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Solar at Home

Solar at Home


The trials, tribulations and rewards of going solar
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First light! Panels start producing power, but paperwork drags on

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


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Editor’s Note: Scientific American ‘s George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in Solar at Home (formerly 60-Second Solar). Read his introduction here and see all posts here.

What a beautiful Indian summer day to inaugurate our solar panels. The electrician finished wiring up the inverter on Saturday and flipped the switch, and I spent much of yesterday running to the basement and checking the inverter readout to confirm that the sun was indeed powering our house. The system isn’t hooked up to the grid yet, but at least we’re offsetting some of our domestic power consumption.

I found that the array generated power almost all day, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. At first it was just a trickle, but it reached a maximum of 1,995 watts around noon (at our longitude, the sun reaches its highest elevation at about 12:40 p.m. Daylight Savings Time). In all, the array put out about 9.5 kilowatt-hours of energy yesterday.

What a relief. After the problems we’ve had with our contractor, I half-expected the system to fail in a blaze of sparks. In the event, it produced just what the PV Watts calculator predicted. The system is rated at 3 kilowatts of DC power, and at this time of year, the sun’s rays strike the panels at an angle of about 45 degrees, which cuts the output by about a third.

Much as I savored the moment, the process isn’t over yet. The following still needs to happen:

  • The town building department needs to inspect the electrical and structural work.
  • The utility needs to install a new electric meter.
  • The state needs to inspect the system.
  • The utility needs to visit to close the loan that constitutes the largest chunk of the subsidy. Several people commenting on my earlier blog posts said that solar paperwork isn’t as bad as I made it out to be, but I don’t think they were aware of the complications of this particular loan program. Despite the difficulty, I’m grateful to the utility for providing oversight of our installer.

The bottom line is that I don’t think solar isn’t ready for prime time yet. If your state doesn’t have a company that offers leasing or power-purchase agreement, whereby they handle all the nitty-gritty for you, I’d hold off a couple of years until the government agencies, utilities, and installers work out the kinks.

1st Light Energy contractor installing the inverter in George’s basement





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  1. 1. Jokunen 10:19 pm 10/26/2009

    So now that you basically have all the parts installed, it would be good to learn your layout as it is now, because it is not what you originally wanted it to be. So what are the components and limitations of your setup as installed? Like
    Number of panels, 15, Panel properties xx cells in series, yy amps max per panel, 2 inverters with Vin as xx-yy volts etc?

    Link to this
  2. 2. ormondotvos 2:39 pm 10/27/2009

    Why isn’t your system maximized for angle? I’d like to see mounts that can be adjusted twice a year for angle. Seems a simple thing to do… And yes, I’ve installed dozens of systems. It’s so critical to output, why not do it. Rack on roof, hinge on bottom, adjustable braces on top. A further benefit? At high latitudes, the winter snows will slide off faster.

    Link to this
  3. 3. fbcooper 2:39 pm 10/27/2009

    In Sonoma County, California, we put on our own solar system with no hassles at all. The contractor here does all the paperwork and filed for the state rebate – nothing for me to do but sign a few forms. Took no time to get the system installed. The utility simply replaced one old meter with another meter for the inter-tie inverter to work. They are plug and play – the same meter box works the same just the meter itself. Again, nothing for me to do.
    This was done over 5 years ago. I submit the problem is not the solar technology but the state- level bureaucracy that fails to make it easy to do the actual work itself. They justify their existence by making it seem hard.

    Link to this
  4. 4. solarskeptic 5:59 pm 10/27/2009

    And it made $1-$2 of electricity.

    Link to this

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