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Jaysolar

Jay H. soaks up the sun with solar panels

I have quite a bit of experience with solar systems in terms of remote telecommunications facilities where utility power isn't practical. These involve large battery banks and over-engineering to ensure reliable power for radio, microwave, and telephone relay stations that need to be up 24/7.

So, the idea of a solar system in a suburban area with plentiful utility power didn't make sense to me at first. Electricity is readily available at reasonable rates. It would be satisfying but not practical to pull the plug on Edison.

Then, I stumbled across a mention of solar "co-generation" on Southern California Edison’s website. Co-generation is when a customer connects a source of power such as solar or wind into the electric grid. With solar, California supplies a rebate to pay part of the cost, and the federal government provides an additional tax credit.

On further research I found the idea of co-generation kind of exciting. I can use the entire utility grid as my energy storage. I don't need a battery and I don’t need to design the system any bigger than my load.

I was also considering my electric vehicle (Chevy Volt). I decided the convenience of the 240-volt charger was worth it. Rebates cover half the cost of the charger and installation. If I came home from a day trip with a depleted battery I could plug in for a couple of hours and then go out to dinner on electricity. However, the Volt would be away from home when my solar panels would be generating power from the sun.

With co-generation, I just produce more power than I need when the sun shines, feed it to Edison, and then pull power from Edison at night to run my home and charge the car. I also switched to a rate plan that gives me much lower electric rates at night and credits me at higher rates in the daytime when the sun is shining and I'm producing electricity. Some friends were predicting that the Volt would cause my electric bill to skyrocket –ha!

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jayspanels

As luck would have it, I have a great roof for solar. It is south-facing and doesn't have any vents or obstructions. I had enough area to install panels that could generate about 4kW peak power. I'm good with my hands and have a lot of experience with wiring and electrical things. My initial plan was to install the solar as well as the level 2 car charger myself.

I quickly changed my mind about installing the solar because I'm not comfortable with the permit process and roof penetrations kind of scare me. I shopped around and chose Coastal Constructors to provide the hardware, do the mechanical work and take care of the permit paperwork. They did the wiring at the same time as they wired the charger, and everything passed inspection. Modern panels are a lot better looking than the earlier ones. I'm very happy with the appearance as well as the performance.

Another modification I considered was the inverter systems. Most grid-tied systems connect a number of panels in a series string to produce high-voltage DC, and then put in a large wall-mounted inverter to convert this to conventional AC power. I was not excited about this design. A fault in one panel can bring down a whole string. Due to the high DC voltages, the wiring is complicated.

I discovered a company in the Bay Area, Enphase, that does things differently. They manufacture micro-inverters. Each micro-inverter handles the output from one solar panel. One mounts underneath each panel and they connect in parallel. If one panel or inverter goes bad, the rest of the array keeps going. The DC wiring is low-voltage and needs no conduit.

In addition, my solar system has its own website that not only shows real-time and historical data for every panel, but can also alert me if there's ever a problem. If there's debris such as bird droppings on or an electrical problem affecting one panel, the other panels are not affected, and I get an email describing the issue and showing me which panel is in trouble.

It's now been in service for almost 10 months. I've ”banked” a bit over 6 megawatt-hours of electricity with Edison. Carbon offset a bit over 4 tons. Every month since installation I've produced more electricity than I've consumed. Not only am I driving on daylight, I'm powering my house with it and even providing solar energy to my neighbors via the grid-tie.

Kermit was wrong. It's easy being green. Take a look at my solar production >

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Michael_preview.jpg

Film screening inspired Michel S. to buy a Leaf

Michel Saint-Sulpice is a gentle soul who takes his responsibility for the planet seriously, and always has. Growing up in France, his family was careful with resources, and he has carried forth that strong environmental ethic into his adult life as a Santa Barbara architect.

Michel aspires to be fossil fuel free by the end of 2012, and he’s well on his way. Solar panels provide his home with electricity, and he’s been driving a Toyota Prius since the second generation first hit the market. He completely removed his lawn to make room for a beautiful drought tolerant landscape. Greywater and collected rain water (with back-up well water) will soon irrigate a “food forest.” On the drawing board is a geothermal system that will heat the entire house (with cooling option), all his domestic water and his swimming pool year round. Since Michel produces all his electricity, his carbon footprint will be zero, and he will not be paying electric and gas bills any longer. He has taken these measures to express his deep appreciation for nature and beauty.

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Isabelle.jpg

Isabelle G. is green to the core

Isabelle Greene could not have escaped her destiny even if she’d wanted to: it was built right into her family name. Growing up in the wilder, more open-space version of Pasadena and the granddaughter of the notable Arts and Crafts architect Henry Greene, she was exposed early on to both the built environment and the natural world. Today, at the age of 78, she is an energetic champion of “sustainable landscape architecture,” and continues to manage her private practice of 30 years.

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Eatlocal1

A month of eating (mostly) local

Suppose you had dinner guests whose trip to your table covered thousands of miles and took several weeks. Surely that would represent a special occasion, and you would probably forgive them for being a bit listless and travel weary from their journey. You might even overlook the large energy expenditure and carbon footprint it took to reach you. But what if this situation was repeated every day, for every meal? That would be crazy, right?

Indeed it would be crazy, and yet that is very nearly what happens in the average American household. Only it's not dinner guests that travel great distances, but rather the food itself. The typical meal item originates more than 1,500 miles away and spends weeks or more being processed, packaged, shipped, and stored before ever reaching your plate. Are you willing to forgive listless, travel-weary food that has a large carbon footprint?

My wife Gina and I decided we are not willing, and so for the last few years we've been eating a more local, environmentally-responsible diet. In fact, we just spent the month of October participating in the Eat Local Challenge, with a goal of eating only foods grown or produced within 100 miles of our Goleta home. The following is an accounting of all the food we ate, where it originated, and some reflections on the experience.

Food sources

The ultimate in being a locavore is to walk out into the yard and gather some food just moments before preparing and eating it. We have a productive, healthy garden which provides roughly half of our fruits and vegetables, along with abundant eggs from our happy chickens! From just outside our door we have apples, oranges, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, herbs (rosemary, time, oregano, cilantro), squash, carrots, lemons, figs, strawberries, lettuce, cabbage, beets, chard, and eggs. We also had blueberries harvested in the spring and stored in the freezer (powered by rooftop photovoltaic panels).

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The next best source of local food is the Farmers' Market, and we are fortunate to have good ones every week here on the south coast. During October we patronized those growers with farms within 100 miles. From them we bought almonds, grapes, squash, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, dry beans, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, avocados, walnuts, spinach, corn, peppers, and leeks. We also had local free-range beef and chicken, as well as cheese made from the milk of Santa Barbara county dairy cows. We used Santa Ynez honey the entire month instead of sugar, and twice we bought bread made by the Solvang Pie Company using locally-grown wheat.

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We did visit grocery stores a couple times during the month, and in particular, the Isla Vista Food Co-op was a great surrogate when we missed the Farmers' Market. From them we bought locally-grown lettuce, broccoli, and apples, as well as wine and olive oil made in Santa Barbara County.

Exceptions to the rule

I must confess that we had some "cheats" or exceptions to the 100-mile rule. We got milk and yogurt from the Straus Family Creamery, an organic dairy in Sonoma County. They use returnable glass bottles, thus cutting down on wasteful packaging. We allowed ourselves a few other small indulgences with local connections: coffee from Handlebar Coffee Roasters in Santa Barbara, tortillas and chips from La Tolteca, and ice cream from McConnell's. We also made an exception for spices and condiments, although you might think our definition of a condiment was a bit liberal... for example, parmesan cheese and caramel sauce fell in this category!

Reflections

Gina and I choose to eat local for many reasons. We believe the industrial food system is too reliant on toxic chemicals and fossil fuels, so we prefer to support local farmers and ranchers who practice environmentally-responsible agriculture. There is something comforting about buying a piece of fruit directly from the farmer who grew it, knowing that it was picked recently and only a few miles away.

We also found during October that we had significantly less trash because very little of our food had packaging. Our meals didn't come from a box or jar with a lengthy ingredient list; instead we prepared everything from scratch. It took more planning and time, but the end result was worth it. Ironically, our food budget during October was lower than normal, primarily because we eliminated junk calories and processed foods, and we never wasted leftovers. Eating local doesn't need to be more expensive.

Modern society has become disconnected from food in many ways. People don't really know what they are eating and how it got to their table, and yet the negative impacts on health and the environment are profound. Choosing to eat local is a major step in the right direction. It reconnects us with our food, and perhaps most significantly, the food tastes better!

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Hennigan

A tech geek’s journey into electric vehicles

I never intended to be green. I confess to having owned and thoroughly enjoyed driving a Plymouth Barracuda equipped with a big-block V8 and twin four-barrel carburetors in my younger days. I'm a technology geek, so interesting and elegantly engineered technology has always appealed to me, cars included.

The Prius Era

Think back to the 2004 Prius. Yes, it got great gas mileage, but that car was thinking out of the box. It was visually different from any car on the market, a little geeky but kind of cool in a VW Bug sort of way. Plus, the tech was awesome for 2004. It had voice recognition, electronic entry, cool sound system, navigation, bluetooth, all of the bells and whistles. Technology geeks like myself were buzzing about it, so I got on the waiting lists at a couple of dealerships. As I was waiting and reading, other techies started talking delivery and my anticipation began building.

Boom - out of nowhere, I saw an online posting about a dealer in Barstow that had a red Prius, fully loaded. I was on the phone in a flash, closed the deal, and hopped on a Greyhound to Barstow the next day. It was a very cool car, a technology wonder, and a whale of a lot of fun.

The cool tech has changed me. I find myself becoming greener and greener. Watching my MPG readout has become a video game. Could I beat my old high score? Could I get 600 miles on one tank (11 gallons)? Plus, using the old line, "Come here often?" to that Hummer driver at the gas station who gave me weird looks, well *that* was sheer joy.

Fast-forward 7 years. The Prius has over 110,000 miles on it. It's never had a brake job and isn't going to need one for a long time to come. The engine, likewise, doesn't have the wear and tear that you would expect after that kind of mileage.

Into the World of EVs

The buzz shifted in 2009. Spotting another Prius on the road isn't a rare event anymore. They're everywhere. The new buzz was about going to the next level. People started talking about adding battery capacity to the Prius to increase the storage capacity and hence the mileage. I heard a lot about the electric Tesla, which was way out of my price range, but would blow the doors off of my old Barracuda. Then I started hearing rumors of an electric Chevy.

A co-worker had a chance to drive an EV-1 back in the day and still raved about it. Pretty soon the talk about the Volt really spiked. I was interested. The Prius was still going strong but I was ready to explore. I went to the GM websites, followed the buzz, and visited the local Chevrolet dealer. They had lots of slick color brochures on Chevy trucks, Corvette, Camaro, etc. but nothing solid on the Volt. I left the dealership with a black-and-white photocopy of the PDF from the GM website stapled to the guy's business card. “Not ready to take an order but I'll take your card. Don't call us, we'll call you.”

I wanted this car.

July 2010 rolls around and California is one of the first markets. They're available for pre-order and the Santa Barbara dealer is on the Volt list. Back I go. Different salesman. This time I left with a grainier photocopy copied from the first, stapled to another business card. At least he wrote my name down and said he'd call.

I returned to the fan sites and blogs. After a few weeks, people are posting confirmed order numbers and target build dates. The GM sites were exploding with new information.

Back to Graham I go. I make an appointment with the guy who previously sold me a car there. I walk into the dealership with my checkbook literally in my hand. The sharks are circling as soon as I step onto the lot. A Volt? “Well, I'll put your name on *my* list, which is better than that other guy's list, and we'll call you and you can come back in a few days and put down a $5,000 deposit. We don't know how many we're getting or when. Don't call us, we'll call you.”

Oh-kaay....

What's going on? It's now coming up on Labor Day 2010. I pick up the phone and call the Chevy dealer in Lompoc. "We have 4 Volts allocated to us out of the first build cycle and one is sold. Come on up and give us a $500 refundable deposit. We sell at sticker, no markup."

Well, Lompoc is 40 miles away but it’s worth the drive. 20 minutes after walking in the door I have my very own GM order number. 40 miles just happens to be the electric range on the Volt. Welcome to my next video game. When I pick it up fully charged, could I make it home without using any gas?

There's a $7,500 federal tax credit and my car rolls off the assembly line just before GM shuts down for Christmas. I picked up the car on December 30, 2010. I made it with 2 days to spare. I lost the video game, though. The gas engine came on at Winchester Canyon. I guess I'll have to practice my technique.

Nine months and 7,000 miles later my best all-electric range is 46 miles. I've filled the 9-gallon tank 6 times, typically on trips to Los Angeles. It's a very rare day that I use any gasoline at all tooling around town. The dashboard indicator says my oil life is down to 80% so I guess I'll need to get it changed in another year or so.

I guess I'm green now, but the cool tech made me do it.

I love this car.

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Lindahill

Linda H. got “solarized” this summer and loves it

On August 9th, 2011 I saw the wheel on my electric service meter go backwards for the first time, and it was a wonderful, almost giddy feeling. Finally, my house was using the sun's rays to silently create the electricity I would be using to run the lights, appliances, computers, and other plug-in components of my life. I couldn't be happier.

I've followed the development of solar energy's capability to create electricity commercially for a long time. I was so disappointed in the early days to see that alternatives to oil and gas couldn't get the funding necessary to get started – that petroleum companies couldn't or wouldn't embrace the opportunity of being energy companies and fund the research and development of alternative energy sources themselves.

My life and my jobs kept me moving around from place to place for many years, but finally, 15 years ago, I settled down in Goleta and bought a house. I considered investing in solar panels from time to time through the years since then. The cost was the main obstacle, but I also needed to investigate my alternatives so I could make the best choice. I also had the nagging feeling that if I waited, the technology and therefore the cost would make it more affordable and efficient.

In the meantime, I've done what I could to live my life with the conservation of our natural resources in mind and to limit my contribution to waste and pollution. I drive my car (a Prius) as infrequently as possible, opting for biking and sharing rides and just not going to some events that require driving. I have rain barrels and a compost bin, a worm bin, and a community garden – the garden is shared with friends who can't have gardens of their own. I wash and reuse plastic zipped-locked bags and cut paper towels in half down the middle (something my Mother used to do). I hang my clothes to dry on a line in the backyard and on nifty clothes racks. My light bulbs are the energy efficient kind, of course, and my Christmas lights are LEDs. And I've finally trained myself to keep cloth bags in my car and with my bike and take them with me into the grocery store.

The Community Environmental Council's (CEC) Solarize Santa Barbara program came along at the same time that I decided that it was a good time to get out of one of my mutual fund investments. With the CEC taking on the hard work of choosing particular solar panel contractors to work with and negotiating reasonable costs and a rebate, it was obviously the time for me to get serious about installing solar panels. The process of signing up and getting an initial estimate was so easy. I was able to review the estimated costs and projected savings and talk to a representative from the REC Solar, the company that I was assigned to work with.

During this preliminary step, I pondered seriously whether installing solar panels was worth the cost and whether the projected 13-year payback period was a show-stopper. I was finally convinced that it was the right thing to do – good for the environment, a way to support the solar service companies, and a better investment for my money than the stock market. The immediate rebate and the Federal Tax Credit for solar installations also factored into my decision.

The installation process was trouble-free. Two very nice and experienced REC employees spent about a day and a half installing the racks, inverter unit, the panels, and the electric conduit from the panels to the inverter and then to my fuse box. Even though it was a foggy day when it was finally hooked up, the electric meter was going backward right before my eyes! It was a wonderful thing to see! I'm so glad the CEC's Solarize Santa Barbara program came along at the right time for me and that I was smart enough to take advantage of it.

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Waldrop

My road to energy sustainability

Envision a future when your electrical production comes from the "solar garden" on your roof, when you can get around town in a plug-in car powered by clean energy (which the roof system will now support), and when your food production comes from the garden in your back yard. You are guaranteed a reduction in your monthly electrical bills, gasoline bills and food bills.

It's this vision of the future that motivates me on my lifelong journey toward energy sustainability. I have been tapping away at this challenge for more than 40 years and I am on the right path. I visualize my journey in 4 phases:

  • Electricity production – Complete.
    Solar panels and a 10 kW wind generator are all up and running. The electrical portion was quite possibly the most complicated and expensive step. My original estimation was that the monthly savings that I would enjoy, once the system was up and running, would allow me to pay off the initial cost of the system in a little over ten years. With AB 920 becoming available, this time period will be reduced. Check out my bill from April...

  • Transportation – In progress.
    My six year old Prius is a transitional car that has religiously produced a 40 mpg average. I am looking forward to see what the transition to the next generation of electric cars will produce.

  • Food sustainability – In progress.
    My extensive experience with organic gardening and Santa Barbara Heirloom Nursery will greatly assist me in accomplishing this goal.

  • Conservation, awareness, consciousness, education – In progress.
    I remain aware of my energy choices on a daily basis and take action to conserve everywhere I can. We have dual glazed windows and a sod roof in our home; architectural design that maximizes the site location; solar pumps for water well and koi pond. We're also raising children with this energy consciousness as a template.

As food, electricity and gasoline prices continue to go up, I know that my long range plans will be productive and would be productive for anyone. It's really pretty simple and altogether achievable.

Hopefully one day my grandson will look back on all of this and be able to see my vision of the future. He'll know that his family played a small but significant part in promoting sustainability and will do his part to promote it in his own life.

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Duncan1

Our year in the sun… on solar power.

This month marks our one year solar power anniversary. Am I still a happy solar camper? You betcha!

Based on my calculations from the last year, we generated 555 kWh more than what we used. That's right -- we generated an extra half a megawatt hour. In the previous year we consumed 8,561 kWh. The year before that, 9,260 and before that, 9,779 (so year over year our consumption was decreasing as we became more energy conscious). For more information on kWh check out: http://www.carbonlighthouse.com/2010/08/kwh-vs-kw/

 

Enough KWH... How much money did I save?

Annual Cycle kWh Bill Savings
2010-11 -555 $17.86 -$1,356.92
2009-10 8561 $1,374.78 -$59.32
2008-09 9260 $1,434.10 -$157.86
2007-08 9779 $1,591.96  

 

 

 

 

 

We saved $1,357 dollars in the last year on electricity. Yes, we "paid" less than 20 bucks for electricity for the entire year. ("Paid" because our last bill ended up becoming a credit so we've been working off that credit.) We're now down to -$117, i.e. at 2 bucks or less we might not be paying a bill for a long while.

And guess what? The California Assembly passed a bill which was signed in 2009 (AB920) where we're going to be paid BACK by the Electric company for that extra 555 kWh we generated. Yep, we're going to bill the electric company! We just got a letter this week saying they are trying to figure this out... so we're not running off to Vegas with our extra cash just yet.

 

Upfront and Ongoing Costs

Upfront cost was $29K. After a $6.5k rebate from SoCal Edison we paid $23K out of pocket. This year we filed for our energy tax credit, which went smooth as silk. A 30% credit on the cost of the panels and installation (after the rebate from SCE).

$29,000 (Upfront Cost) - $6,500 (SCE Rebate) - $7,000 (energy tax credit) = $16,100 end cost

And an important point is we own these panels. They are ours forever. If we move, we can take them with us. Also, since we own them, they are officially an asset and increase the value of the house a good deal (either when sold or if we ever rent it out).

The only future project cost is that the inverter (which converts the DC from the panels into AC for the house) will need to be replaced in 10 years or so. Currently those run a couple grand. Who knows how much they'll cost in 10 years - hopefully less given that there should be a high volume.

 

Lessons Learned

In the end, it looks like we may have over-provisioned (i.e. got too many panels). Our installer offered a number of options (14, 16, 18 panels, etc.) and great guidance, but in the end it was up to me and I erred on the side of over vs. under and picked 18.

The goal is not to generate more. Or even 100%. The goal is to generate 80-90%. To generate enough to keep you in Tier 1, or worse case, Tier 2. Look at my bills below. You can see that I actually was charged less during months when we didn't over generate (by a dollar... but still). And fewer panels means much faster ROI.

 

Other tidbits

  • We got a recall notice from SunPower (the Solar Panel manufacture/provider) for an inverter. That freaked me out and so I contacted our installer and they were Johnny-on the-spot. They replied right back that it wasn't actually my inverter, that SunPower sent a blanket letter to everyone of their customers, no matter what inverter they had. And they gave me the tips to prove that to my own satisfaction.
  • We continued to have a great relationship with our installer, Sun Pacific Solar Electric, Inc. These guys kept in touch, checking in every so often and responding very quickly to any questions I had. And their work has so far stood the test of time.
  • Keeping the panels clean is a little bit of a chore. Given our semi-arid environment, with constant winds, the panels get dusty during the summer/fall. All it takes is a quick spray every couple weeks to clean them, but still a little bit of pain. (Lucky they are uber-easy for us to get at)'
  • After a session of some heavy rain and serious winds, there's no leaks, drips or roof issues. Yeah! :)

 

Now some eye candy.

This is from the solar panel company for the past year. Kind of neat that you can watch how much you generate over the day/week/year. If you're a new solar panel owner, you hit this site about every 10 minutes or so! But once the blush wears off, we've been checking it out every couple weeks. And what's nice is that if "something happens" like a sudden drop off in generation, they will send an email to our installers to let them know something is up. Like a tree grows and begins to shadow the panels, etc.

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Here's our electric bill from the year before our panels (2009-2010); And this past year (2010-2011);

 

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(See where the months we didn't over generate we were actually charged less? I had to laugh at that...)

So in the end would I do it again? In a minute. Even with all the credits, savings, rebates, etc, payback is still 7-10 years, so they are not a short term investment. If you plan to keep the property, they will pay off nicely in the long term. Think about how great they would be when on a fixed income/retirement!

We've been nothing but happy and the future is looking even brighter...

 

Read more about the Duncan Family's solar installation on Greg's blog:

 

For more information on how you can go solar this summer, read more about Solarize Santa Barbara.

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