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I’ve connected toyed with the abstraction of accepting solar panels. My abode in Boulder, Col., is altogether situated: It has a south-facing burghal coffer roof, including the roof over the four-car garage, and actuality a almost new house, it has few copse to block the sun. Boulder, amid aloof east of the continental bisect and about 50 kilometers from Denver, gets an amazing bulk of sun: an boilerplate of 157 brilliant canicule and 184 partly brilliant canicule anniversary year, according to the Colorado Climate Center.

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But whenever I accustomed to crisis the numbers—the bulk of the equipment, the bulk of accession and maintenance, the closing payback, rebates, and so on—solar never seemed financially viable. In allotment that’s because electricity ante in Colorado are clay cheap. Until aloof recently, ante were a collapsed US $0.12 per kilowatt-hour. In California, by contrast, tiered ante alpha at 11.9 cents/kWh and can ascend as aerial as 49.8 cents/kWh. I ample solar would at best save me about $1000 per year in electricity, so how could I absolve installing a $40 000 system?

Then one day a few summers ago, I was bistro at Beau Jo’s, a pizza abode in Idaho Springs, Col. All the Beau Jo’s restaurants switched to solar and added renewables a while back. [For added on the restaurants’ blooming initiatives, see Beau Jo’s Web site.] I spotted a big alternating LCD awning that showed the following:

Tons of CO2 saved? Of course! The banking anniversary was important, but there was the bigger anniversary to be considered: the appulse on the planet. This aspect of solar hadn’t absolutely been in the beginning of my thoughts, but now it fabricated sense. Switching to solar wasn’t aloof about dollars and cents.

Step 1: Research

I’m an engineer, and so for me the aboriginal footfall in activity solar was research. I started with my home’s electricity usage. The house, congenital in 2000, has 3500 aboveboard anxiety of accomplished amplitude (about 325 aboveboard meters), and my family’s boilerplate anniversary electricity acceptance is about 8000 to 8500 kWh. Of that, our axial air conditioning is a big contributor. Our admirable appearance of the Rocky Mountains is provided by ample windows on the south and west abandon of the house. The downside to all those windows is that the solar accretion central is absolutely absorbing during the summer, aback daytime temperatures can calmly acceleration aloft 32° C, necessitating the cooling.

Next I looked at the rebates that my electric utility, Xcel Energy, was alms barter who switched to solar. At the time, the rebates were appealing generous. During the summer of 2008, the anniversary was advantageous $4.50 per watt for panels installed. Given that the bulk of a console was about $4.50/W, Xcel would basically be advantageous for the panels while the homeowner paid for the installation. Based on what I’d been hearing, though, it was bright that this generosity wasn’t activity to aftermost forever. Additionally alive in my favor was a federal government tax acclaim that would let me address off 30 percent of the system’s bulk tag afterwards added accompaniment and bounded rebates had been subtracted, up to a cap of $2000. Suddenly the bulk of solar was attractive actual reasonable.

Step 2: Determining the Arrangement Admeasurement and Accepting Bids

I again had to adjudge how ample a arrangement to install. It’s difficult to booty an abstruse arrangement appraisement of, say, 5 kW and construe that into absolute ability production. The PVWatts Solar Calculator, created by the National Renewable Activity Laboratory, was a abundant help. You access in a few analytical variables for your breadth and the blazon of solar arrangement you intend to install, and you get a analytic authentic appraisal of how abundant activity your panels will produce. [See tables, “Results from the PV Watts Solar Calculator.]

The toughest allotment about application this apparatus was accession out the derate factor. This is a cardinal from 0 to 1 that takes into anniversary the accident in activity your arrangement will acquaintance from things like inverter and agent inefficiency, wiring, shading, age, and so on. I accustomed to argue myself that contempo advances in solar technology would absolve accretion the number—indicating beneath all-embracing activity loss—but ultimately I larboard it at the default.

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The alone artifice I had with the calculator’s after-effects was the bulk of electricity. The cardinal it gave—8.4 cents/kWh—was actual for authentic power-company rates. But it did not booty into anniversary federal and bounded taxes. The able bulk I pay is afterpiece to 12 cents/kWh.

Next was to appraise my activity consumption. A quick alarm to my activity aggregation gave me my account acceptance for the antecedent year. [See the table, “Household Electricity Acceptance in 2008.”]

When I acquainted these numbers into the solar calculator, it recommended that my arrangement admeasurement be in the 5.5 to 6 kW ambit to awning all my electricity. Not anybody goes this route, but I did afterwards accepting bids from several installers in the area. One bid came in at $25 200 for a 3-kW system; the added was $43 000 for a 5.88-kW system. Afterwards factoring in the rebates and tax credits accessible at the time, the prices were $12 550 and $15 014, respectively.

The aftereffect was that the bigger the system, the cheaper the electricity was activity to be. For example, the bulk per watt of the 3-kW arrangement afterwards rebates and taxes would be about $4/W. The 5.88-kW system, by contrast, would end up costing about $2.55/W. So for an added $2500 or so, I could awning all my electricity needs. I absitively to go all out and awning 100 percent. To do the installation, I went with REC Solar, a absolute California aggregation that was accretion into Colorado.

Step 3: Armpit Survey

Image: REC Solar

PARTLY SHADY: To appraise the bulk of sun and adumbration that a solar PV arrangement would acceptable encounter, a artisan from REC Solar, the accession contractor, took photos application a fish-eye lens. The aggregation again afflicted the account “solar access” for the system. A 100 percent appraisement indicates perfect, shadeless conditions; the author’s arrangement would acquaintance the best adumbration in November, December, and January. Click on the angel for a beyond view.

I active a arrangement with the installer and put bottomward a bead of $1000. Shortly afterward, they did a armpit survey. That basic barometer the breadth of the house’s south-facing roof surfaces and blockage the attic amplitude for affluence of installation. They additionally went up to the roof and took pictures of the skyline, application a camera with a fish-eye lens. The photos gave them a acceptable compassionate of the bulk of concealment on the roof throughout the year [see photo and graph, “Partly Shady”]. In a absolute world, we would see aught concealment throughout the year. Based on the assessment, though, the abode was activity to accept concealment problems in November, December, and January on some genitalia of the roof.

Next, the aggregation able a schematic assuming breadth they advised to abode the panels. I begin the adjustment of several panels over the barn to be suboptimal. Specifically, the barn had concealment from the additional adventure aing to it that the architect had not accounted for. In my research, one of the awe-inspiring things I apparent about accepted solar technology is that the panels are all affiliated calm in series. If one console is in the adumbration and starts to underperform, they all underperform to the aforementioned degree. So authoritative abiding all the panels are unshaded improves the achievement of the accomplished system.

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Illustration: REC Solar

BEFORE AND AFTER: In the antecedent architecture from REC Solar, three panels on the author’s barn were partially shaded, and the estimated achievement of the arrangement was about 6750 kWh/year. By relocating those three panels as able-bodied as two others to a shade-free allotment of the roof, the estimated arrangement achievement went up to 8263 kWh.  

I took pictures of the botheration breadth and showed them to the contractor. Based on their antecedent calculations, the accession would aftermath about 6750 kWh/year. Aback we removed three of the black barn panels as able-bodied as two added panels from accession apparent and relocated them to a atom with no shading, we added the accepted anniversary assembly to 8263 kWh [see diagrams, “Before and After”].

Step 4: Installation

On a algid morning in December 2008, a aggregation of four guys showed up with a ample amid bivouac absolute all the hardware, tools, and panels. The arrangement I’d called included 28 Kyocera KD210GX-LP 210-W photovoltaic panels and an SMA Brilliant Boy 6000-W inverter, to catechumen the panels’ DC achievement into house-friendly AC.

Photo: Steven Johnson

UP ON THE ROOF: A aggregation from REC Solar installs solar panels on the roof of the author’s garage.

Photo: Steven Johnson

SOLAR HARDWARE: The inverter army central the author’s barn converts the DC achievement of the solar panels into house-friendly AC. Click on angel for a beyond view.

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They started by conduct holes in the roof to run aqueduct for the affairs [see photo, “Up on the Roof”]. They ran best of the affairs through the attic, and the few pipes that were alien were able-bodied hidden abaft gutters and bottomward spouts. All-embracing the install was actual apple-pie and tidy, with actual few apparent electrical conduits. The electrician on the aggregation went to assignment putting in the 90-kilogram inverter in the barn and base it into the capital agglutinate box [see photo, “Solar Hardware”]. The absolute accession took about four days. Throughout the process, I kept the aggregation supplied with hot coffee and tea, and I bought them cafeteria anniversary day to aerate their time for the installation.

After the assignment was finished, the burghal ambassador came out and arrested the system. No issues were discovered. I additionally had to ample out a lot of paperwork for the ability aggregation so that it would acquiesce me to about-face the arrangement on. Among added things, I had to complete a nine-page arrangement that declared I was amenable for advancement the arrangement and accustomed added accountability allowance and that any changes to the arrangement would accept to be appear to and accustomed by Xcel. My aboriginal day of solar assembly was 25 February 2009 [see photo, “Mission Accomplished”].

Step 5: Assessing the Achievement

By February of this year, I’d had a abounding year of solar production. At the end of anniversary month, I account the month’s ability production, the net change on the beat ( or -), and domiciliary electricity consumption. If my ability assembly exceeds the household’s electrical needs, the balance ability is alternate to the filigree to advice ability my neighbors’ houses, and I get acclaim for that excess. My net beat is basically a breeze meter: During the day, if the arrangement is bearing added electricity than the abode needs, the beat rolls backward. At night, aback there’s no solar production, the abode draws electricity from the grid, and the beat boring runs forward. Effectively, the net beat allows me to amusement the filigree like a huge absolute battery. (Xcel Activity additionally afresh installed 20 000 acute meters in Boulder as allotment of its SmartGridCity project, which will let barter carefully adviser and administer their activity usage. But my abode was not eligible. For added on SmartGridCity, see “How Acute Can You and Your Bounded Electricity Filigree Get?” IEEE Spectrum, June 2009.)

Starting in March 2009, I saw affecting changes in my anniversary bill, which includes both electricity and gas. The ability aggregation additionally began tacking on a $7.50 per ages affiliation allegation for the advantage of accepting the solar panels affiliated to the grid. That’s still a accomplished lot cheaper than accepting to put in a coffer of batteries. In the table, “Savings from Solar,” 0the blooming numbers appearance how solar assembly has bargain the absolute bill: In 2008, I paid $2013 for my utilities. In 2009, I paid aloof $1043. And from March 2009 through this accomplished February, the aboriginal abounding year of solar production, I paid $899.

The arrangement has about outperformed the contractor’s estimate. In 2009, it generated 8524 kWh of power, about 3 percent college than the 8263 kWh promised by the contractor. Over the year, the account account on my net beat has assorted from –874, acceptation that I banked 874 kWh that ages for afterwards use, to 46, acceptation that I pulled 46 kWh from the grid. In short, I’m accoutrement 100 percent of my electricity usage. To be honest, I anticipation it would be a bit higher. I don’t apperceive if I’ve become acute to the weather, but I affirm it was cloudier than accepted in 2009.

As it became bright that I was bearing added electricity than I was consuming, my aing assignment was to amount out how to use the balance electricity. I bought several amplitude heaters to use in apartment that we spent the best time in. I ample we could about-face bottomward the thermostat and calefaction the apartment with electricity instead of gas.

To date, I’ve done aught aliment to the system. I haven’t alike climbed up on the roof yet to ablution the clay off the panels. Colorado has had some absorbing hailstorms aback the arrangement was installed, but the panels came through afterwards a scratch.

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I got a nice abruptness from the federal government. As allotment of the big coffer bailout of 2008, the government connected the 30 percent tax acclaim on solar photovoltaic installations and additionally alone the cap of $2000. So the bulk of my system, which started at $43 000 account and was bargain to $17 000 afterwards Xcel’s ability rebates, was cut by accession $5100 with the federal tax credit. The final arrangement price: $11 900.

The solar arrangement may pay off added aback my wife and I eventually advertise the house. If you accept the Web armpit of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, any home advance that saves $1000 a year in activity bills will access the amount of the home by $20 000. So with a $12 000 investment, I’ve aloft the amount of my abode $20 000 and I get chargeless electricity. Alike if it alone increases the abode amount by bisected that much, the arrangement will pay for itself in 2 to 3 years.

In short, I can’t anticipate of any added distinct change I could accomplish to my abode that would cut my anniversary bill in bisected and accommodate me with chargeless electricity.

Photo: Steven Johnson

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: The aback of the author’s abode with all three sets of panels installed.

The Aphotic Ancillary of Solar

Obviously, I accept abacus solar panels can be a acute idea. But I’d be capricious if I didn’t acknowledgment solar’s aphotic side. Namely, apparatus abrasion out and charge replacing. The panels accept about a 25-year life, and they become hardly beneath able over time, about 1 percent a year. The inverter has an accepted activity of 10 to 15 years. To alter an inverter currently costs about $3000 to $5000.

The added anguish is if the roof needs to be replaced. To get at the roof shingles, all the panels would charge to be removed and again reinstalled. I absolutely achievement I’m out of the abode afore that happens.

Changes Aback I Installed My System

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In the aftermost two years, Boulder has apparent a few changes in agreement of solar power. In 2008 the burghal anesthetized a election admeasurement that accustomed it to affair up to $40 actor in appropriate bonds; the money aloft would be acclimated to accomplish loans to bartering and residential blooming projects. For residences, you would accept a low-interest loan—with ante amid 5.2 and 6.68 percent—to awning the bulk of the system, and you’d accord the accommodation through your acreage taxes. If you awash the abode afore the accommodation was paid off, the actual arch and absorption would be adjourned for the accepted and approaching owners of the property.

The ClimateSmart accommodation affairs began in May 2009 and in its aboriginal year financed 280 projects for a absolute of $10 million. Despite its popularity, the residential allocation of the affairs was afresh put on authority due to objections from the Federal Housing Accounts Agency, the Federal National Mortgage Association (otherwise accepted as Fannie Mae), and the Federal Home Accommodation Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac). According to a Boulder Canton columnist absolution announcement the decision, the federal action “prohibits new financing, anchored by a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgage, on backdrop on which there exists a acreage appraisal for any activity efficiency/renewable activity improvements.” Basically, the federal government doesn’t like its mortgages activity to backdrop that accept liens on them, alike if the affirmation is for a renewable activity system. The canton says it is now exploring added means to accounts such projects.

Another cogent change is that Xcel Activity has bargain its solar rewards affairs from $4.50/W to $2/W, to reflect the cogent bead in the bulk of solar panels as able-bodied as the advance in their efficiency. The bulk per console has collapsed to $2 to 2.50/W, compared to $4.50/W aback I purchased my arrangement aloof two years ago. Accepted panels are additionally about 10 percent added able than the ones in my system. So alike admitting the rebates accept been cut, the ultimate end bulk to the homeowner is basically the same.

Xcel’s electricity ante accept changed, too. This year it began application a tiered appraisement arrangement during the summer aback appeal is highest. Previously, residential barter paid a collapsed bulk no amount how abundant electricity they used. Now in June, July, August, and September, the bulk is 4.6 cents/kWh for the aboriginal 500 kWh anniversary ages (or 9.7 cents/kWh with taxes and added fees factored in); again it all-overs to 9 cents/kWh (or 14.3 cents/kWh with taxes).

To see how the new tiered ante would accept afflicted my anniversary bill if I didn’t accept solar, I activated the tiered prices to aftermost summer’s usage. I would accept apparent my electricity costs acceleration substantially, by 33 percent and 26 percent in July and August, respectively. Needless to say, I would accept been absolutely agitated to see my summer ante jump so dramatically. But with my solar system, I don’t care; I’m now about allowed to any changes in electricity rates.

Conclusions

Having had added than a year to blanket my apperception about the accomplished solar ability addition, I’m absolutely admiring with the results. Saving $1000 a year in activity bills is actual significant, and my ancestors hasn’t had to accomplish any above changes in our lifestyle. If anything, I’m activity a bit beneath accusable for active the air conditioner during the summer. Aback I drive up to my abode and see my solar panels, it makes me smile. Sure, it was a above advance up front, but I anticipate the adjustment is bright and practical.

And for the record, as of this July I accept adored 14 658 pounds of CO2 (about 6650 kilograms). That’s agnate to burying 36 trees. Hopefully, it was abundant to put a smile on at atomic one arctic bear’s face.

Steven Johnson is a achievement scientist at Oracle Corp., in Broomfield, Col., breadth he studies all forms of computer-related achievement problems. He still can’t explain to his ancestors what a achievement scientist does for a living.

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