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Happy equinox! A very special time of year for solar arrays

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.

Who could put a price on spring? Ah, the reawakened life, the budding flowers, the dabbles of green in the grey wood. Well, actually, a solar enthusiast can put a price on spring. It shows up right on my electric bill or my real-time electronic display. On March 4th, my solar array passed the milestone of feeding more energy into the grid than we drew back from it. As the days rapidly lengthen and the sun climbs higher in the sky, a surplus is becoming the norm. For five of the past seven days, we have produced more than we’ve consumed. Solar energy has even reconciled me to that other rite of spring, tax time: I’ve gotten a nice big pile of money back from Uncle Sam to help pay for the solar array.

It has been a while since I’ve been able to update the blog; my day job (writing and editing articles for the magazine about astronomy and physics) has been all-consuming. But I couldn’t let the spring equilux and equinox go by without any words of celebration.

Like many early-adopters, I’m a little obsessive. I monitor my array’s performance with no fewer than four separate monitors. In addition to the inverter readout and utility meter, I have two other devices that measure both the panels’ output and our household electricity consumption. One is a Locus Energy monitor that our installer, 1st Light Energy, installed at its expense to make up for its mistakes. The other is the TED5000, which I paid for and wired in myself.

I had used the earlier TED1000 and found it somewhat disappointing. It interfered with our home automation system, causing lights to go on and off at random, which seriously eroded its popularity with my wife and daughter. They rebelled by willfully leaving every light in the house turned on. One day, the device completely bricked-up. Frankly, that came as a relief even to me.

The newer model is much more capable. It can monitor both consumption and production, has a data-rich web interface, works with third-party iPhone apps, and interfaces with Google Powermeter, an iGoogle widget that displays net energy use. But the TED5000, like its predecessor, interfered with the automation system. This time, I bit the bullet and, inspired by a post on the Powermeter forum, moved the monitor to its own circuit isolated by electric noise filters, which seems to have solved the problem and restored some of my domestic moral authority.

These monitors provide an engrossing look at your household life and let you drive a stake through hidden wattage vampires. Mine showed a 150-W load that came on or off at regular intervals, staying on about half the day in all, for a total of about 650 kW-hr per year. This matches the energy consumption of a fridge. An EnergyStar fridge would be at least 20 percent more efficient, but alas the payback time would be prohibitively long. So I bought a cheap fridge thermometer and found I was able to turn up the temperature somewhat.

The energy monitors also are morale-boosting reminder of you why you just shelled out $20k+ for those panels. You make it back, dime by dime. As David Kaltsas of SunWize, a large solar wholesale distributor and residential installer on the West Coast, says: "Essentially what you’re doing is buying 20 to 30 years of electricity at one time."

In an upcoming blog post, I’ll describe my conversations with Kaltsas and others in the solar industry about where they’re heading and how government regulation, especially at the local level, could be streamlined. In the meantime, I recommend reading Chris Kaiser’s Map-a-Watt blog. You might also enjoy the experiences of Debra Herman in Mill River, Mass., who has blogged and written about the grid-connected 4.8-kW solar array she installed a year ago. Her state and federal incentives went through smoothly; her only problem, she says, was that she had to cut down some trees because of shading. The array produced surplus power through November of last year. She, too, is looking forward to getting back into the black as springtime unfurls.

Web interface of Locus Energy monitor, courtesy of George Musser


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  1. 1. jerryd 4:41 pm 03/23/2010

    One could cut the cost by 50-75% just by shopping and doing a little study, work oneself and just hire the pro’s for the final wiring. That would be about $50/hr saved doing that. A good start shopping would be which has good panels for between $1-2/wt.

    Next don’t put them on your roof but in the back yard, etc as a porch, shed, patio.

    Also if possible put in a wind gen for more power for less money like those at .

    If you pay too much it’s your fault. I’ve found in life, it’s not what you make but what you spend. RE can be cost effective, even make you money if you do it right and no reason pay back should be over 5 yrs.

    Link to this
  2. 2. gmusser 4:53 pm 03/23/2010

    My backyard is shaded, so it was the roof or nowhere, and I wouldn’t have wanted to haul up the panels and risk life and limb to mount them. Besides, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, my payback time (after incentives) is about five years.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Michael Hanlon 9:47 pm 03/23/2010

    I hope part of your yearly celebration entails a romantic trip back in time, up to the attic to see old storage boxes and to assess the impact of a year’s worth of snow cover accumulation and thaw/melt cycling hasn’t caused leaks to your under-roof. Now is the time to do it as the summer may be too hot and the fall may be too late to get things fixed.

    It is nice to hear from you again and to know that things are starting to work out.

    Link to this
  4. 4. gmusser 3:43 pm 03/24/2010

    Thanks – in fact I have already done just that. The roof fared very well over the winter and even during our recent almost-hurricane.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Danielseb 8:13 pm 08/27/2010

    The sun delivers approximately ten thousand times more energy than the worlds total annual power demand
    (Quaschning, 2005, p.22). The UK had an incentive scheme that ended on 3rd February 2010. However, in April 2010 a new scheme was created, called Feed in Tariff. This scheme should encourage home owners to produce their own clean energy from renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro, biomass or solar.
    The advantage of the scheme is that the energy produced can be sold to the energy supplier at rate much higher than the cost per unit supplied from the grid. The rates vary depending on the type of renewable energy source, e.g. Solar PV energy production of less or equal to 4kW will be paid from your energy provider at a rate of 0.41 per kWh. This means that it is much better to sell your PV output to the grid
    rather than trying to reduce your energy bill as the average kWh is among 0.10 and 0.15, which is four times less than what you can earn from selling it. As you can see it is definitely worth to implement PV solar panels in your property.
    <a href="">Visit renewable energy foryour home</a>

    Link to this
  6. 6. nibir 1:32 am 11/16/2010

    The TED Footprints software, which was an optional package in the original TED<a href="">-</a&gt; series is now included, and works on Windows, Mac and anything with a browser. There are several free iPhone applications for The Energy Detective, and browser plug-ins. By being part of the computer age, TED makes it easy to see, but more importantly understand your electricity usage.

    Link to this
  7. 7. tom0571 12:01 am 11/20/2010

    EXACTLY John and I too would like to know! The sexually repressed mind with all those taboos to be broken? Priceless! I would sooo do Christine O’Donnell. Ann Coulter though? NA.. Sarah.. well that would be incest, but hey, all the better right?
    solar collector
    solar water heater

    Link to this

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