and they can get almost overwhelmingly busy during the summer months.

So how do you decide who to work with? Here are some tips:

  • Get free site assessments and bids from at least three companies. There are informative variations in the size, placement, panel manufacturers, and costs of the array options they recommend. If you contact a company and they don’t get back to you within a week, that’s an early indication that they are not prioritizing your business. Move on to the next one.
  • Make sure the consultant who comes out to your house spends plenty of time up on your roof, taking measurements and testing your solar window (shading). This is a crucially informative step in the process, typically taking an hour or more. One consultant I met with eyeballed the situation from the ground, and gave me some quick and incorrect advice. Once it was clear that I expected to get up on the roof with him, he later corrected his mistake.
  • Listen carefully to your consultant, but don’t be cowed by industry jargon. Electrical engineering and solar photovoltaics are technical fields, and it is easy to get lost in the verbal thicket of “loads” and “maximum power-point tracking” and “microinverters.” But if you have a basic understanding of what it is you want (the type of panels, where you want them, how many, and so on), stick to it. Turn on your internal radar to detect when a consultant may have an agenda that he’s pushing you to align with. At the same time, establish a friendly and respectful dialogue with your consultant because he may share with you legitimate, real-time information about the solar industry in your area that you’d have no way of knowing otherwise.
  • Look for neighborhood bulk-buying programs, such as those sponsored by Northwest SEED or Go Solar Washington. These can drive down your costs by 10 percent or more, and can simplify your experience by selecting a reputable installer for you. Installers must submit an application to be part of the campaign (they want to because these campaigns generate hundreds of new potential customers who turn out for solar workshops). If you want to be more involved, you can even ask to be part of the selection committee that chooses the installer for the campaign.

Up next: Data, data, and more data! Results from the first month of my solar installation.

Arguably the most important choice you’ll make if you go solar is who’s going to make your panels? I considered four different manufacturers, and discovered that return-on-investment was just one of several values at play in my decision. Here’s my list of pros and cons, at a glance:

Manufacturer Pros Cons
  • most powerful, efficient modules
  • most attractive modules
  • manufactured in Mexico
  • relatively high price per watt
  • slower ROI
  • manufactured in Washington state
  • faster ROI
  • delivery delays reported
  • least attractive modules
  • manufactured in Oregon
  • Green Brand certified
  • relatively low price per watt
  • attractive modules
  • fast, reliable delivery
  • slower ROI
Silicon Energy
  • manufactured in Washington state
  • faster ROI
  • attractive modules
  • announced that no new orders would be accepted in 2014

Itek, located in Bellingham, and Silicon Energy, located in Arlington, are the two in-state manufacturers you can choose from if you want to take advantage of the attractive incentive program currently in place in Washington. Through this program, you can earn 54 cents per kilowatt hour produced by your solar array if you have bought panels and inverters locally. This is the biggest reason why ROI is quicker for consumers with these in-state panels.

By contrast, if neither your panels nor inverters are manufactured within state lines, you earn 15 cents per kilowatt hour. It’s still a nice perk of going solar here, but it’s obviously considerably less, and the ROI for consumers who go this route could be double the amount of time or more.

I was disappointed that Silicon Energy essentially played itself out of the competition for my business by stopping new orders for the year. I would have liked to support a small in-state business.

Itek struck me as a safe, solid choice if I were determined to get those in-state incentives and enjoy the quickest ROI. But ultimately I rejected their panels for aesthetic reasons: their clunky appearance, with old-school gridlines and overly-visible framing, just didn’t appeal to me. My hope is that in the future they will offer more variety in their lines.

So that left me with my two out-of-state options (there are, of course, many more, but it helps to place some limits on the range of choices). For sheer efficiency and aesthetics, SunPower would have been my choice. Their modules are rated at 320-330 watts, while the others come in at 270-280 at this writing. And their Signature Black Solar Panel line is as elegant as I’ve found on the market (all black, no visible gridlines or framing). But I really value local and U.S. made products, and the fact that SunPower is neither was a negative mark I would find it hard to live with, much less sell to my wife!

Although SolarWorld has German roots, its U.S. headquarters in the Portland area produces American-made panels. I have some family ties to Oregon, and frankly Portland seems as local to me as Bellingham or Arlington. It is just an unfortunate river that gets in the way of SolarWorld panels qualifying for the Washington state incentive.

More importantly, because they are a larger and more established company, SolarWorld could get their product up on my roof in about a month, with no delivery delays or drama surrounding inventory. SolarWorld is the only one of the four that had been certified green, a compelling selling point in a competitive market. And finally, from a design point-of-view, their black frame line is second only to SunPower for visual appeal.

The ROI for my SolarWorld array is projected to be 13 years. It is certainly possible that technical advances in panel efficiency in the future will make that feel like an albatross around my neck. But for me, competing values such as reliability, aesthetics, and “local-enough” were enough to impact my choice of manufacturer.

Step-by-step, here’s what to expect when you go solar:

You get a site assessment, in which a trained technical consultant meets with you to listen to what your goals are, and to gather information about your home’s solar potential. This sales consultant will spend some time up on your roof, using a tool like the Solmetric SunEye to measure the impact of shading from any nearby trees, roof vents, and so on. The SunEye factors in things like the orientation and pitch of your roof, geographical latitude, and time and calendar date variables to help the consultant locate the optimal positioning for the array of solar panels.

If you have any special roofing considerations, the solar installation company may subcontract that part of the job to a roofer. For example, my PVC membrane roof required special “boots” to be constructed to ensure that roof penetrations for the solar racking and mounting structure would be seamless.

Photo of roofer working

A roofer preps my PVC membrane roof. Surprisingly, this was actually the most time-consuming part of installing the array.

Next the racking and mounting system is installed. This includes clamps, mounts, and the long rails on which the solar panels are eventually attached. At this point you can really begin to visualize what the array will look like on the roof. The racking and mounting equipment for my array comes from a Washington state company called SunModo.

Solar panels produce DC power, which must be inverted to AC power in order to be usable in your home. This means that a key component of your array is an inverter. You can get a string inverter (or two), which is usually located in the garage, or you can now get microinverters that are much smaller in size and are located on the back of each solar panel. Microinverters are particularly desirable to mitigate the impact of shading, because they free individual panels from being dependent on power flowing from neighboring panels (as they would in traditional string arrays). In my case, because I do have a couple of trees in the backyard, I opted for microinverters from Enphase, the California company considered a leader in the field. The solar installers attached the microinverters to the racking rails, before installing the panels themselves.

Photo of microinverter

The Enphase M250 microinverter is optimized for higher-powered solar panels and carries a 25-year warranty.

Next the solar panels themselves are attached to the racking and mounting system. In theory, this is one of the simplest parts of the overall installation work. But I was glad that my installers really took their time to align the panels precisely along the rails, so the appearance of the array would be as clean and professional as possible.

When it comes to residential installations, the neighborhood “eye-test” is more important than you might think. You want your home’s solar array to be aesthetically pleasing, not an eye-sore.

And finally, all the electrical work of the array is prepared, including connecting the microinverters to the panels, and running wiring down from the array to a photovoltaic load center box, and from that box to the home’s power box as well as two utility meters.

Aside from the panels themselves, perhaps the big stars of any new solar array are these two meters: one a new “production” meter, which records the total power the solar panels are producing either for use in your home or back out to the grid; and the other is most likely your existing meter from the utility, only now transformed into a “net” meter, able to spin backwards if your solar panels are actually producing more power than you are using in your home at any given moment.

And there you have it! There really aren’t that many moving parts to this technology, so installations can be pretty quick and painless compared to other home improvements you might make.

Up next: Money, quality, aesthetics, and ROI. Some key decisions to make as a solar “consumer.”

Perhaps the weirdest thing about getting solar panels installed on my roof was that it all felt perfectly normal. Three friendly, experienced installers from Northwest Electric & Solar came out to the house last Tuesday, along with a roofer who was needed for his expertise in working with PVC membrane roofs, and by mid-afternoon Thursday the job was done.

Photo of solar panels

Twenty black-framed solar panels from SolarWorld in Oregon. The 5.5 kW system is slightly larger than typical residential installations here in the Seattle area.

The array is not “on” yet—Puget Sound Energy will come by in a couple of weeks to ensure that the juice produced works and plays well with the grid—but the infrastructure is now in place for my home to be a power producer, not just a power consumer. Next summer I am guessing the sight of my power meter spinning backwards will not be an uncommon one!

I’ll periodically update this blog with data from my power bills about how the system is performing, and any pleasant or unpleasant surprises along the way (for example, will cleaning and maintenance be more of a pain than I think?).

In my next blog entry, I’ll let you know what I witnessed with last week’s installation, step-by-step. (Just in case there are others out there who are considering going solar at some point.)

Then, in later blog entries, I will circle back to discuss some of the key decisions I had to make in selecting this particular system.

I’m going solar!

September 11, 2014

So after years of thinking about it (seriously…see the dates of the blog posts below!), I am finally going solar myself. Thanks to the Solarize Bellevue program, I’m able to get a 5.5 kW system up on the southern slope of my roof for a price I could not have imagined even three years ago.

The installation is likely to happen early next month, and I will chronicle the process here over my next several posts. My special gratitude to my wife, Carla, who has aided and abetted this obsession of mine since the day we met.

Electrons with a conscience

February 8, 2013

One of the more pleasant surprises to me about the neighborhood solar campaign I’ve been tracking this winter (Go Solar Seattle Northwest) is the philanthropic aspect of it. The local installation and manufacturing companies involved have voluntarily sliced into their profit-margins to support the community-strengthening work of three nonprofit organizations.

First, and perhaps most impressively, the campaign raised $10,101 for American Red Cross disaster relief. This financial boost came from sales of solar panel arrays during part of the campaign (through December 31, 2012).

Photo of people standing behind large donation check

From left to right: Joe Deets of Community Energy Solutions, Ann Bodden of the American Red Cross, Brandon Gwinner of Sunmodo Corp., Stu Frothingham of Silicon Energy, Karl Unterschuetz of Itek Energy, and Melissa Metcalfe of Sunergy Systems

Bodden is particularly grateful to Joe and Tammy Deets, who saw a connection between the Hurricane Sandy disaster and climate change: “Joe and Tammy did an amazing job of rallying the manufacturers they work with to help raise over $10,000 for American Red Cross disaster relief. They were motivated and enthusiastic about helping the American Red Cross raise funds following Superstorm Sandy.”

Second, the Go Solar Seattle Northwest campaign is carving out $150 of each sale in Ballard territory to go to Sustainable Ballard. At this writing, 10 systems have been sold in zip codes 98107 and parts of 98117, amounting to $1,500. That’s no small change for a nonprofit community and environmental group that runs solely on volunteer power!

And finally, the organizers of the campaign, Community Energy Solutions, are themselves a nonprofit, whose mission is to “bring energy solutions to Main Street by being a catalyst for communities.” The sales from this particularly successful campaign will no doubt help them continue their catalyzing efforts. Up next: an energy efficiency workshop in Issaquah, where they will present information about combining home energy efficiency measures with solar power for optimal savings.

The up-front cost of installing a solar array on the roof of a home has often been cited as a barrier to entry for an ordinary homeowner. But now financing the system is pretty common, whether through a leasing arrangement or a low-interest loan. And when you can “go solar” for hardly any money down, all of a sudden it isn’t hard to imagine neighborhoods dotted with paneled rooftops.

Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union (PSCCU) is offering low-interest loans to cover up to $35,000 of the cost of installations purchased through the Go Solar Seattle Northwest campaign. This means in most cases you can get those panels up and producing juice for you without putting a dent in your savings.

Photo of people signing up for solar site assessment

Attendees at a Go Solar Seattle Northwest workshop in December sign up for a free site assessment from Sunergy.

For example, say you’ve got a moderate-sized home, and after consulting with a solar professional, you’ve determined that you want a system that costs $20,000 total. You’ve planned ahead a little, so you can afford to pay for half the system when it is installed, but you’ll need to finance the rest of it.

You go see one of the loan officers at PSCCU, and because you’ve got a respectable credit rating, they can offer you a $10,000 loan at 5 percent interest. You can pay off the balance of the loan over a leisurely 15-year period if you like.

The really cool thing for you as a borrower is that that new solar array on your house isn’t just sitting around doing nothing; it is working on your behalf, every day (or nearly every day), creating value as power that you can use yourself or sell back to the utility. State of Washington incentives are structured such that if you buy in-state solar panels and inverters, you can realize a 10 percent per year return on investment.

In other words, the cost of money from the credit union (4.49-7.99 percent) is easily offset by the return from the solar installation itself (approximately 10 percent).

Shannon Ellis-Brock, Chief Operating Officer of PSCCU, says the loans make good business sense for the credit union as well: “Our small credit union was just given an award for being 5th in loan growth for all US credit unions in 2012. This was in large part from growth in Energy Smart loans (which include solar) and our commitment to offering Washington homeowners a way to finance green projects.”

But for Ellis-Brock, the reason for partnering with a program like Go Solar Seattle Northwest goes beyond just dollars and cents. “Credit unions were founded on the principle of people helping people – we have expanded on the principle and not only are we helping people, we’re helping the environment, helping to reduce our reliance on foreign fuels, and making use of an energy supply that is free and will be around forever,” she added.

This combination of long-term idealism and here-and-now pragmatism is a healthy sign of a maturing renewable energy movement. Bankers absolutely have their role to play in this. As Danny Kennedy writes in Rooftop Revolution (2012): “Financial engineering allows you to pay for your solar panels over time instead of up front, and this is probably the most important innovation in the solar industry in the past decade” (p. 99).