Solar Panels

Welcome and thank you to our second guest blogger Randy Mikula.

Buying Solar:   One family’s experience:   by Randy Mikula

Solar is not for everyone, and to find out if it is for you, it might be useful to hear our experience.   I think that the first myth that needs to be dispelled is that going solar makes economic sense.   It does not.   When investigating a solar purchase, you will be confronted with a bewildering variety of claims for payback periods and return on investment calculations.    My advice is to ignore all of them…….they are based on assumptions and predictions, typically going out 15 to 20 years.    With that time scale, even small changes in predictions about the future cost of electricity will have significant impacts on any estimated payback periods.   It is really best to ignore those graphs and charts that dominate the information package you will receive from companies that will be bidding on your installation.  There is a reason that solar installations have significant government subsidies…….because they don’t make economic sense. Why then, would anyone consider a solar installation?    Answer:   I don’t know!    I can, however, tell you why we installed solar panels.  In Alberta, a significant portion of our electricity is from coal powered generators, and there is a significant level of air pollution associated with burning coal.   We were lucky enough to have some disposable income, and rather than leave that for our children, we thought we would do our bit to reduce some of the environmental downside of coal fired power plants.    We did not believe any of the 15 to 20 year return on investment claims by the suppliers.   

Our Solar installation.  Twenty-four 320watt panels for a total capacity of 7.68kWatts.

Whatever your motivation for going solar, once your decision is made, the real fun begins.    Our adventure began with an internet search of local companies and at the time (late summer of 2018), we quickly narrowed our list down to what we thought were a top 6.    Each of the companies presented different options in terms of the type of solar panel (watts per panel) and the number of panels.    A fairly complex spreadsheet evolved to determine cost per watt generated, panel manufacturer and associated reputation, and finally installation cost.   On top of this, there are two main technical considerations around how the power is delivered to your home and out to the grid.    The solar panels are producing DC (direct current) voltage, while your house and the grid feeding your house are AC (alternating current).   In order to convert your solar panel output to useable electricity, the DC power has to be converted to AC power.    In 2018 there were two options available to achieve this conversion:  microinverters or power optimizers.   The microinverters do the DC to AC conversion at each solar panel, while the power optimizers allow for reasonably efficient transfer of DC power from each panel to a DC to AC inverter installed near your electrical panel inside your house.     There are lots of interesting geeky technical reasons why we went with the power optimizers and the single inverter inside the house but getting into those details is not the intent of this particular soap box tirade.     

My July energy usage broken down by day.   Making way more energy than I am using.

Once you have made that decision about a distributed or single power inverter, it will surprisingly do nothing to limit your choices about which company to do the installation.   That is because most of them will offer either system, although they may have preferences as to which they might recommend to you.    So, now we are down to looking at cost per watt based on the output of the solar panels and their associated costs, including installation.   Sorry…..still no help from me on this because this is a pretty competitive industry and each company will have similar performance and trying to figure out the pros and cons of things like polycrystalline panels versus single crystal panels and output per panel can drive you crazy…….I know I still have a bit of tic from my experience in trying to sort out the best deal.    In the end I determined that it is like buying a TV.    There are quality issues that are largely determined by the price, and once you have determined your price range you might as well make the purchase, cross your fingers,  and then quit looking at the market.   Just like TV’s you will find companies offering say LG or Canadian Solar brand panels, same output, same general description, but different prices….. look closely and you will see that just like TV’s even for the same brand  it is a different model #, so good luck with any head to head comparisons. 

I have to admit that I spent way too much time looking technical details and splitting way too many hairs before I realized that there is no point sweating over a few pennies per installed watt.   In the end I literally just went with the guy I liked the best when I met him on the site visits…..probably not the best advice but after months of calculations I was finally ready to get my system installed and just assumed the industry is pretty competitive in terms of equipment quality.  For my installation, I was lucky because I needed new shingles, so I had my solar panels installed on a new roof.    With the solar panels protecting my shingles, I am expecting this roof to last forever.

Here is the PWRView output for December broken down by day.   Even with my steep roof, it can take time for the snow to fall off the panels. Using way more energy than I am making.

Now for the fun part….saving the planet.    The installation will include an internet link so the company can monitor your system performance and of course so can you.   I have a SolarEdge inverter and it is hooked to the web via my home internet.   You can look at my system performance by going to solaredge.com and typing “mikula” into the monitoring section.   You won’t get the detail of information that I get, but it gives you an idea of my system performance and you can get a sense of the data that is available.   I thought that checking this site would be interesting for about 4 months before the novelty wore off.   After about 16 months it is still fun, but only because a good friend across town has a similar system installed and we are constantly monitoring each others performance and bragging or not depending upon our relative solar output.   Note that if you look at my system data it says that since installation, I have saved over 3400kg of carbon dioxide or planted the equivalent of over 11 trees.   My 7.68 kW of installed power (24x320watt panels) is almost an ideal installation because I have a steep roof slope facing south.   At the equator, an ideal solar panel angle would be flat on the ground……..as you move north, the ideal panel angle gets steeper in proportion to your latitude (the angle of the sun).    My steep roof slope is almost optimum in terms of panel angle for Edmonton and furthermore the steep angle means that snow doesn’t accumulate, but will slide off the panels, allowing me to create power even throughout the winter.    My friend’s installation is on a conventional roof and once the snow falls, his panels are essentially off line, so it is no fun comparing performance for at least 4 months out of the year.   

My total output from the solar edge system data.  Over time, I will see how the solar panel output might deteriorate due to age.   This shows that with my steep angled panels, I can make power in the winter months because my panels are not always covered with snow.

But wait….there is another technology that will help keep you interested in your energy and planet saving efforts  even when the panels are covered with snow.    This is an electricity monitoring device that is often available as an option from your solar installer.   It can be installed and be fun whether you have solar panels or not.   Mine is called Generac PWRVIEW (see above chart).   You can install this in your electrical panel and it will monitor your electrical usage.    With time, some systems can identify what appliance is on line and output what your electricity use is for each identified appliance.   This can be great fun for me and a huge annoyance to the family when I can identify that lights have been left on and can quantify the vampire power draws in the house.   This is also on the internet so power use can be monitored even while on holiday in Saskatchewan  or Hawaii (now you see why it can be a huge annoyance).    That monitoring system cost about $400, and is way more fun than just looking at solar panel output.   After all, you can’t do anything about the solar power, but you can keep lights off and monitor daily electricity use for your lights, computer, washer, dryer, etc.    I would recommend that any solar installation include the add on monitoring system and in fact, the monitoring system might be a good investment even without a solar installation.    The monitoring system will measure solar input as well as household use, and if you are looking at the monitoring system as a start, the solar monitoring option is an easy addition later.   

Here is my power usage and generation for July 22.   Making way more than I am using and you can see two spikes where we were probably doing laundry.   This data can be looked at in real time at much higher resolution and I can see when the tea kettle is turned on, or even a laptop!   Notice that the power generated is chopped at 6kWatts.   That is the limit of my inverter, while my rooftop has the potential to make 7,68kWatts (some wasted production there).   Note the notch in generation where some clouds blocked the sun for a time. 

 Finally, I will share some financial estimates.    My solar installation cost about $22K for 7.68kW of panels, and with $6K in rebates, my cost was $16K.   In 2019, my Generac data showed I saved $747 (and don’t forget the 3400kg of carbon dioxide and 11 trees).  That’s not bad, but less than a 5% return on my $16K.   Take a close look at your electrical bill and you will see that most of the cost is transmission, and not power, so don’t expect any months with no power bill.   And remember, my installation is almost ideal.   As they say, “results may vary”, but be assured they probably will not be as good as mine.   Another surprise (is was for me) is that during a power outage, your solar system will shut down and you will not have power along with your neighbors.   This is because in the event that technicians are working on the grid, they don’t want to be shocked by power coming from a solar system.

Obviously, a lot of this is just my opinion and you need to do your own research, but you should be able to get a lot of satisfaction from reducing at least a small portion of the pollution associated with coal fired power generation.  I think you will be unhappy if you think going solar is a financial investment, but very happy if you see it as an investment in the environment.    

My 6kWatt inverter mounted beside my electrical panel.  The white antenna unit connects the solar edge inverter to the home wifi, and the black antenna just above that connects the PWRView electricity monitor to the home wifi.

Thank you, Randy, for generously sharing and educating us on what a solar panel installation involves, looks like, and yields in terms of benefits at the household level, including fun intangibles such as the pleasure of being able to monitor the family’s energy production and consumption remotely.

Morocco’s Solar Farm – Noor (meaning “light” in Arabic)

That got us curious to learn more about leading solar energy projects, at the country level.

According to a 2019 article by the National Geographic, Morocco is among three “Top of Class” countries on path to meet or exceed their Paris Agreement targets  and in keeping with an overall 1.5C global warming maximum rise. (FYI, the other two countries are The Gambia and India; the full report card article is here https://on.natgeo.com/3aNvX8y.)

According to the article, Morocco is already at 35% of its electricity production through renewable sources, on path toward its National Energy Strategy goal of 42% by 2020 and 52% by 2030. The Noor Ouarzazate complex is credited with being the main reason why Morocco is in this enviable position, through the country’s foresight and $9 billion investment in the largest solar farm in the world, currently.

We found this 6-minute PBS video clip on Noor to be fascinating and most instructive – it illustrates how solar energy is captured and converted into electric power, and, previews the latest in solar technology that will enable the farm to keep on working an additional seven hours after the sun sets, once phase three is implemented – https://to.pbs.org/38JJsUT.

Next week’s blog post will look into some of the research informing the recent 50th meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), held at Davos, Switzerland at the end of January 2020, where a large part of the Agenda was focused on the global risks, and a call to action by all — nations, companies, local governments and citizens — to step up the world’s efforts on mitigating climate change.

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