When we had our solar power system installed we used The Solar Company, and we have been very happy with the results since then.
The leader in volume installations these days, however, seems to be Solar City, part of the Elon Musk empire. Residents in our area have been adding solar panels to their homes with some regularity of late, and almost invariably I see those distinctive green and white Solar City trucks in front of the house.
Whoever is doing the work, it is good to see. There is the issue of how the utilities pay to maintain the infrastructure when people’s meters are running backwards, but the California state legislature last year passed legislation that allows the public utilities commission to address that.
And if we’re reducing the strain of the grid, that’s a Good Thing.
I love having solar power. It saves us money. It’s good for the environment. And on the hottest days we are helping to reduce the strain on the grid.
But like anything else, it’s not all that simple. A portion of the standard electric bill goes for maintenance of the infrastructure. If you’re on solar you don’t pay that for every kilowatt hour you use as everyone else does, and so the cost is borne by those who don’t have solar. Here and Now on NPR had an interesting analysis of this recently.
Last year the legislature in California passed a bill that, while promoting the expansion of solar power in the state, also allows the Public Utilities Commission to permit electric utilities to charge customers a monthly fee for infrastructure maintenance.
I’m fine with that. We are trying to do the Right Thing. We are not trying to freeload.
Halloween is a holiday that as an adult I’ve never much liked or gotten into. I’ve liked it even less since we’ve had Tasha, as the constant ringing of the doorbell and knocking at the door along with the concomitant activity of all the kids has her barking steadily all evening. For the past couple of years we’ve decided that the best thing to do was to have her spend the night at her favorite resort.
But 31 October now has another significant meaning for Terry and me. It was one year ago today that our regional electric and gas utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (commonly known as PG&E), showed up at our door at 7:30 in the morning and replaced our electric meter with a new Time of Use (TOU) meter. This meant that Terry and I could flip the switch and turn on our new solar-powered system.
We’ve been very pleased with our decision. It has reduced our utility bill each month considerably, and I expect that when the calculations for the true-up period, which ends today, are made, we will have a net negative, in dollars, at least, if not in actual kilowatt-hours.
Having solar has engendered behaviors that we did not necessarily expect. Rather than simply having solar to help reduce our electric bill, I felt motivated to ensure we had a negative electric bill in those months when the amount of sunlight and length of the day made that a possibility. The months of May through October are considered the summer season for billing purposes, and weekdays 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. are peak hours. That means if we are feeding back into the grid during those hours we can have a negative electric bill in dollars, even if overall kilowatt-hour usage for the day is positive. That’s because the rate PG&E pays us for electricity during those hours is higher than what we pay them during non-peak hours.
Rather than cranking up the air conditioner as we thought we might as a result of having solar, we have our thermostat programmed so that the A/C doesn’t come on until 7:00 p.m. On especially hot days we’ll pre-cool the house in the morning and turn the air conditioner off at 12:59 p.m.
In a similar manner, we thought we might use having solar as a reason to fire up our hot tub once again. So far we haven’t.
No doubt we did the right thing both from an environmental and a financial perspective. And our behaviors are, I believe, the right thing from those two perspectives as well, even if they aren’t what we expected them to be.
I have been singing the praises of solar power for a while now. So far Terry and I have found just one downside.
When we had the solar panels installed we thought it might help with the insulation of the house, and help keep the house cooler in the evening after a hot day. It turns out that the exact opposite is true. The house retains heat in the evening and doesn’t cool down as fast.
This is obviously not a big deal, and one of the points of having solar is that you can turn up the air conditioning without having to pay the power company more money.
Overall, we still know that going solar was exactly the right thing to do, and we’re delighted to have done so.
I noticed the other day that a couple in the development behind us with whom we are slightly acquainted seem to be installing solar panels. That’s great. We’re delighted to have them as part of the family.
One of the motivations to install solar is to reduce one’s dependency on the electric utility. It was certainly one of ours. The irony, of course, is that solar panels tie you that much more closely to the power company. That’s because the electricity which you generate and don’t use you are selling back to the utility.
That’s a good thing, of course. It’s very much an economic benefit to us. And we’re using a clean, renewable source of energy to supply power to the system. Working together, those of us in the neighborhood who have solar are, presumably, helping to reduce strain on the grid on hot days when electricity use spikes.
So our while our relationship with the electric utility may not be what we envisioned when we first thought of getting solar, it’s nonetheless a positive, productive, mutually beneficial one.
We hit a significant milestone on our path to solar power last week. At the end of the last billing period the amount of energy we fed back into the grid was greater than the amount of energy we consumed from our electric utility.
That’s pretty cool.
Both Tahoe Mom and I have been known to reflect on how it is no coincidence that Christmas comes four days after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. We celebrate the coming of the Light just as the light is starting to return. I love that image, and it is a central part of my observance of Christmas every year.
This year that spiritual dimension is coupled with a very practical dimension. Since we had our solar energy system installed we rely on the light of the sun to help us reduce our dependence on the power company for electricity, and, I hope, make our small contribution to the environment. I am happy, therefore, to report that on the Solstice, which was also in large part a wet, rainy day, we produced a respectable amount of energy. We can now expect to see increased energy production as the days get longer. That’s not to say that our smallest energy production would be on the Solstice. Sunday was so dark, wet, and rainy that we actually generated far more power on the Solstice. But on whole, we look forward to increased production.
Form a spiritual perspective and from a practical perspective, those are both good things.
Like little kinds with a new toy, we’ve been constantly monitoring our solar power production. Wednesday was cloudy and gray, and Thursday the same, but with rain as well. Nonetheless, we had a decent amount of production those days. It’s obviously been a lot greater in the days since, with clear skies and bright sun. We’ve been feeding substantial amounts of power back into the grid, which is marvelous.
It’s interesting to note my reaction on Friday seeing the meter run in reverse. Rather than feeling that I can be profligate in our use of electricity, I am rather motivated to conserve so as to send as much back to the grid as possible.
I do worry that our having solar will cause us to have a dry winter, but showers are predicted for later in the week, so perhaps that’s not the case. Besides, that’s not the way Mike’s Rules of Causality work. By that system, installing solar would mean we’re in for a wet winter. But then again, city crews did a massive clearing of brush from the drainage ditch next to the park across the street the past couple of weeks. That would indicate a dry winter.
Terry tells me, however, that the sand cranes left the Central Valley early this year, and that generally indicates a wet winter. When in doubt, I say go with the sand cranes.
The story of Roddy the Cement Mixer teaches that with patience one’s project will reach its desired outcome. That happened for us today. Around 7:30 this morning our doorbell rang. It was PG&E, our electric utility. They were here to install our two-way meter so we could turn on our solar power system. Shortly after 8:00 a.m. we were outside for the small ceremony we had planned from the start of the project. Terry flipped the switch and the system came to life.
And so the journey we began at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in July reached the outcome we’ve been so long anticipating.
I have to give a shout out to all the good folks at The Solar Company. Von, our sales consultant; Mike, the inside sales guy; the fellow whose name I’ve forgotten who made two visits to make sure he had the measurements right; Felicia, customer project liaison extraordinaire, who kept us current and updated every step of the way; and Kenny, the installation crew chief who saw to it that the entire installation process was complete in one day. There were others with whom I only had contact once, and no doubt still more behind the scenes. All of them top-notch professionals.
Now we look forward to helping the environment just a bit and saving some big money on our electric bill.
Please forgive the fact that Terry is blurred. This is the actual moment that she switched on the system.
The display panel on our inverter
Our new two-way meter
The view from the roof, as taken by Kenny
Even on a dark, cloudy, overcast day, the system is generating power!
The door card from PG&E telling us that we can turn on our system