Monday, May 11, 2015

Solar on the roof: The Garden of the Sun

So far today, by about 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, we've produced 3.62 kilowatt hours (kwh) of solar energy. The day's still early. So far, in less than a week, we have offset 6 pounds of carbon emissions.
            Solarize me, baby. Tell me I'm not the only one.
            We have a few other measures of our ongoing solar energy production, endlessly tracked by the personalized website the company gave us. So far, I'm told, the day's solar production has prevented 6 mi of greenhouse emissions. If only I knew what 'mi' were.
            On Sunday, warm and sunny, we produced 27.51 kwh, 20 percent of a typical full-week's household use. So we're producing more than we use and it's likely that we will build up a substantial credit to set against the colder, less sunny months when we must rely more on power from the grid, i.e. electricity produced by whatever source the power company happens to purchase. The usual stuff, oil and gas fired plants, even a few coal fired plants (not many in New England), nuclear reactors, hydroelectric from Canada. Some percentage produced by sustainable wind and solar producers. And some power made from fracted gas wells, where water is pumped (i.e. wasted) deep into the ground to the detriment of the environment. Power grid sources: most of which continue to deliver greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate.
            And which will, quite possibly in the not so distant future, undermine and destabilize civilization as we know it. What happens then is anybody's guess. I hope I'm somewhere else by then, watching another channel.
            Getting solar installed on your roof is not extraordinarily difficult, but it is more difficult than, say, buying a car. Even more difficult than buying a home computer or other digital device, which usually takes us about half a year to do. (We have 'home improvement projects' that take considerably longer.)
            It took us at least half a year, probably more, to get solar panels on our roof from the time we began exploring options offered by a couple of companies. The options aren't all that different , they're just confusing to understand. When the company puts panels on the roof of your house, is it "our" or "their" power? Where does it go? Can you 'keep' your own solar power? (No.) The website they gave us to watch the little bars go up on the graph titles its initial category as "my solar production." But I know better, it's their power. Wwe pay them for it.
            How much money you're saving by paying the rate you've contracted for with your solar company depends on how expensive power from your ordinary power company is. In an area such as Long Island, where I grew up, you'd be saving a lot because the cost of power is high. In the Boston area, where we live, the cost is lower. The chief financial benefit is locking in a good rate for solar power for long period; a rate lower than what you're paying for power from the grid.
             The solar companies you deal with are likely to be based somewhere else. If you like reading emails filled with technical information, you'll enjoy this process. I hated it. Anne took over, not out of love for the subject but commitment to the goal. Even after we signed a deal, they got our names wrong on the contract, city hall insisted on giving them the wrong address for our house. The company sent a doughty local contractor to crawl all over over roof in winter (more than once) because like all organizations, they are a bureaucracy with their own rules and red tape, and if the engineer sign-off guy in California can't tell from the photos sent to him that your roof is the way they want it he won't sign off. It's a little like asking a guy to fire a drone from half a world away, only not so murderous.
            Really, the key question the company asks is does your roof, or enough of your roof, get enough direct sunlight to make putting the panels up there economically viable? With ours, one half of the roof, the southern side, gets plenty of sun. The other side has trees and a much worse angle on the son. Our next door neighbor, who professionally helps people use sustainable energy, doesn't have a roof area that receives enough direct sunlight cutting down a tree. He doesn't want to cut the tree; I wouldn't want to either.
            The only part of the going solar process that went quickly and easy was the the April day when the local contractors arrived to put up the panels, and the wiring, and the various electrical boxes that are now encrusted on your house, like large inorganic coral.
That went by in a flash. These folks knew what they were doing. They work in our region. 'This is the third house we've done this week,' the electrician told me; it was Wednesday.
            Waiting for their work to be inspected was pure local bureaucratic annoyance. Encouraging a local city hall to get on the stick cannot be done from California. Weeks in the planning, the act of inspection took 15 seconds. Some day artificial intelligence will arrange these connections much more efficiently. The next hangup was waiting for the power company to turn on their part of our new meter; they have to come to the house to do it. We were told to expect weeks of waiting -- the company has no incentive to be quick about this; they hate residential customers going solar, less profit for them. But they were out in a week, probably because Anne found somebody to call.
            So now since May 5 we've produced 150 kwh, 25 percent of a full month's use, saving over 229 pounds of carbon emissions. We saved the equivalent of planting only 2 trees in our neighborhood. Homeowners, take note, trees do a lot; they eat carbon.
            It's after eleven now, we're up to 6.7 kwh for the day, but the weather is cooling, our hourly rate declined.
            Still, solar panels give you us another reason to root for sunny days. And, after all, I have always loved sunny days and have no inclination, whatsoever, to move to Seattle.