Category Archives: Solar

The Chevy Bolt & The Tesla Model 3: The Solar-Powered Restoration of American Energy Independence

Originally published on CleanTechnica

July 4th is Independence Day in the United States, and as with similar holidays in countless countries around the world, it is the perfect occasion to reflect on what it means to be independent. One key aspect of independence today is intimately tied into energy. How many countries around the world have found themselves economically enslaved to the energy economics inherited from past generations?

The US is the largest consumer of oil on the planet by a long margin, consuming more oil than any other country, regardless of population. While the US is also the largest “producer” of oil, it does not produce enough oil to satiate its seemingly endless thirst for it.

The capitalist country is embattled with modern-day oil barons fighting for lower fuel efficiency standards while climate change believers fight to raise fuel efficiency standards, enact a universal carbon tax, and work to create incentives for battery electric vehicles. The gridlock of the past took a turn for the worse with the Trump administration, which continues to plod forward in the mindless push to unshackle the American capitalist machine from the trio of perceived anchors that are the Clean Air Act (of 1970), the Clean Water Act (of 1972), and the much more recently added Clean Power Plan (of 2014).

In the face of this political uncertainty, a few beacons of hope have emerged, shining out of the dust of the recently fallen environmental protections. They give us hope for a future where our children and grandchildren can breath clean air, can drink water that is free of heavy metals and toxins. A future where the vehicles that move us from place to place move silently around, powered by clean technologies and whirring electric motors.

The Chevrolet Bolt, which launched in December 2016, and the Tesla Model 3, which will be delivered to its first customers later this month, are the first vehicles of a new generation of long-range, affordable electric cars that carry the keys to unlocking the most American of all values — true energy independence. For the first time in many, many decades, America has within its grasp the ability to harvest electricity from the wind and sun that will not run dry — using power systems that emit no pollution into the air and require minimal emissions to manufacture.

The shift from fossil fuel–fired vehicles to electric vehicles presents a rare opportunity for any country in the world to catalyze a paradigm shift in energy generation. The opportunity to convert to locally produced energy brings along with it the possibility to keep millions and billions of dollars of energy spending inside the country. For the United States, this means weaning itself off of the ill-adopted relationships with countries around the world that have failed to move forward adopting minimum standards for human rights. For many nations in Eastern Europe, the opportunity to throw off the shackles from oppressive regimes that have for too long throttled the supply of energy as a means of controlling the economies of those less endowed with natural resources has the potential to reinvigorate the people and catalyze a positive change in these countries.

Clearly, these changes are not being led solely by two vehicles, but these vehicles embody the broader movement that is only now reaching its climactic moment in history. Affordable electric vehicles let the average person purchase a vehicle that has the range to make 99% or more of all trips possible with an electric vehicle. When combined with the fact that electric vehicles are also cheaper to drive on a cost of fuel per mile basis, it starts to get interesting — my wife and I have saved nearly $2,000 in 2½ years of owning our first electric vehicles versus the cost of gasoline.

Electric vehicles also require significantly less maintenance, with thousands of fewer moving parts than their fossil fuel–fired counterparts, resulting in even more savings. Electric vehicles are much quieter to drive, and without the controlled explosions of a fossil fuel engine under the hood, don’t vibrate their passengers to death. Removing that combustion engine from the vehicle and replacing it with an electric motor also allows for completely new vehicle designs that have resulted in the Tesla Model S being rated the safest vehicle to ever be tested by the NHTSA, with the Tesla Model X coming in at number two — a ranking unheard of for a sport utility vehicle. The Chevy Bolt received top honors for its safety results as well, recently being selected as an IIHS Top Safety Pick.

Roll that all together with extreme performance and supercar 0 to 60 times and electric cars start to look appealing to people from all walks of life. Until these two cars rolled onto the scene, these benefits were only accessible to those who were willing to compromise on range with a ~100 mile electric vehicle or those with the finances to throw down $60,000 or more for a Tesla.

Driving an electric vehicle is great, but here’s where it gets interesting: Electric vehicles unlock much more than that. A core American value — and if we’re honest, a core human value — is the desire to not be dependent. Electric vehicles tap directly into that with the ability for homeowners, property owners, and many people around the world to install solar or wind on their residence to generate all the power their homes, businesses, and vehicles will use. The solar installation on my rooftop generated enough power last year to completely power our home and one of our electric vehicles. Another couple of panels and we will be generating the vast majority of the power we use in our lives on our roof. That is straight out of a science fiction novel but it is a true possibility for billions of people around the world today … and it gets even better than that.

With the massive improvements in production and scale that have been made over just the last 10 years, solar and wind are now extremely cost competitive — even beating out the competition in many areas of the world … today … right now. That’s right, you can create this utopian lifestyle today … and save money while you’re doing it.

That is the beauty of the paradigm shift that is occurring right now. We are living through an historic transition that our grandchildren will read about as the turning point in energy economics, globally. Entrenched trillion-dollar industries will crumble in decades along with the household-name companies that operate within them. Amidst the rubble, new companies, new individuals, and new nations are rising to the forefront of the discussion as leaders in never-before-seen industries that bring with them new possibilities for economic freedom and energy independence.

Transitions of this magnitude are apparent from the early birthing pains that manifest themselves in the form of federal policy debates, vicious catfights over government incentives, kickbacks, and tax breaks. The transitions are rarely fair, but with so much at stake, bloodshed on both sides is to be expected.

Rolling back to where we started, what seems like a domino effect of toppling regulations led by industry insiders that have been put in charge of the agencies that formerly regulated their industries have left many dumbfounded. The foundations of American environmental protections have been stripped bare in a matter of weeks. But all is not lost. The brazen disregard for the charter on which the Environmental Protection Agency was founded has woken millions from the enchanted slumber, just as Rip van Winkle awoke after many years of sleep into a frenzy.

The people of this great nation and many more around the world demand that the governments they voted into place protect their most fundamental rights to clean air and clean water. The catalyst could not have come at a better time, as affordable electric vehicles and cost-saving solar and wind generation allow individuals to cut the cord from the very capitalists who now move to enslave the population.

It is time to rise up and regain the independence that our ancestors fought for in years past, but this time we fight against those in charge in our own nation. The time is now to go test drive an electric vehicle. If that’s not enough time to get a feel for life with an electric vehicle, rent or borrow one. Services like Turo and Maven are lowering the bar to get into an electric vehicle just as the Chevy Bolt has and the Tesla Model 3 soon will for hundreds of thousands more people around the world.

If renting isn’t an option, it may be time to step up the game and steal one … or, rather, get a steal of a deal on one at a local dealership. While you’re at it, don’t forget that to really, truly cut the cord takes a little more work to ensure that the power you’re pumping into your vehicle every night comes from renewable sources as well, preferably from a solar installation or wind turbine on your property.

That, my friends, is what it truly means to be independent. Celebrate yours by taking action today. The future is electric. The future is now!

Putting A Price On Home Energy Efficiency

Originally published on CleanTechnica

Buying a house is an exciting part of life, the start of a new chapter, and frankly…freakin’ scary! Typically that’s not because of any spooky creatures but because of the massive mortgage that people usually take on to afford one, the number of things that can go wrong, and unforeseen financial burdens that these ‘money pits’ can become.

Many of the financial pitfalls can be identified early on in the buying process as part of a quality home inspection, but there’s one big dirty secret that many homes have that is a bit harder to wrap your head around when buying a new place – energy. I’m not talking about the qi (or ch’i) of the house or anything like that, but literally about the energy used by the house on an annual basis in all forms – electricity, natural gas, propane, heating oil, solar, wind, solar thermal, geothermal, etc

Let’s back up a bit. Pretend you’re buying a new car. Do you check the window sticker to see what options it comes with? How about the fuel efficiency? Estimated cost to operate for a year? Me too! …and it’s the same for a house. We want to know which energy options it comes with. Does it use natural gas for heating? Have a high tech heat pump in the basement that is dirt cheap to own and operate?

Fuel efficiency similarly translates into energy intensity. You thought I was going to say energy efficiency there, right? The actual metric for putting data behind this is the amount of energy used per square foot of the house. Roll that up over the size of the house and the months of the year and you get the mega-metric – the total cost of energy to operate for a year.

Before cars kept track of fuel efficiency, knowing what miles-per-gallon your car got was irrelevant to the market – you don’t care what your car gets and the market doesn’t value it…and it’s the same thing with a home. You can invest $15k in solar panels, $10k in energy efficiency improvements, and $3k in a new heat pump, but you’re not going to see much of that money rolling back into the valuation of the house because people don’t speak that language yet.

We need to retrain our brains, and the market, to accurately value not just the cost of the house but the cost to run the house month to month. For example, let’s dig in to the numbers on two houses:

  • House A is $1000/month to buy for 1700 square feet, but costs $300/month for the electricity bill and another $150/month to heat it.
  • Across the street, House B is also $1000/month to buy for the same 1700 sq ft footprint, but due to the solar panels on the roof and the extra insulation in the walls, floors, and ceiling, only costs $50/mo for the heating bill, with no electric bill to speak of.

Obviously the second house is worth more, and is a better value for the same purchase price. But just how MUCH more does an energy bill that’s $400 lower (every month!) make the house worth? Backing up a bit, how do we even quantify the monthly cost of energy for a house?

Putting a price tag on the cost of energy is the first step in getting a handle on the value of residential renewables – such as solar – into the valuation of the house. That allows homeowners to see the month-to-month cost and quickly extrapolate the cost of energy over the life of the house (the long term cost of energy).

This could be accomplished by reapplying the concept of the Energy Star label on appliances:

home_energy_rating

Beyond just the base concept of putting a dollar value on, and an increased visibility of, the cost of energy, less efficient homes are actually more risky to banks. Think about it. In the example above, house A carries an energy bill of $450/month vs house B with just a $50/month bill. That’s an extra $400 of monthly debt on house A that will never go away for the homeowner.

That effectively takes the monthly payment for the house from $1000 to $1450 whereas House B is only going to cost $1050/month – a huge difference. One of my favorite sayings that I’ve heard about solar is that it takes a monthly liability (the monthly bill) and turns it into an asset (increased value of the house).

Homes with higher energy bills are riskier investments for banks, as the monthly energy cost is not taken into account when the home is financed. It’s essentially a highly variable chunk of debt (particularly in this era of increasing efficiency and solar) that the bank not only doesn’t know about, but doesn’t seem to care about.

In markets where the energy bill is a large percentage of the mortgage, this can play a large factor in whether a homeowner can actually afford the full cost of the home or not. Further, the variations in energy price can, and likely often do today, single-handedly sink the homeowner’s monthly budget and kick the loan into default.

Finally, these energy costs can be rolled up over the life of the loan as part of the purchasing process. House B might only cost $18k in energy costs over 30 years whereas house A would tip the scales at $162k!! Granted, not many people are interested in stepping back and looking at the total cost of energy over 30 years, but lifetime costs often paint a picture compelling enough to trigger small changes.

If we looked at energy costs this way more often, solar and energy efficiency would be much more likely to have increased value when the house hits the market. Markets value what is measured. We need to measure energy use and turn consumption into an easy to understand comparable metric – like MPG is for fuel efficiency.

Doing that will trigger banks and financial institutions to dig a bit deeper into the value of energy efficiency and residential power generation as a part of the lending process and overall risk assessment. If Energy Use Intensity is being looked at by financial institutions, services like Zillow will start reporting EUI, which completes the cycle back to the consumers.

Homeowners would have more incentive to invest in technologies that are better over the long run and often for the planet, such as making that $5k investment in more insulation, spending $300 on LED light bulbs, or $15k on solar. Homeowners can have the confidence that they are making an investment in the house and in a reduction in monthly operating costs over the life of the home, or at least of the product being installed. For LEDs, that’s just 22.6 years…what a ripoff :)

EVs & PVs — You Can Drive on Sunshine!

Originally published on CleanTechnica

This is an overview for how to assess a solar installation for a residential property and pair the system with an EV or two to generate your own power and drive on sunshine. This is not an attempt to document every scenario, but rather to share the overall direction and flow from which you can, with your newfound knowledge, move forward with an installation of your own. Let’s get started!

When we first put solar panels on the roof of our 2-story home here in sunny Southern California, I understood the concept but had some questions about how it all actually worked. It was quite the learning process, and since then, I have continued to add panels to the roof to offset our base usage while also adding more load to our system with the addition of 2 EVs in the last 12 months. With all this, we are now living the dream and effectively “driving on sunshine.” As there were so many learnings with both systems, this article will help frame both pieces of the puzzle in order to help others understand some of the nuances and how they work together.

The Roof today with our 17 solar panels

The first step towards getting solar panels up on your roof is sizing the system. This is one of the first steps a solar installer will typically do for your site, but you can also go through it yourself to understand the details or for a DIY installation. Many factors dictate system size but the two big ones are the usage you want to offset with new solar generation and the solar potential of the installation location.

Calculating your estimated usage is very straightforward, as your utility has a vested interest in tracking usage accurately so it can bill you for it. Look up the last 12 months of bills and capture the monthly usage in kWhs for each month. The resulting total is your starting point for annual usage. Next, take into account any big project that could impact your usage in the next few years — adding an EV (I’ll review estimating EV usage below), removing a hot tub, installing LED lighting, etc., and either add or subtract those from the annual usage total. Finally, determine what % of that usage you would like to offset. Most installers will use 90% of the production, as any excess is typically not a good investment for the homeowner. My personal goal is to continually generate at least 105% of my total usage.

To understand the solar potential of your location, use an online solar production potential calculator like PVWatts. You enter the key details of your system — some which take more work than others, like installation address, system size (from your work in the previous step), tilt, module type, etc., and the system spits out a nice annual chart of estimated production by month, including the value of the energy produced.

PVWatts Estimated Production

One of the first question folks normally ask about residential solar is “but, what about the batteries?” In most residential installations, the PV solar system will be connected to the grid, meaning that any excess energy produced will be sent to the grid. In a net metering arrangement, the utility will track how much the PV generation sends to the grid and keep a tally sheet, “netting out” usage vs generation at the end of the year. Why annually? This allows systems that generate more in the summer and less in the winter to level out over the year instead of the utility paying the customer in the summer and vice versa in the winter. This could be a whole separate article but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Now that we have our system sized up, let’s go get some bids from installers! I went with SunRun (previously REC Solar and recommend Evergreen Solar as a great unbiased solar installer finder) I’m not going to go into full detail on how systems are priced out, but there are primarily 3 options:

  • Buy this system outright with cash. The system is yours and all generation is “free” after the initial purchase.
  • Sign up for a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). The installer will front the money for the system and you agree to buy power from them for a predefined term of 20, 25, or 30 years. Terms such as annual % price increases, duration, upfront cost, and savings vary. Do yourself a favor and read the fine print… that’s a long period of time to be locked into bad terms. 🙂
  • Financing. Finance the system through the installer. These contracts are getting sticky so definitely another one to watch out for. It may be better to finance through an unrelated bank to pay for the system vs finance through an installer. A great article on Solar Love flagged some key details on a new SolarCity financing scheme that seemed less than consumer friendly.

My Solar System's Production Summary

Before you lock in and sign papers, dig into the return on investment that the solar salespeople (yes, they are trying to sell you the system, even if it’s a zero-down deal) pitch to you. A few tips — look for price increases in the retail electricity they are comparing to. For instance, in my area, Tier 1 rates were $0.12/kWh when I signed up and they projected 5% increases every year. To validate that, I went in and flattened the price of electricity for a “worst case scenario” payback. Since 2011, however, we did offset the small amount of Tier 2 power we had been paying for ($0.19/kWh) and our Tier 1 pricing has gone up quite a bit and is now $0.15/kWh which is inline with the solar company’s projections.

I have also built an Excel sheet (as I’m prone to doing) to track our solar production, home usage, efficiency savings (improvements in total usage vs base), payback, etc. There’s a notable blip in Jul ’13 when we went from 5 to 12 panels, with each calendar year change as we “net out” and either add or subtract the annual bill or credit into the equation and add in any pricing changes in the “SCE $/kWh” column. I dropped a copy into my Dropbox public folder if anyone wants to find all my errors/reapply/make it your own (link).

solar_savings_thing

What a whirlwind of data. Now that your head is spinning with numbers, take a break, grab some coffee, and come back in 5.

We’ve determined what your usage is for the year, adjusted for all the great efficiency improvements you’re going to make with your tax returns (right?), sized the system based on your specific location, and worked through the financial side of the system. What now? Let’s throw an EV into the mix! Put some miles on those solar panels! But seriously, how do you figure out how much power you’ll need to get back and forth to work? Come with me, friend…

When buying an EV, you enter a new world of numbers and metrics. Nobody will tell you the most important factor in calculating your energy usage, but it’s simple — miles per kwh. Basically, how far you can drive on one unit of electricity. Boiling it down to the basics, your EV has a certain battery size — say 24 kWh — and gets a certain range — like 84 miles. Roll those two together and you get the manufacturer’s estimated miles/kWh rating. In this case, that’s 84/24 or 3.5 mi/kWh for my 2014 Nissan Leaf. I must have a light foot because I have averaged 4.1–4.3 mi/kWh since we’ve had it… which also means I get more miles out of a charge, which is nice.

Now that we know how efficient your EV (or EV-to-be) is, just roll that into the number of miles you drive per year or plan to drive in the years ahead to get your EV’s annual kWh usage. You can run this through the same usage-to-system-size calculation to determine what size PV system you need to power your car. In my case, I used the actual production averages from my panels to calculate this at a “high” miles per year number (12,000) and a “low” miles per year number (8,000) to understand what those thresholds looked like, then sized accordingly.

Our Leaf Charging in a Santa Monica, CA Parking Structure FREE!

Tracking solar generation allows us to understand our system payback vs retail pricing, aka “what you would have paid for the power” — or the cost of the solar system per month. Keeping a running total of the savings allows you to estimate payback time for the system, at which point the system is effectively producing free power. Tossing an EV into the mix, I track EV savings as :

[miles driven / mpg of the car we replaced * price of gas for the month (actuals)]

minus

[miles driven / (mi/kwh of the car) * retail cost of electricity/kWh]

Or… in simple terms, the amount of money we would have spent on gas minus the money we would have spent on electricity = savings from the EV vs a gasmobile.

Solar-powered charging at home is the most cost-effective, environmentally friendly form of vehicle-based transport that fits our lives (today). After we added the first EV in late 2014, we decided to go all-in and added a second EV just a few months ago. We are currently saving money on our electricity bill with the 17 solar panels we have up on the roof, with another 10 panels that we’ve already purchased that are currently waiting for a home electrical panel before we can add those to get back to a state where we are producing more power than we use. The second EV put us back “into the red” but also gets us off gas, which is a bigger win in my book. :)