The PhotoVoltaic Solar System: Our First Year

October 31st marked the one-year anniversary of our rooftop photovoltaic solar system installation and the throwing of the switch on the net meter installed by our utility company. How do we feel about our green investment one year later? We are extremely happy with our choice and would do it all over again!

For a long time, I had wanted to do something substantial to do my part in curbing greenhouse gas emissions but always thought solar systems were out of our price range. After reading several articles about the outstanding incentive program offered by our local utility company, the federal tax credit available to help offset costs, and hearing about a local business that did installations, I convinced my husband that we should look into a PV solar system.

Utilizing an online calculator (http://www.find-solar.org/index.php?page=solar-calculator), we determined that a system that would generate enough electricity to offset our annual usage would pay for itself in less than 10 years (assuming a modest 3% annual increase in electricity costs). If we factored in the likely increase in the value of our home, we would pay for the cost of the system in just 1 to 2 years! After the federal tax credit (at the time it was $2,000 but after passage of the TARP bailout package, Federal tax credits have increased substantially for 2008) and the cost of the system paid by our utility company, our out of pocket cost would be only 1/3 the cost of the system and would be less than $9,000. How could we not install a PV solar system?!

A local solar installation company came to our house to check out our roof and declared that we had “the perfect roof” for a PV system. A long, sloping portion of our roof faces due south and nothing blocks the sun’s rays from hitting the panels.

The whole process couldn’t have been easier. Our installation company was awesome to deal with and they handled all of the necessary paperwork and communication with the utility company. They ordered all of the equipment and we installed a system that the contractor estimated would cover 100% of our average annual electricity needs. The utility company came out and installed a net meter. Net meters are key to maximizing the efficiency of any solar system. During the day, when we generate more electricity than we need, the meter runs backwards and our solar system provides electricity back to the grid. At night when we are not generating electricity, the meter runs as usual to supply us with needed electricity. The net meter tracks the net of our electricity generation and usage.

We pay no electricity bills for one year and at the end of that year, if we use more electricity than we generate, we pay the utility company for our excess usage. If, on the other hand, we generate more than we use, the utility company pays us. The only catch is that they pay us at the wholesale rate which is about half the retail rate. Because generating excess electricity doesn’t pay for itself as quickly as generating just enough, we didn’t intentionally put in a system that would generate more than we expected to use.

Several weeks after installation of our system, the utility company announced a 3% increase in electric rates. Several months after that, they declared another increase of more than 11%. What timing – we had locked in fixed electric rates for the next 40 to 50 years by installing our system. I foresee rates continuing to climb over the coming years. Additionally, in this tough real estate market, I have read several articles about homes with PV solar systems selling much more rapidly and at higher prices than homes without.

So one year later, how’d we do? Way better than we expected! We actually generated 1500 kWh more electricity than we used during the year. We really didn’t expect this to happen but I have a theory as to why it did. After installation of the system and net meter, I often went outside to check the net meter more than once a day. I know it’s a bit obsessive, but I was fascinated to see how the system functions.

What I learned is that on cloudy days, the system generates only about half the electricity that it generates on a sunny day. When there is snow on the panels, we generate almost nothing. I also learned that even though our heating system is gas forced air, it requires quite a lot of electricity to blow the fans. And air conditioning – well, that is basically pure electricity running that system. We generate excess electricity during the spring and fall months when the days are longer but moderate temperatures do not require running the heater or the AC. During winter and summer, we generally use more electricity than we generate to keep the temperature in the house tolerable.

But how did we have such a large, unexpected surplus? I have heard that with instant feedback, people are able to change habits much more quickly. And having almost instantaneous feedback as to what generates electricity and what uses it, it became a bit of a contest to see how much excess electricity we could generate. We put our computer systems and our TV/stereo systems on power strips that we can easily turn off when they are not in use, thus eliminating phantom electricity usage. We also have installed CFL light bulbs and have a new washer and dryer that we know use less energy to run. But when it comes right down to it, I think we are just much more aware of the everyday things that we do that require energy and we take steps to reduce it. And that is how we ended up with an unexpected surplus for the year.

Sources:

http://www.find-solar.org/index.php?page=solar-calculator

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