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6 things about solar PV, from one who actually knows

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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My friend Mark Turner just finished up his own solar PV roof installation, and like everybody else I’ve been curious about how it worked — and how it’s working out.

He responded with a blog post that answers just about every simple question, so I thought I’d share it here. I hope we follow along sometime soon. I’ll let you know if we do.

He notes that though his roof isn’t perfect, something is better than nothing. With solar and wind power both expected to soon be cheaper than fossil fuels, he makes the point that any generation is better than none, at the very least because it helps provide the push towards economic viability that these technologies need — and the adoption that will convince remaining naysayers. He also makes a small but very important point — that it’s better to know what you’re using. He says using an eGauge, which helps him monitor not just generation but usage, has made him hyperaware of his family’s electricity use: “The meter’s made me so aware of our energy I can actually tell by looking at it when a light bulb has been left on somewhere in the house. Just getting an energy meter can drastically alter your energy use and make you a greener household, all for a small fraction of the price of a PV system.”

Hybrid drivers say the same: just seeing them MPG fluctuate provides a feedback loop enabling them to consciously drive more economically.

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Sisko 12:10 pm 08/22/2013

    Scott Huler – Your friends blog certainly did not answer all the basic questions. Here are 3 simple ones key to deciding whether to install such a system.

    1. What was the total cost solar system he installed?

    2. How much did the solar system he installed reduce his monthly bill from the on-grid power company?

    3. How much have the maintenance costs been since the system was installed?

    Bottom line- if it makes economic sense every home will install one. If it doesn’t make economic sense, very few will install one.

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Cummings 12:15 pm 08/22/2013

    Excellent blog post by Mark Turner. Thanks for sharing it here.

    Link to this
  3. 3. sault 1:11 pm 08/22/2013

    Sisko,

    Actually, your assumptions about “if it makes economic sense” are very incomplete. Studies have shown that consumers use unrealistically high discount rates, cheating themselves out of future costs savings or revenue sources so they have more cash in the present:

    “Historical investment returns to the average American are pretty modest, like the ~three-percent-real (i.e., inflation adjusted) return on the S&P 500 over the last 30 years and barely-above-inflation long-term returns on home ownership (i.e., real returns barely above zero percent).

    Yet, despite the fact that consumers have historically accepted such low returns on investments including stocks and real estate, they demand very high returns on many financial decisions. Numerous academic studies confirm that consumers hate the future, or more accurately, don’t value it very highly, at least economically. For example, in a study on refrigerators, 50 percent of consumers would not pay $40 more up front to generate savings of $22 per year on their energy bill. To a company, this behavior would sound like lunacy. To consumers, they just assume, rightly or wrongly, they have better immediate uses for the $40, and don’t like to think about $22 dollars next year. Economists regularly quantify this type of behavior in a metric called the discount rate, which is just a percentage used to convert tomorrow’s dollars into today’s dollars. High discount rates make future dollars worth less.

    Consumers demonstrate discount rates approaching 60 percent per year through their behavior. Studies have found widely ranging consumer discount rates; all are quite high (30–60 percent in the refrigerator study, 25 percent in another study). Further, acceptable discount rates for consumers change based on circumstance. Poor consumers demonstrate extremely high required discount rates that decrease (often substantially) with increasing wealth.”

    http://cleantechnica.com/2013/08/22/why-solar-financing-beats-solar-incentives-what-would-be-much-better/

    Link to this
  4. 4. Sisko 1:18 pm 08/22/2013

    Sault

    I would agree that my 3 simple questions are not the complete list of all economic considerations. They do however answer most of the key issues that the typical consumer should consider. The missing questions on a solar system making sense to the average consumer involve largely long term maintenance costs and obsolesence.

    Link to this
  5. 5. sault 2:01 pm 08/22/2013

    There are no long-term maintenance costs or obsolesence issues for solar arrays. If you live in a dusty area, maybe you wash them off a couple times a year, but other than that, zippo. The industry standard is a 20-year warranty and arrays are designed to withstand hail and high winds as well, although a 30-year lifetime for solar panels is not unheard of.

    People who install solar arrays in California are typically seeing 10% annual return over the life of their array. And since solar power generates during peak times of the day at the point of load, it lowers stress on the grid and prevents dirty “peaker” plants from having to be put into use. Finally, solar power releases hardly any pollution while fossil fuels release millions of tons of pollution every day. Since the benefits of solar power’s cleanliness and climate change reductions are not valued by the market, consumers are getting many wrong signals and many are making bad judgments because of them by excluding themselves from one of the most lucrative investments out there.

    Link to this
  6. 6. TTLG 2:14 pm 08/22/2013

    Getting a power meter to check how much each appliance in your house uses (including things like the central furnace) should be the first step, long before looking into solar power. My experience is that reducing electrical usage is much cheaper for most people. Once that is done, getting solar is a huge waste of money.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Sisko 2:54 pm 08/22/2013

    sault

    There is no such thing as a system having no long term maintenance. The cost may not be high in your opinion, (and you may be correct) but it is a cost to be considered. Electrical parts break. If they need to be replaced are they still available? There is always be obsolesence and a consumer should take it into consideration prior to making a significant investment.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Scienceisnotagenda 3:25 pm 08/22/2013

    My brother has installed three solar systems since the 1980′s. They are a labor of love…his hobby. Important…install it yourself and be able to maintain it yourself…know how it works. Be comfortable with electricity and, depending on the system, plumbing. You probably won’t be able to call out an electrician in 6 years with a clue and may not get a replacement part.

    My brother certainly hasn’t saved money but he gets satisfaction. The thing to also remember is anything like this lowers the value of your property.

    Link to this
  9. 9. jerryd 3:49 pm 08/22/2013

    Now with PV costing under $2.50/wt installed if you buy your own and hire an electrician to do anything you don’t or can’t do.

    Among other sources sunelec is a good starting place. And at under $2.50/wt complete grid tie kits it’s a lot cheaper than fossil fuels now and FF will only get more expensive thus making the savings even more.

    Another is always get equipment and install bids separately from several sources if going the conventional way.

    Just the fact a home goes up in value by more than a smartly done PV system costs means it’s real cost is near free. They also sell not only for more money but faster.

    So unless you have a really bad solar site, it’s not smart not to switch.

    Many companies will install them for free and let you pay/lease/buy on time from what you save in utility bills.

    My whole offgrid system in my trimaran running everything including A/C for 20 yrs only costs $1.2k including 1kw of panels, inverter, 5kwhrs of batteries, etc.

    Why it works is PV perfectly tracks A/C use, my biggest load by far, meaning you don’t have to overbuild for reliable power.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Sisko 4:18 pm 08/22/2013

    I just checked on adding solar to a house I have in TX. There is a program where TXU will lease the panels to the homeowner and arrange installation.

    TXU Energy will launch a program today to lease solar panels to residential customers for about $35 a month.

    TXU, the retail electric unit of Energy Future Holdings, will market solar panels that are leased and installed by SolarCity. The photovoltaic panels would will generate power for the households, and customers may sell excess power back to TXU.

    The unique deal is designed to make the cost of solar panels manageable for customers and to cut customers’ total electric bills by, on average, $19 a month net., the company says.

    So in conclusion it does NOT seem to currently save the residental customer money. Again, if there was a savings probable- every home in a sunny area in the US would be getting a system installed.

    Link to this
  11. 11. sault 4:19 pm 08/22/2013

    Agenda,

    Quit trying to fool us with these made-up stories. Solar arrays don’t go bad every 10 years or so. If you’re “brother” is having this much difficulty, industry-standard 20-year warranties would cover him. This is how I know you are making all this stuff up. In addition, all of the components besides the solar panels use commodity electrical components than no electrician will have trouble replacing. This is also why I know you’re just making this stuff up.

    Given your other reality-denying posts and your clear agenda against clean energy, your lies do not surprise me.

    Link to this
  12. 12. sault 4:37 pm 08/22/2013

    Sisko,

    These numbers are incorrect. Solar leasing is guaranteed to lower your monthly electricity bills:

    “With SolarCity’s SolarLease® you simply pay for your solar power by the month—just like your utility bill—only lower.

    Instead of buying the equipment, you simply lease it.

    Your savings can grow over time as utility rates continue to increase. Historically, utility rates have increased over 5% every year. With a SolarLease, you can lock in lower electricity rates for the term of your contract.”

    http://www.solarcity.com/residential/solar-lease.aspx

    Please don’t tell me you either don’t know that $19 NET means savings or that you cooked these numbers to make solar look bad…

    And again, believing that all consumers are perfectly rational actors is very naïve. I already showed you that consumers make decisions using extremely high and basically myopic discount rates, irrationally valuing small sums of cash now over much larger savings or revenues in the future. And then we have people like the renewable energy concern trolls that frequent these boards (cough…snotagenda…cough) spreading all the lies that fossil fuel companies would just LOVE to become part of the popular conscience. To top things off, a lot of people don’t even think about their energy bills, letting their cars idle or leaving lights on for no apparent reason. Yeah, something that makes perfect economic sense is not going to perform to its full potential given these factors. These are some of the same people that bought Hummers for crying out loud! You think they’ll actually take a hard look at all the numbers and make the best financial decision?

    Link to this
  13. 13. Sisko 4:52 pm 08/22/2013

    sault

    I simply pulled the numbers from the TXU site. It showed a net cost to the consumer of $35-$19= net loss per month.

    But consumers can feel better because they will be using less fossil fuels. If the numbers were the opposite I’d have ordered it for the house I have there.

    Link to this
  14. 14. huler 4:53 pm 08/22/2013

    Interesting responses, you guys. I’m always impressed by the — largely — informed responses by SciAm readers. I’m interested in the information sharing, but I have to say I wonder why we’re bothering responding to trolls? Why respond to Agenda’s claims that somehow solar LOWERS the value of a home when even the simplest search shows that such left-leaning publications as Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleaebeling/2011/08/01/how-much-do-solar-panels-boost-home-sale-prices/) are running pieces discussing the value solar adds to a home? Why respond to Sisko’s trollery when his own post claims that a utility’s claim to cut customers’ total utility bills somehow proves that it raises total utility bills?

    BTW, I unapproved a post of Sisko’s that was nothing more than childish namecalling. Its distastefulness was enough for me to trash it, or else I would have left it up as evidence of his level of discourse. Interesting information you’re all sharing, which is great. But let’s ignore these knuckleheads, you think?

    On a higher plane, Sault, apart from your notes about economics, is there not a point to be made that many people will derive value from just knowing they’re improving things by solar installation? To say nothing of the externalities that fossil fuels don’t include. That is, might a wider analysis, including the pollution and other negative effects avoided and jobs created, render solar a better economic deal? Just wondering.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Sisko 5:26 pm 08/22/2013

    huler

    How is you calling me a troll acceptable in you mind? Are your rules consistent?

    Link to this
  16. 16. Sisko 5:32 pm 08/22/2013

    If someone wishes to verify what I posted here is the link. The prior information was from TXU. http://www.txu.com/en/residential/promotions/solar-city-faqs.aspx

    Link to this
  17. 17. sault 9:12 pm 08/22/2013

    Scott,

    While the science-denying trolls that pop up on these boards never acknowledge when they’ve been disproved by facts, I at least don’t want them leading the other people reading these comments astray. I must also confess that I have this morbid fascination with how people I disagree with view the world. “Know your enemy” is part of it, but I am admittedly fascinated with the exact point where people get detached from reality. And finally, combating these trolls improves my writing and researching skills a bit, so it’s not a total loss.

    And I agree, you can’t put a value on being satisfied that you’re helping the environment, but saying something like that would bring out the trolls in even greater numbers. Since they deny that pollution causes any damage at all and that we can load the atmosphere with billions of tons of carbon without any consequences, scientific papers showing that they’re profoundly wrong undermines their core assumptions.

    Switching to clean energy is satisfying, but showing the numbers behind it illustrates just HOW satisfying it really is.

    Link to this
  18. 18. rkipling 12:52 am 08/23/2013

    Here is a link to an energy story the site editors seem to be trying to bury. It isn’t shown in the Latest Stories or the Energy and Sustainability topic.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/2013/08/22/nuclear-vs-renewables-a-tale-of-disparities/#comment-2055

    Link to this
  19. 19. Sisko 11:23 am 08/23/2013

    It is interesting that the author Huler writes a meaningless article with no data and then cuts comments of while describing me as a troll.

    Huler- look in the mirror when looking for trolls

    Link to this
  20. 20. sault 12:00 pm 08/23/2013

    rkipling,

    You’re posting that link all over the place. You should also mention that the blog post you’re linking to is very biased and that I provide much-needed clarification in the comments. To sum things up, Ash relied on horribly out-of-date reports when more recent and relevant data disproving most of what was said was readily available. The fact that he didn’t even bother to look for more recent information shows the bias with which the blog post was written.

    Link to this
  21. 21. sault 12:03 pm 08/23/2013

    Sisko,

    If you think an article is meaningless, don’t read it. Nobody is forcing you to look at this page. If you have valid criticism, by all means post it and we may have a discussion. You have yet to present any by the way. When you exhibit trollish characteristics instead of trying to have a discussion, don’t be surprised when you’re called a troll.

    Link to this
  22. 22. bucketofsquid 5:16 pm 08/28/2013

    @Sisko – I clicked the link to TXU and eventually searched their entire site. Nowhere do they indicate lease price of expected savings other than a very vague percentage attached to a disclaimer about roof condition and usage patterns.

    @sault – Use the term troll all you want in regards to others but you are just as guilty as Sisko when it comes to name calling and trying to crowd out others. I recently read a climate article where 38 out of 44 posts were name calling like children. You and Sisko were the main culprits.

    I am certainly not perfect but I let others post and limit how many posts I make. I admit to name calling towards people that advocate mass murder or sociopathic disinterest in the survival of children. I don’t call people names when they disagree with me.

    Link to this

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