Tag Archives: electricity

April had a Solar Turnaround

Black Friday used to be a big deal in retail because it signified the moment during the year when the establishment turned “into the black” or profitable for the year.  The rest of the holiday shopping season was the profit for the enterprise for the year.  It seems a little doubtful that this story is entirely true, but in this age of Amazon let us give legacy retail its moment.

April was my Black Friday for solar.  Check out picture one:

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And compare that with picture two:

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What’s the big deal?  My bi-drectional electric meter is showing that I consumed (picture 1) less than I have produced (picture 2) since the meter was installed in August last year.  April was a really good month for solar and, just as importantly, a low month for consumption:

April 2018 Solar

April 2018 was the system’s best full month thus far and I am looking forward to the next four months of big production.  Based on my back of the napkin calculations, which are the best kind, I clawed back into net positive energy production by producing a little more than 270 kWh more than I consumed.  Assuming May is not extreme in any way weather wise I should be able to best my consumption from April given how brutal that month was with late season snow and cold.  You can see where the snowstorms rolled in last month when the solar production dropped off.

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Back in Black…Electricity Wise

A good month or so of solar photovoltaic production and a nine day vacation put me back in the black in terms of energy production and consumption:

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Eighty two kilowatt hours of clean, green solar electricity production above my household consumption to be specific.

As you notice from the image above my bill is not zero or even net positive.  Why?  The dreaded facility charge or connection fee.  What is this?  It is the fee charged by your electricity provider for the use of the grid regardless of your electricity consumption or, in my case, production.

Now, the grid essentially acts as my battery since I have a purely grid-tied solar system.  It does not seem like a heavy burden to bear per month for the security of having electricity on demand.  However, in some states—here’s looking at you Arizona—legislators, hand in hand with their energy company lobbyists, are pursuing fees for connecting solar systems and higher facility charges in general to supposedly offset the costs incurred by these systems being active.  Some states have proposed that solar system owners pay an extra per kilowatt hour fee for each kilowatt hour that they draw from the grid.

This all seems fine and dandy to the people running electric utilities, but it may end up creating the conditions for a death spiral.  As costs for battery storage decrease and solar systems proliferate households may choose to sever their connection to the grid entirely.  In high cost or low reliability locations this is already happening.  As increasing numbers of households leave the grid the existing infrastructure is supported by fewer rate payers increasing the individual household’s share of the costs.  Costs go up and the incentive to sever ties to the grid increases thus more households make the leap.

None of this will occur overnight, so to speak, but the conditions are becoming increasingly favorable for such a transition to take place.

 

March Brought Over 400 kWh of Solar Electricity

For the month of March my solar photovoltaic system produced just a hair over 424 kWh of electricity, which stands as my second best full month since my system went active in the last week of August 2017.  A few things stand out from the month:

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Notice the two major dips in production?  That is the impact of some spring snowfall that covered my panels under at least six inches of heavy, wet snow.  It just goes to show the potential value of a snow rake in upping my production next winter.

The other thing that is interesting, but is not something readily apparent in the production chart, is that the month was just generally more productive each day.  Granted, the days are longer in March.  However, I think that there is something to be said for the intensity of the solar radiation being higher as we head into spring.  The winter months in Iowa are known for being heavily cloud covered and this reduces the overall productivity of the solar system.

The last week, as the sun stays bright until after 7:00 PM, I have noticed that the system is producing well in excess of 3 kWh into the late afternoon/early evening.  This bodes well for the coming summer months when the array will be getting hit with the sun fairly heavily from noon until sunset.

An Ugly Month for Solar in November

November was ugly.  Especially in terms of solar production from my rooftop solar photovoltaic system:

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The production was nice and steady save for some real dog days when the system produced less than 3 kWh per day.  I am really surprised by the actual production numbers because the system is producing far below my calculated expectations, which were based on fairly pessimistic assumptions.

Like October there is a sort of silver lining.  Even though my photovoltaic system produced slightly more than 212 kWh for the month I consumed less than 300 kWh in total, including both grid and on-site consumption.  Considering how much the family has been staying at home and cooking at home I am going to consider this a victory.  It will be interesting to see what the numbers look like in December with a long holiday vacation at the end of the month.

On the bright side, it looks like solar is contagious.  Two new systems went live over the past week and I know of at least two more that are going live soon.  This is in addition to the several systems going up that I can see on my way to work.  Each one of these systems is like a little dagger in the black heart of the coal economy.

The “Downside” of Staying at Home More

In a quest to save money and consume fewer resources my family has been staying around the house a lot lately.  I tried to make it sound fancy by saying we were focusing on a home based life or economy, but the truth was much simpler.

The reality of the situation is that the transition has been fairly straightforward.  No more “convenience” trips for weeknight dinners.  Instead I meal plan for the entire week—including the provisioning of leftovers for those nights where activities keep us away from home until almost eight o’clock in the evening.  No more “shopping” trips that are really just excuses to walk around like a zombie consumer with the vague notion of buying something you deemed necessary.  Instead we have spent a lot of time the last month or so going through our closets and getting rid of the stuff that clogs our home.  There are probably a dozen or more examples of what this home based life is like in practice.

We are not perfect.  Not by a long shot and it was never the intention.  We still like to go out to eat, but we have cut it down to once during the weekends and we try to go local.  No chains for us, but mostly because the local restaurants are the ones that serve the local beers.  It’s a virtuous circle like that.

The one downside, however, has been that our consumption of electricity at home has gone up.  It makes sense as more time at home cooking dinner and just living would equal more energy consumption.  It was just not something that I had counted on when making my calculations for my solar photovoltaic system.

It is not a large delta—approximately 40 kWh or about $5 per month.  Given the cloudy nature of October and November, so far, we have been outstripping the production of the solar photovoltaic system.

On the plus side, we have traded somewhat hidden energy consumption and overt monetary costs for a modest increase in electricity consumption and significant monetary savings.  Consider that the $5 a month in electricity costs is offsetting a single meal out of the house per weak or slightly more than four meals out of the house per month.  At an average cost of $30, which is conservative given my habit of ordering whatever local tipple is on tap, we are a net positive of $125 for the month without accounting for the energy savings of not driving as much.  Should I consider myself more than $1400 in the black?  Maybe.

The calculation is a little facetious, but it gets at a more salient point about the hidden energy costs of our decisions.  I have no doubt that it takes just as much energy or more to produce a meal at a restaurant when everything is considered—power, plant, and equipment so to speak for those with an accounting bent—that even though we have increased our household electricity consumption somewhat, we are saving both in terms of energy and money.  Something to consider as well is the reduced driving costs to and from such convenience meals.  A few miles here and a few miles there starts to add up to some real savings when you multiply things out over the course of a year.

Turning the Lights off at Work

It is my opinion that I have cut down my household electricity consumption to a fairly good range.  For a family of four living in an above average sized home using 360 to 390 kWh per month on a twelve month rolling average feels like a success.  Furthermore, I am offsetting more than 100% of that electricity consumption via the solar photovoltaic system on my roof.

Although my children generally groan when I tell them to head back downstairs to turn off lights when they are done playing with LEGOS or practicing piano they understand what is behind the request.  Heck, my son has turned into a little eco-warrior albeit in his own way.  For some reason he is focused on people who smoke.  His frequent refrain when we pass someone smoking is, “Why do people smoke?  It’s not good for them, it is expensive, and the smoke is bad for the environment.”  If only we all could follow the logic of a six year old.

However, much of my days is not spent at home but at work.  It is a fairly standard office setting.  A lot of cubicles, a smattering of offices, and a handful of conference rooms.  It is the type of office environment that would not be out of place in a half hour sitcom or the movie Office Space.  Fortunately my days are not interrupted by Lundberg.

Surprisingly in a recent renovation of the office space some automatic lighting controls were installed that switch lighting on and off based on movement.  This prevents offices and common areas from being lit up all night long when none is occupying the space.  I say surprisingly because the company I work for is not well known for its forward leaning facilities plan.

The conference rooms do not have these features.  Lights are still controlled by wall mounted switches and projectors for presentations have indeterminate timers.  No matter how many LEDs I switch off in my own home, it cannot compare to switching off the conference room lights at the end of the day before going home.  Heck, I turn off the lights in the three conference rooms I pass on my way to get hot water for tea whenever these rooms are unoccupied.

The computer projectors, though, drive me insane.  When these things are blazing away it is like leaving a 300W incandescent bulb burning.  Ever seen a 300W incandescent bulb?  It’s freaking bright and hot.  A couple of taps on a remote is all it takes to turn these machines off yet most meetings adjourn with the projectors being left on regardless of a meeting taking place in the same room or not.

I now find myself turning into the light and projector police at work.  What about you?  Do you turn the lights off at work?

We Have the Tools to Create Meaningful Change

For the first time in my memory, which stretches back to the now fuzzy early 1980s, I feel that we have the tools to positively combat climate change available at a personal level.  No longer are we limited to advocating for municipal recycling, agitating McDonald’s to get rid of polystyrene clamshells, or hanging our undergarments out to dry in the sun.  Hey, it was the 1980s and I wanted save the whales so I spent a lot of time writing letters to McDonald’s threatening to boycott Happy Meals forever unless they got rid of those old school burger boxes.

Let me use solar power as an example of a tool that we have available down here at a personal level.  Consider the cost per watt in dollar terms from 1977 until 2015:

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In simple mathematical terms that is a decline in price per way of over 99.5%.  Whereas a solar photovoltaic system was probably only something that strange science teacher who drove an ancient Volvo actually had on his house is now something a lot more people can install.

Take my solar photovoltaic installation.  In a little more than two half days and for a cost of less than $11K I had 4.64 kWh of solar installed in a single array on a west facing garage roof.  After tax credits the total cost will come in somewhere around $6K.  For six thousand dollars I now produce all of my electricity needs from the sun.  Granted, it is a grid tie system so I use traditional utility power on occasion.

Yes, I use a lot less electricity than the average peer house but it’s not like I live in an off-grid yurt.  I have a typically large American refrigerator, I run the air conditioning when it is hot, I have a large screen television that gets turned on to watch football games, and so on.  Hell, I have an electric dryer and range.  The point is that you can use a lot less electricity and produce it all via the sun with a fairly minimal investment and without sacrificing the quality of life we have come to assume is natural in the United States.  This is not Ed Begley Jr. being eco-dramatic on Living with Ed.

Even better is that none of the technology used in a solar system is in its infancy, so the maturity of the design is well along which means the systems are reliable.  No one is going to be spending hours up on a roof trying to figure out why the panels are not producing any juice.  The solid state system just sits on top of the roof generating power from the sun without any moving parts or noise.  Day in and day out whenever the sun shines and even when it does not.  If that is not a powerful tool to combat carbon emissions and the resultant climate change I do not know what would qualify.

Going solar is just one of the many tools available to us to make a difference.  We all need to take a moment and examine our lives.  What are the activities that we engage in that have an outsize impact on our carbon emissions.  Tools exist and are available to us that can ameliorate almost any source of emissions if we are willing to make the effort.

Given the horrible state of national leadership on climate issues it is incumbent upon us as concerned individuals to make every effort and deploy every tool.  You might feel good about yourself when you sign a petition, but it has to go further than that if we are to have any hope of a sustainable and equitable future on this planet.

My goal over the next few months is to really examine what the tools are that can help me—a guy living a fairly normal suburban life with three other people in eastern Iowa—eliminate my carbon emissions.