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05/10/15

  04:49:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1451 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, Residential Solar, Ranting, Energy Storage

Elon Musk's 3-Biggest Powerwall Whoppers

Elon Musk is a visionary and a showman, but occasionally his enthusiasm for his vision gets way out ahead of reality.  Nowhere was that disconnect more on display than this past week when he made his much talked about announcement of the Tesla Powerwall battery storage system.  While we share the vision for the potential of battery systems (such as the one Enphase Energy is set to release later this year, albeit in a far more understated fashion), when 38,000 people go online to order a product that doesn’t yet exist, it is time to debunk some of the more exorbitant claims made by Musk. 

Here are the three biggest whoppers that Musk made during his Powerwall presentation (video below).

Whopper #3 - Power for an ice storm or other significant grid failure event

Musk touted the “peace of mind” that would come from having the Powerwall, and said, “if there’s a cut in the utilities you’re always gonna have power, particularly if you’re in a place that’s very cold, now you don’t have to worry about being out of power if there’s an ice storm.” (See video at 8:35.)

The Powerwall unit that Musk was talking about that was designed for “daily cycling” was a 7 kWh unit that is priced at $3,000.  The average home in the Run on Sun service area uses 25 kWh/day.  So a single Powerwall unit provides roughly one quarter of the energy demand of an average home.  If your desire for “peace of mind” means running your home for a full day in normal fashion, you will need to purchase 4 Powerwall units (assuming you have the wall space to mount them) and that will cost you $12,000.

Of course, many outages last longer than a day.  The longer you want to stay powered, the more units you will need.

Whopper #2 - Powerwall will work with existing solar systems

Musk insisted that Powerwall has been designed to work with solar systems, “right out of the box."  (See video at 8:25.)

Except… that the Powerwall is designed to fit between existing solar panels and the DC-AC inverter(s) in the system (i.e., on the DC side of the system).  But here’s the thing - the vast majority of inverters are what are known as “grid-tied,” which means if the grid goes down, the inverter shuts off, and stays off until the grid comes back.  If the Powerwall is on the DC side, there is no way for it to “mimic” the grid (which, of course, is on the AC side), and so the inverter will shut off.  While the inverter could certainly be replaced with a hybrid inverter (that can work both independently and tied to the grid) such a replacement is a pricey undertaking and certainly not a plug-and-play installation.

But Musk, like the true showman that he is, saved his biggest Whopper for the end…

Whopper #1 - You can go off grid… for $3,500!

Warming to his subject, Musk really brought down the house with his most outrageous claim of all:

You could actually go, if you want, completely off-grid.  You can take your solar panels, charge the battery packs and that’s all you use.  So it gives you safety, security, and it gives you a complete and affordable solution.  And the cost of this is $3,500."  [Gasps and applause from audience.] (Video at 8:55.)

No.  No you cannot.

Let’s unpack his statement.  There’s two major claims here, neither of which is true.  The first is that you could go completely off-grid, and the second is that it would cost you $3,500.  So let’s start with the easy one to disprove, indeed, we already did above: this won’t cost $3,500.  The Powerwall provides 7 kWh of storage.  The average house uses 25 kWh/day.  If the battery has to run your house for just one day, you would need 4 Powerwall units at a cost of $12,000.  (The 7 kWh unit is the one designed for daily cycling - what you need to go off-grid, and it costs $3,000 - if you could actually purchase one, which you can’t.)

So that’s easy to debunk.  But what about the second, more fundamental question.  Can I use this Powerwall system to go off-grid without changing my middle-class, suburban lifestyle?  For most folks the answer is simply, no.  Here’s why.  When you go off-grid you need to be able to meet all of your energy needs all the time without assistance from your local utility.  To do that, you need a battery system large enough to last you during the longest typical shortfall of available energy (i.e., how many stormy/cloudy days in a row will you see), plus a solar array large enough to charge that battery on sunny days while meeting the household needs.  Turns out, that is quite a lot of both.

Folks who design off-grid systems (very few of which are found in areas like Pasadena), typically design for three (or more) days of self-sufficiency (or autonomy, as they put it).  For our typical, 25 kWh/day home, that would require storage of a minimum of 75 kWh.  But according to Tesla, you can only stack a maximum of nine Powerwall units, which limits you to 63 kWh.  Sometime around noon on that third day without sun, your house will shut down.  Oh, and that much storage will cost you $27,000.

What about the solar array side of the equation?  Let’s start by asking how big an array can you fit on an average house?  House sizes have trended bigger in the past couple of decades, so more recently built houses are an overstatement of the average house out there.  Still, to have a starting point (and to give Musk the benefit of the doubt), let’s assume that our average house is 2,400 square feet (a fair estimate based on US Census data), and that it is optimally designed to maximize solar production: a near perfect square with a true south face, pitched at latitude (34° here in Pasadena), with no shading.  Of course, we still have to give the Fire Marshall the desired setoffs so that gets us to 1,115 square feet of roof space (math available upon request), enough for 62 LG 305 solar modules, but because we need to use a hybrid inverter with fixed string sizes, we will drop that down to 60 solar modules. That yields an 18.3 kW system which at $3.50/Watt would cost a cool $64,000 - and be bigger than our biggest ever residential installation. 

So the Sixty-four Thousand Dollar question becomes: How well will that do on meeting our needs?  Per the CSI calculator, this maximal system will produce roughly 29,000 kWh in Year 1, or an average daily output of 79.5 kWh.  (Less in the winter, of course, when you are most likely to see those cloudy days.)  After providing for my daily needs of 25 kWh, I have 54.5 kWh to spare, not quite enough to fully charge my batteries (which require 63 kWh).  A scenario where I have two cloudy days, followed by one partly sunny day, followed by two more cloudy days could easily leave you in the lurch.  And for this you paid a total of $91,000!  If you live somewhere with poorer weather than what we find in the Run on Sun service area (i.e., pretty much the entire rest of the country!) your performance will be even more dismal.

The true value of storage

The sad part of this whole thing is that battery storage combined with solar is going to be huge, but not for the reasons Musk alluded to in his speech.  The future of utility rates is the shift to time-of-use rate structures - a fact already well and painfully known by our clients in SCE territory, and soon to be seen by everyone.  Time-of-use rates, where utility customers pay more for energy during the peak part of the day, are the only way to match utility costs with customer charges.  (It is the head of the Duck in the famous Duck Curve below.)

The famous duck curve

That “overgeneration” that drives down demand at noon is presently fed back to the grid, where the grid operator has to modify the power mix to accommodate it - in essence, it is wasted.  (Although presently, net metering customers get full retail credit for it - something, that in all likelihood, will soon go away.)

But add storage to the mix, and you shift that overgeneration from the middle of the day, to the evening peak hours, benefiting the time-of-use customer as well as the utility.  It is the way to bring about a peaceful end to the utility-solar wars, and it is the true benefit of storage to solar customers - without oversizing either your solar array or your storage system.

So let’s all get excited over solar with storage, but for the right, and much more cost-effective reasons - and not the nonsensical hype being spewed by that super showman, Elon Musk.

04/30/15

  06:57:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 381 words  
Categories: Non-profit solar, Chandler School

Chandler School Chooses Run on Sun

We don’t often announce our latest projects, but one this week really stands out, and that is our upcoming project for Chandler School here in Pasadena. (Indeed, it is just down the street from where I once lived!)  The 44.8 kW system will be installed this summer, in time for the 2015-16 school year.

Chandler is a special place that puts great emphasis on challenging its students.  As they note in their Mission Statement:

Chandler students gain a love of learning, a means of thinking independently and an ability to work collaboratively. A Chandler education seeks to develop good character, self-reliance and a commitment to community in students as a foundation for academic and personal success.
Chandler School roof

What a lovely roof for solar!

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that we at Run on Sun have a soft spot for non-profits, and we take great pride in working with schools and churches to expand their mission while making the world a greener, cleaner place.  We understand the process involved, with its many twists and turns, and we have found that our collaborative, information-intensive brand of “selling” solar meshes well with the non-profit world.

In the case of Chandler School, the process actually moved quite quickly - spurred on, at least in part, by the rebate step down announced by Pasadena Water and Power for May 1.  Once the decision was made, the design team at Run on Sun was able to move quickly and get the rebate application completed and filed in time to meet the deadline.

As noted by John Finch, Chandler’s Head of School:

As an independent school in Pasadena we have a public purpose to make our environment cleaner by reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and limiting our carbon footprint.

If we want our students to be stewards of the environment in the future, schools need to be examples of best practices. The  installation of solar panels on our gym roof is a best practice. I am looking forward to the learning opportunities that the project will give to our students.

We are excited to be working with this renowned Pasadena institution, and we look forward to providing the Chandler community with a wonderful asset that will both save money, and enhance the educational experience of its 450 students.

04/20/15

  09:40:00 am, by Laurel Hamilton, Projects Coordinator, Run on Sun   , 374 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar News, Climate Change, State of Solar

Top 3 Ways Solar = Water Conservation

After 4 years of severe drought and this year’s winter snowpack at a pathetic 8% of typical levels, it’s obvious that California will have to find real solutions as populations rise and the effects of climate change worsen. We rely on the High Sierras’ snowmelt throughout the year for everything from our green lawns and fresh food (throughout the US) to our hydroelectric power.

Governor Jerry Brown’s recent mandate for cutting water use by 25 percent was overdue and necessary, but communities will have to step up conservation efforts in a big way. Ever since the Governor’s big announcement ideas for how best to curb water use have been flowing. So why should PV solar power generation be at the top of the list? What does water conservation have to do with solar?

    1. As noted previously in “Thirsty? Think Solar!“… compared to other energy sources, photovolataic solar energy systems have the lowest life cycle water use.  Increasing the amount of electricity generated by PV directly reduces our water demand
    2. Once a big player in California energy production, hydropower dropped from 12 percent in 2013 to just 6 percent in 2014 due to the extreme drought conditions. But solar has stepped in to fill that gap, with production more than doubling to provide 5 percent of California’s power in 2014—and that figure doesn’t even count rooftop solar! According to the Energy Information Administration, solar PV and concentrating solar power together offset 83 percent of the total hydropower decline.
    3. With drought comes a severe shortage of rainy days. Anyone with solar panels knows the joys of monitoring your energy output on a sunny day and the much sadder numbers that result on a gray day. As the drought persists, California’s sunshine provides an endless resource that should be tapped.

Solar is an increasingly important solution to water scarcity as well as energy security. With no sign of a solar slowdown in California—we are the first state to get 5% of its energy from solar—strong generation records are likely in coming years. While solar has been included in some communities’ plans to reduce water use (such as in the Los Angeles “pLAn“), many people are unaware of this solution. Communities, individuals and businesses installing rooftop solar can make a real positive difference for California’s dire water situation.

03/30/15

  06:21:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 566 words  
Categories: PWP Rebates, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar

Pasadena Solar Rebates Plummet!

Pasadena Water & Power (PWP) is about to slash its rebates by as much as 55% effective May 1 - the first rebate reduction in three years. Here are the details…

A Model of Stability

We have said it before and we will say it again, our hometown utility gets the highest marks for running the best, hands down, rebate program around.  Their folks are responsive, they have offered a consistent program since we got into this business, and their rebates have been among the highest offered in our service area.  The present rebate rates: $0.85/Watt for residential and small commercial, $1.60/Watt for small non-profit systems have been at that level since 2012 - even while system prices dropped by 25%.  (For large systems > 30 kW, the commercial rebate was 12.9¢/kWh of actual production paid over five years, while the non-profit version was 24.2¢/kWh.)

But all good things must end, including these great rebates - and they will, come May 1.

The Rates They are a Changin’

Money lost

The new rates are significantly less generous - $0.45/Watt for residential and small commercial, $0.90/Watt for small non-profit.  For larger systems the change is even more dramatic, with the rebate payout now only covering two years of production (instead of five) at the rate of 14.4¢/kWh for commercial and 28.8¢/kWh for non-profit.  (One bit of good news, the threshold for systems to be paid rebates over two years instead of at commissioning is going up from 30 kW to 100 kW.)

Leaving Money on the Table…

So what do these rebate reductions really mean?  Let’s look at a few examples.

Residential project - 5 kW

A typical residential project of 5 kW (AC) that submitted a rebate application before May 1 would secure a rebate worth $4,250 (as opposed to na da in SCE territory).  That same system will only receive a rebate of $2,250 - leaving an even $2,000 on the table.  Ouch!

Non-Profit project - 50 kW

A 50 kW non-profit project would earn, over the next five years, a rebate worth approximately $92,400.  But after May 1, only two years of payments will be made worth just $44,600 - a 52% reduction, leaving $47,850 blowin’ in the wind.  Double ouch!  The one side benefit, since this project is smaller than 100 kW (even though it is over the old, 30 kW threshold) it could qualify for the up-front rebate of approximately $39,200 at the time the system is commissioned - less money overall, but you get it faster.

Commercial project - 150 kW

A commercial project of 150 kW under today’s rebates would earn roughly $148,000 over five years, but for rebate applications submitted after May 1, that rebate drops to just $66,900, a reduction of 54.7% leaving nearly $81,000 waving bye-bye.  Brutal.

So… Don’t Just Sit There!

All is not lost, yet.  We still have a month and if you act RIGHT NOW you can still take advantage of the higher rebate rates!  To lock-in the higher rebate, we need to get your energy usage, do a site evaluation, send you a proposal, have you accept the proposal and sign a contract, and we need to get your rebate application on file before May 1.  (I feel a bit like our friends at KPCC - “we need 67 people to call in the next five minutes to meet this challenge…")  Yeah, that’s a fair amount of work in a short time, but if you jump on this opportunity, we can make it happen and you can save some serious money!  So don’t miss the boat…  Call us, or click on the “Let’s get started” link here to begin.

03/28/15

  04:00:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 361 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Ranting

Who has the Edge? 3 Reasons to Pick Enphase over SolarEdge

SolarEdge has gotten a fair amount of buzz this week thanks to their IPO, but it made us think that maybe it was time to revisit the question—who really has the edge: DC-to-DC “optimizers” like SolarEdge or Enphase microinverters?

Enphase Microinverter Which would you choose? Solar Edge Optimizer
 Enphase Microinverter    SolarEdge Optimizer

 

In our view this is a bit of a “no-brainer” and it really comes down to the following three reasons:

Reason #3 - Integrated Grounding — In every solar array, all metal surfaces have to be grounded for safety.  Enphase microinverters now feature integrated grounding, which eliminates the need for a separate equipment grounding conductor.  SolarEdge does not have this feature and, depending on the jurisdiction, may require the use of a dedicated copper conductor to be run from one unit to the next.  This increases both labor costs as well as part costs (copper is expensive these days!).  Far better to have that grounding built-in at the factory than assembled on the roof.

Reason #2 - Easier Installation — Beyond the need for that equipment grounding conductor, the SolarEdge system requires the installer to not only mount the optimizers on the roof beneath each panel, but it also requires the installer to mount one or more heavy (51 to 88 pound) inverter(s) on the wall.  In contrast, Enphase combines everything into one unit, so there are no heavy inverters to mount to the side of the client’s house.

Reason #1 - Greater Reliability —The number one reason for us at Run on Sun is the greater reliability you get from using Enphase.  Frankly, the SolarEdge approach combines the worst of both alternative approaches (i.e., string inverters versus microinverters).  You are still putting power electronics in the demanding environment of a roof, AND you have combined that with a single point of failure with the inverter back on the ground!  When you use Enphase microinverters you eliminate that single point of failure and you are going with the industry leader in creating reliable, roof-mounted power systems.

Put all of that together, and we think Enphase microinverters provide the greatest value to our clients, which is why we feature them in all of our solar power systems, despite the occassional “buzz” other approaches might generate.

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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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