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08/21/14

  02:05:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 751 words  
Categories: Safety

SolarWorld Announces Major Recall

We have just learned that solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld has announced a recall involving 1.3 million solar panels sold in the U.S. since June 2011.  According to the Notice filed with the Consumer Products Safety Commission:

SolarWorld solar panels installed with bare-copper grounding lugs can corrode which could result in a faulty ground circuit, posing an electric shock, electrocution or fire hazard.

Behind the Headline

So what exactly is the issue here?  All metal components of a solar power system—such as the frames of the solar panels and the rails to which they are attached—are supposed to be grounded.  There are many ways that can be done, but one common method is to attach a copper lug to the panel frame and run a copper grounding wire from lug to lug and ultimately to ground.  The problem arises from the fact that copper grounding lugs come in two varieties: bare copper and “tinned” copper, that is copper with a coating of tin. 

Bare copper lugs Tinned lugs
Bare copper grounding lugs “Tinned” copper grounding lugs

If the installer used a bare copper lug, it could cause corrosion to form between the panel frame and the lug.  That corrosion could prevent the ground from being effective, which could result in the potential problems highlighted in the CPSC notice.

In other words, while this is a potential problem and systems should be inspected to insure that the proper, “tinned” lug was used, the recall does not involve the safety of the solar panels themselves.  Moreover, the fix, if required, is straightforward (even if potentially time consuming): simply replace the improper lugs with proper ones.

Who Used the Panels?

While the recall notice refers to 1.3 million panels in the U.S., we wanted to get a sense of how many of these panels have been installed in California, and, more specifically, in the Run on Sun service area.  To get a handle on that we turned to two familiar data sources: CSI data (showing installs in SCE, PG&E and SDG&E territories) and LADWP data.  Given that LADWP requires the use of grounding lugs (as opposed to WEEBs), there is an even higher probability that SolarWorld systems in LADWP territory used a grounding lug.

CSI Data

The CSI data shows just how widespread this issue could be.  More than half a million SolarWorld panels have been installed in CSI territories, accounting for over 6,500 different installations, installed by more than 500 different companies!  How many of those companies are still in business is anybody’s guess.  In SCE territory alone, 186,000 SolarWorld panels were installed at 3,125 different projects, by nearly 300 different companies.

The installers with by far the greatest number of SolarWorld panels installed are Shorebreak Energy Developers (43,242 panels installed at 46 different projects) and Chevron Energy Solutions (20,464 panels at 15 projects).  In terms of having the greatest number of projects, six companies have 100 or more projects, and the winners there are: A1 Solar Power, Inc. (217 projects), Titan Construction and Solar (202), Natural Energy (186), Contact Electric (174), Future Energy Corporation (124) and TLP Electric Integrations (103).

LADWP Data

The LADWP data is, not surprisingly, somewhat more opaque.  For example, they do not track how many solar panels are installed on a given project so we cannot determine the total number of SolarWorld panels that have been installed.  We do know that there are some 759 projects overall where SolarWorld panels were used, and more than 100 different installers were involved.  Three of those installers were responsible for fifty or more projects, they are: A1 Solar Power, Inc. (120 projects), Sungate Energy Solutions (76) and American Solar Solutions (67).  Looks like the folks at A1 Solar Power are going to be busy!

What to Do?

If you are the owner of a SolarWorld installation, you will want to contact your installer and see what they are willing to do.  At a minimum, they should be willing to come out to your site, free of cost, and verify that the proper lugs were used.  Even if it were the company’s policy to always use “tinned” lugs, a system owner should not rely on those assurances since install crews have been known to substitute whatever is available at the local hardware store in order to complete the project and move on to the next.

If your installer is no longer in business, or is unwilling to come out and verify that your system is safe, you should contact SolarWorld themselves directly.  They have established a toll-free number to call: 877-360-1787, M-F from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

If you own one of these systems, please let us know in the comments about your experience.

08/08/14

  09:02:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 799 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Ranting, Net Metering

Do Pro-Solar Policies Hurt the Poor?

smoke from coal-fired power plantThe fossil fuel industry has a problem—its customers hate its product.  We purchase gasoline to fuel our cars and natural gas to heat our homes or cook our food, but we know as we do so that we are making the world hotter and dirtier.  And the electricity that we get from the grid, far too much of it comes from burning coal, and every aspect of that industry, from mining (black lung disease, cave-ins) to burning (think belching smoke stacks like the one on the right) makes one recoil in disgust.

The natural result of that revulsion, is that we are constantly striving to use less of their products.  Which hurts the bottom line, and that is something the fossil fuel industry cannot abide.

Particularly when it comes to solar.  As solar becomes more affordable—and as more advantageous financing mechanisms become available—more and more people “go solar".  Which means less revenue for utilities which drives their rates higher.  Which makes solar more financially viable (if not necessary), thereby driving even more utility customers into the welcoming arms of your friendly, neighborhood, solar installer.  This virtuous cycle for consumers is a vicious cycle for utilities, leading inexorably to their demise unless they change their ways—or solar goes away.

So far most utilities appear to be holding out for option B.

Of course the fossil fuel industry in general, and utilities in particular, are not sympathetic entities with the public so they need a different angle, a better hook if they are going to convince people to abandon solar.

Cue the Koch brothers funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and their faux concern for the poor.

In an article titled “How State Solar Policies Hurt America’s Poor,” (h/t Solar Wakeup) AFP Policy Analyst Justin Sykes advances the canard that net metering polices harm poor consumers.  In a piece rife with inaccuracies, Sykes makes a number of misleading statements.  Try this one:

Specifically, the average household income of solar-customers was $91,210, compared to the a median income of $54,283 for non-solar customers. A similar report this month on Nevada’s net-metering policy found  73 percent of solar-customers there have higher median incomes than the statewide average.  Figures like these exemplify how net-metering policy fosters inequality in the way Americans receive and pay for energy. On average, low-income households spend an estimated 37 percent of their income on household energy bills, a burden that grows when coupled with increasing rates due to cost-shifting.

Sorry, but the data simply doesn’t support those statements.

Let’s start with the assertion that solar households have much higher median incomes that non-solar households.

Median household income by zip for solar installations in CaliforniaWe looked at all residential solar installations in California from 2008 to 2013 using data from the California Solar Initiative and ranked them by zip code.  We then compared that to U.S. Census data reporting median household income for those zip codes.  (If you click on the graphic you can actually explore the interactive visualization on our website.)

In every year, whether purchased or leased, the majority of solar was in zip codes where the median household income was at or below $75,000, with only a relative handful in neighborhoods above $125,000.  Indeed, there were more installations in zip codes with a median income of less than $50,000 than there were in zip codes with a median income above $125,000!

Now to be sure, zip code averages are not the same thing as actual customer income, but actual household income of solar customers is not a publicly available piece of data, so this is the best proxy available (and presumably the same proxy available to the likes of AFP’s Mr. Sykes.)

And while we are debunking things, let’s take a look at the statistic about how “low-income households spend an estimated 37 percent of their income on household energy bills."  Seriously?  The link supporting that stat takes you to an article that provides no support for the number.  But more to the point, how could that number even be possible?  According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the 2014 Poverty Guideline for a family of four is $23,850, of which 37% would be $8,824.50, which works out to a monthly energy bill of $735!

Once again, the data tells a very different tale.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. household spends roughly $2,000 per year on all household energy (excluding transportation) and that figure is across all households, not just low income households.  (In California, that average is below $1,500 thanks to energy efficiency measures adopted in the state.)

This is how the battle against solar is being fought: with misleading claims and made-up statistics.

But here is the reality: as solar gets cheaper, and innovative programs like solar loans and HERO PACE financing become widely available, more and more people will realize that they can afford solar and will jump at the chance, rich and poor alike. 

07/30/14

  07:24:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 721 words  
Categories: BWP Rebates, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Ranting

Burbank's Rebate Raffle - Wild, Weird West

The wizards at Burbank Water and Power have announced their solar rebate program will resume, but only for the lucky few who happen to be facing West.  Here’s our take.

Having a stable, predictable solar rebate program is the key to making a solar program successful. Municipal utilities like Pasadena Water & Power, and investor-owned utilities (like SCE) participating in the California Solar Initiative, have had great success with their programs. 

Then there are other munis, like Burbank Water & Power (BWP), that just can’t seem to get it right.  BWP, like its similarly misguided neighbor, Glendale Water & Power, has had an on-again, off-again rebate program that baffles all who attempt to make use of it.  Now, for a brief moment, BWP’s solar rebate program is on-again, sort of.  During the month of August, potential Burbank solar customers are allowed to submit rebate applications (submission deadline is August 29 at 5:00 p.m.) for a lottery to be held on September 8th.  The lucky 60 residential and 15 small commercial (<30 kW) customers who make the grade (no details on how the auction will actually be conducted have been released) will be advised of their good fortune by September 12th.  Rebate amounts are $0.96/CEC AC Watt for residential and $0.73 for small commercial.

But wait, there’s more.

Available rebate azimuth rangeFor the first time in our experience, a utility is limiting rebates for solar systems to only those which face in a generally westerly direction.  In fact, systems facing true south are completely ineligible for rebates (as shown in the  image to the left), even though such systems are the most productive! 

BWP is essentially precluding the overwhelming majority of building owners from even having a chance at a rebate in their lottery system.

This continues a trend we have seen with other muni utilities (GWP we are talking about you) where solar programs are designed to be unsuccessful.  It will be interesting to see if we can extract any data from BWP about the results of their lottery.

Justification for west-facing

BWP’s Stated Rationale for Restricting System Azimuth

But why the restriction in the first place?

According to BWP, it is to insure that the power produced comes closest to overlapping with BWP’s peak afternoon demand from 4-7 p.m.  Thus to qualify, systems have to be oriented between 200 and 270 degrees and have a minimum tilt of 5 degrees.

That seemed pretty arbitrary to us. 

While we could understand a utility wanting to limit providing rate payer money to systems that yield the maximum benefit to those rate payers, there is certainly nothing magical about a limit of 200-270 degrees.  In fact, somewhere around 270 should be the sweet spot for afternoon production, with a fall-off on either side.  So why cutoff systems beyond 270 degrees?

We decided to run some models using NREL’s PVWATTS tool.  We assumed a 10 kW system at a 10 degree pitch (a common residential roof pitch) and accepted the other defaults for the model.  We then calculated the hour-by-hour output for systems with azimuths ranging from 200 to 330 degrees.  Here are the results for the critical hours from 4 to 7 p.m.

Energy production vs azimuth

All of the azimuth angles in the green box are acceptable to BWP, whereas all of the azimuth values in the red box are deemed unacceptable for a rebate from BWP.

But here’s the thing… see that green horizontal line?  That represents the 4-7 p.m. output for our hypothetical array with an approved azimuth of 200 degrees.  Yet five out of six azimuth values modeled here that are rejected by BWP, actually produce more power during the critical period than does our approved system at 200 degrees!

So what exactly is going on here?  BWP’s asserted rationale does not hold up to scrutiny.  Which begs the question, why, really, is BWP so seriously limiting who can participate in their lottery?  It certainly is not justified by their desire to maximize 4-7 p.m. production.  If that were truly the case, they should include azimuth angles all the way to 320 degrees.  They would get more timely power production while opening their rebate lottery to many more potential customers.

How about it, BWP, what is going on here? 

If you are a potential BWP customer who falls outside of the “accepted” azimuth band, you might want to contact the Solar Support program managers:

John Joyce: jjoyce@burbankca.gov or

Alfred Antoun: aantoun@burbankca.gov

If you get a response, please add it to the comments.

07/23/14

  07:22:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 340 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Utilities, Energy Efficiency, Ranting, Energy Storage

Teaching the Duck to Fly

There is a fair amount of talk lately (in nerd circles) about a graph being circulated by the utilities and the California Independent System Operator ( CALISO, the entity that manages the electric grid in the state).  Known as the “Duck graph,” it is being presented as a dire prediction of impending grid instability due to the increasing role of renewable energy sources. But where some see doom and gloom, others see opportunity.  Here’s our take. (H/T John Farrell at REWorld.)

Here’s the graph (credit, CALISO):

Duck graph - predicted energy demand in California

As recently as 2012, this wasn’t a duck at all as net load had two peaks, one in the morning and one late in the evening.

But look at the center of the graph: as more and more renewable sources come online, the demand during the middle of the day falls dramatically, so much so that the utilities are complaining that there will be a risk of “over generation” - producing more energy than is needed and cutting into the baseline production (from power plants like coal and nuclear that need to operate continuously to be efficient.)

Also predicted is a rather steep increase in evening demand between now and 2020.

The net result is a curve shaped much like a duck, apparently a fowl predictor of grid chaos.

Frankly, we look at that graph and see progress and opportunity.  Progress in that renewables, which not so long ago were sneered at as being a, “tiny amount of energy that will never amount to anything serious,” are now completely rewriting the load curve in the nation’s most populous state.  Talk about coming a long way, baby!

The opportunity, of course, is right there as well.  While adding large amounts of smart storage to the grid is an obvious fix for this “problem", as we noted just the other day (see Can Renewables Power the US?), we can handle this evolving energy future in a relatively simple manner—it just requires changing how we approach the problem.  Here’s the video:

We can, and will, teach this Duck to fly. 

07/20/14

  07:14:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 259 words  
Categories: Climate Change, Ranting

What has been done, can be done...

How did we get from this…

LA Smog circa 1968

LA Smog circa 1968

To this…

On a clear day you can see forever...

On a clear day…

In my lifetime?

As a school child growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, I was all too familiar with the upper scene: ground level ozone and other pollutants that literally made it hurt to breathe.  Kids would come into classrooms after lunchtime recess and cough for half an hour.  Every day.  The very air was killing us and no one seemed to have the ability, or the will, to change it.

The story of how LA drastically improved its air quality has much to teach us as we face the fight to do something about climate change.  The tactics of those who profit from the status quo are exactly the same: denial, obfuscation, entrenched resistance.  But we overcame their resistance before, and what has been done can be done.  The question is: do we have the will?

Which brings me to the wonderful series on addressing these issues that ran this past week on Kai Ryssdal’s always engaging Marketplace on NPR.  (Sidenote: we listen to NPR on KPCC, and we have a Solar Member’s Benefit for KPCC members!

In a week-long series titled, We Used to be China, the Marketplace Sustainability crew looks at how, not so long ago, the US faced pollution issues every bit as daunting as what confronts China today, and more broadly, the globe.  In particular, the sections on LA’s Smog and on the Cap and Trade program that cured Acid Rain are particularly illuminating.  Check them out.

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
In addition, Run on Sun offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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