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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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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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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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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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Dan E. drives on sunshine instead of oil

Tucked away on a peaceful cul-de-sac that backs up to Elings Park, Dan Emmett's home wouldn't be thought of as an environmental statement at first glance. The solar paneled roof – barely visible except from the upper lawn in the back yard – might even go unnoticed. But Dan and others like him are starting a quiet revolution, built around the idea that solar electricity can power their homes, hot tubs, and even cars.

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The Rodgers completed their energy makeover

Dr. Timothy Rodgers and his wife Pamela live in a 1948 home near Hendry's Beach. Over the years, they've been on a mission to retrofit their home to make more energy efficient. They've replaced single paned windows with double paned, added insulation to the attic, and replaced halogen lights with LEDs. Making a home more efficient is highly recommended before adding solar panels because "you don't want to have to pay for a system that's any larger than you need," Timothy says.

After talking with 6-8 solar contractors and getting several bids, he contracted with REC Solar to install an 8.4 kW solar system on a hillside on his property in 2009. "We went with an 18-year lease – they do all the maintenance, manage any equipment that might break, and will replace the inverter when it dies, which is expected to be after 10 years."

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