We’ve Decided to Go Solar

The time has come.

Two-and-a-half years ago, in November of 2019, we had our first Public Safety Power Shutdown, or PSPS, which lasted for five days. It was interesting to live in a house, in a community, without any electrical power for nearly a week, other than what people cobbled up with generators.

It was long enough to force people to realize how utterly dependent we are on electricity.

There was a huge run on generators right after that, and then people discovered an inconvenient truth. You can’t use your house wiring with a generator. At the very least, you need to completely disconnect from the grid, and for a very good reason: if you don’t, you’re powering the grid with your generator, which has been shut down for a reason. People you don’t even know — like line workers — can get killed by that sort of nonsense.

If you are going to use a personal generator without stringing power cords all over your house, you need to do a full automatic failover system, and those are pricey, noisy, smelly, require maintenance, and run on gasoline, which is going to do nothing but rise in price.

We started seriously looking into the solar option for our home about a month ago, and now that we’ve decided to move forward, I thought I’d start a thread here about the experience, as it develops.

We started with someone we already knew, the wife of a fellow-composer here in the Ukiah area, Carol Cole-Lewis, who sells solar installations as a living with Powur.

One of our first and most urgent questions was based on our neighbor across the street, who’d had solar panels installed, and then found he couldn’t use them because PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric, the regional utility) would not allow him to re-connect his house to the grid after installation unless he disconnected the panels. His system was apparently “not compatible” with the grid. Meaning, he cannot use the panels. They just sit there as a very expensive roof ornament.

Carol’s answer to those questions was that Powur manages the full process, from energy analysis, through ALL permitting, installation and bring-up, and offers a 30-year warranty on the result. They are obligated to provide a legal and working system. I scanned reviews, and they get high marks.

So here’s what we’ve learned, in a nutshell.

  1. We can’t go off-grid. It’s mostly a legal issue involving taxes, zoning, and real-estate, but it’s also a bad idea, because if we get a couple of days of heavy overcast, the battery can’t keep up and we get to hold our own little private PSPS. Break out the candles and the blankets.
  2. Being on-grid means we can buy metered power any time we need to, just like we are doing now. We pay for whatever we use at normal retail rates. With solar, we merely expect to use a lot less.
  3. Any power we consistently over-produce, e.g. during the summer, we get credit for at the full retail rate. This credit can be used to pay for the times we are under-producing, e.g. during the winter.
  4. We can also sell power back to PG&E, but they buy it at wholesale rates, so that’s not significant.
  5. A battery is not absolutely necessary, but it evens out the day/night cycle and allows us to buy a lot less power from PG&E. If we are careful with power usage, we could even continue to have power all the way through an extended PSPS.

So after explaining these broad points, Carol set up an energy plan for us. She asked a lot of questions about the house, asked for pictures of our electrical box, looked up aerial photographs of the house, and so forth. She had a complete plan back to us within two days, and then sat down with us to explain it.

This plan allows us to run at an annual capacity of 125% of our current usage, meaning that by the end of the year, we’ll have produced 25% more electricity than we expect to use. It gives us some room to increase our energy usage, and after the first summer, we’ll have enough credits to carry us through the winter, meaning that we’ll essentially never pay PG&E for electricity again.

We do have to pay for the system, however. That’s one reason we put this off as long as we did. The system we’re putting in is a $46k system. That’s a major chunk of change. Right now there’s a federal tax rebate that brings it down to $34k, but that’s still a major chunk of change.

This part actually turns out to be pretty painless, however.

There are low-interest, nothing-down, no-prepayment-penalty loans for this sort of thing, and it’s been scaled to a fixed monthly payment that is quite a bit less than our current averaged monthly power bill. So, if all goes well, we will stop paying PG&E (except for a $36/mo connection fee), and will instead pay off a solar loan, and will actually save a little money each year in the process.

The big advantage, however, is to get some independence from PG&E. It’s called a “public utility,” but it is in practice a private investment vehicle, and it has been shorting service, upkeep, and public safety in the name of “dividends” for decades, which is why they have had to resort to PSPS events. There are some things on the horizon that point toward much higher utility rates in the future, with more and longer outages. That’s all prognostication, of course, and it may never come to pass. But there is absolutely no reason to suppose that California electricity will get cheaper during my lifetime.

With solar, we effectively lock in a fixed energy bill that’s lower than our current bill, and since it’s part of the house, it adds to the home value when we (or our heirs) eventually sell it.

This is the story we are starting from. We just gave the GO tonight. Further news as events warrant.