Category: Ranting

01/14/17

  02:21:00 pm, by Laurel Hamilton, Projects Coordinator, Run on Sun   , 824 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Ranting

Run on Sun Bids Adieu to Solar Ninja - Laurel Hamilton

As Run on Sun rings in the new year and looks forward to a great 2017, we have some big news of changes taking place on our team. Our Projects Coordinator / Solar Ninja, Laurel, has moved to Oregon to spread the joys of solar power  in her home state. She wanted to share some final thoughts with her Run on Sun solar family…

Just over two years ago I made a flash decision that would change my career trajectory in a bigger way than I ever could have imagined. I came to Los Angeles after earning my Masters in Global Public Health. While I’ve always been passionate about solutions to environment and health, I hadn’t ever thought about working in the solar industry for perhaps obvious reasons (EVERYONE asks me how I started in solar with a public health background). After a few months living in LA without finding health work, I met someone at a green event who worked for a solar company. That encounter got me thinking about the fact that there is so much sun in Los Angeles but the air pollution is literally in your face every day. I realized that PV Solar provides an incredible opportunity to work towards something of real value for people, the environment, and for broader global health reducing the impacts of burning fossil fuels. So I took a chance and after doing a little research into who was working in my nearby vicinity (avoiding commuting in LA was a big priority) and who was doing solar for the right reasons… I contacted Jim Jenal at Run on Sun. I told Jim I was happy to schlep materials around the county, handle paperwork, answer phones, and do whatever it took to get more solar into our community if he would just teach me all about the industry. I didn’t realize quite how far that deal would go. You see, one of Jim’s past lives was as a high school teacher and despite the small size of his company he is considered one of the thought leaders in the solar industry, largely through this blog.

Over the next two years he taught me everything there is to know about running a solar installation company. Its not very often that one is given the opportunity to learn every aspect of an industry with an employer who gives you the confidence and tools you need to grow exponentially in a short period of time. I ate it all up! After a year I was wearing as many hats as one can imagine in a solar installation business… Inside Sales, Lead Developer, Site Assessor, Project Designer, Project Coordinator, Safety and Health Officer, Marketing Manager, Solar Blog Writer, Boom Lift Operator and of course Solar Installer. That’s when I made my own business cards with my new self-proclaimed title - “Solar Ninja". 

Jim and LaurelWorking with Velvet, Ralph, Josh, Robert, and Jim on Run on Sun’s team was more empowering and satisfying than I ever imagined working in a for-profit field could be. I was helping people to reduce their impact on the environment, lower their costs, and show their neighbors that renewable energy is a real solution everyone can be a part of. I learned that, counter to popular belief, a sales person could be honest, forthright, and down to earth. I learned that we could run our business with integrity and give people quality 20+ year products they could trust. I learned that people who want to go solar are some of the coolest people and really makes sales work a joy. And more than anything else, I learned that I wanted to stay in this exciting industry that was growing and improving exponentially before my eyes. 

It was with the support of Jim Jenal and all the know-how he bestowed upon me that I was able to earn my PV Solar Technical Sales Professional certification through NABCEP. And I was offered an exciting position managing a new solar installation branch in Bend, Oregon for a forward-thinking solar company, Elemental Energy. Elemental even has a non-profit arm called Twende, installing off-grid systems in developing countries around the world! So this truly is a dream job combining my Global Health and Solar Ninja skills into one awesome adventure!  

I am sad to be saying goodbye both to the Run on Sun team and all the wonderful clients I worked with over my tenure which we fondly refer to as our Run on Sun family. Though the sun is setting on my time in Southern California, the sun is shining bright (everything is literally whitewashed with snow currently) in Bend! I look forward to hearing how things continue to grow with Run on Sun. If ever you or someone you know finds yourself with property that needs to be solarized in Central Oregon I’d love to hear from you! 

Thank you for reading my humble Thoughts on Solar! Much love and sunshine for all — Laurel

01/01/17

  02:57:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 902 words  
Categories: Solar Economics, Residential Solar, Ranting

3 Solar Company Ploys that Cost Consumers

All solar companies market themselves, Run on Sun included.  But lately we’ve come across some particularly puzzling ploys being touted by some companies as if they were a benefit to the consumer, when all they really are is a way for the solar company to cut their costs at the consumer’s expense!  Let’s peel back the onion layers on these three ploys to see what is really going on…

Ploy #1 - “We Can Give You A Solar Quote - No Home Visit Required!”

One of the major solar companies built its entire business model around this ploy, and a bunch of aggregator sites have popped up offering much the same thing: a quote on a solar power system without ever visiting the consumer’s home.  Certainly for some folks - the very busy or the very shy - this might sound appealing.  You can get a quote for your system without ever having to deal with those pushy salespeople. 

The advantage to the solar company should be pretty obvious - they avoid the time and expense of sending a vehicle and a salesperson to your home, thereby saving the salesperson for only those potential clients where a face-to-face meeting is required.

So how does this ploy cost consumers?  The simple truth is that no one can properly install a solar system without actually coming to your home and seeing the actual conditions on the ground.  While satellite images are great for making preliminary assessments, there is just too much that could affect the ultimate cost of the system that cannot be determined remotely.  For example, the other day we noticed a sag in a roof while taking our measurements.  Upon closer inspection it was discovered that one of the roof rafters was split and caused the roof to sag.  That damaged rafter needs to be repaired or replaced before solar can be safely installed.  The homeowner was completely unaware of the situation until we pointed it out to him.

When a solar company gives you a quote without having performed a comprehensive site evaluation, their quote will be hedged as “preliminary, subject to revision following engineering review."  Which means that after you sign the contract, they will “discover” the issues that they should have told you about initially.  But now you will have signed a contract and to move the project forward you will have to accept a change order increasing your cost.  Great deal for the solar company, not so much for the consumer.

Ploy #2 - “We Will Install Your Solar System in One Day!”

This one to me is a real head scratcher - the solar company that brags that they will install solar on your home in one day!  Seriously?

This is neat work

Work this neat takes time!

Solar power systems, when installed correctly, should provide you with trouble-free operation for twenty years.  Given that time frame, do you as a consumer really care whether the install takes one day or four?  Frankly, in ten years of doing this, we have never had a client ask if we could complete the installation in one day.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that clients aren’t concerned about how the installation will be done, they are.  But they are interested in knowing that it will be done right, and right the first time.

The solar company promoting this ploy wants to suggest that they have this so dialed in that it will take them no time at all.  But what is really happening is that they are telling their crews to throw it up on the roof and move on to the next job.  That translates into lower labor costs for the solar company (i.e., more money in their pocket), but no real benefit for the consumer.

The simple truth is that craftsmanship takes time.  You, the solar consumer, are going to be living with this for the next twenty years - maybe that extra day or two will actually inure to your favor!

Ploy #3 - “We Will Install Solar For Free!”

This may be the scammiest ploy of all.  The solar company prominently displays that they will install solar on your home for free!  And who doesn’t love free, right?

Of course what this really means is that the solar company wants you to sign on to a 20+ year agreement (either a lease or a Power Purchase Agreement) to pay them every month for the privilege of having that “free” solar on your roof.  The end result is that you end up paying as much as twice as much to that solar company as you would have if you had purchased the system outright - and you still won’t own it even after twenty years!

And yes, I know that not everyone has the cash on hand to purchase a system outright, but there are better options than leasing.  For consumers with good credit, a home equity line of credit will be way cheaper than going with a solar lease.  If your credit is not so great, you could look into PACE financing which is not tied to personal credit.  PACE is more expensive that a HELOC, but still a better deal than a solar lease.

Caveat Emptor

At the end of the day, all of these ploys work in the solar company’s financial interests, and not the consumer’s.  The folks that dream up these schemes are shrewd - consumers need to be just as shrewd if they are to avoid getting fleeced!

Happy New Year!

11/29/16

  04:38:00 pm, by Laurel Hamilton, Projects Coordinator, Run on Sun   , 635 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, Residential Solar, Ranting

Direct Ownership of Residential Solar Systems Will Surpass Third-Party Systems in 2017

When deciding to invest in a photovoltaic solar system one of the first questions everyone has is how to finance the cost. While solar continues to be a great long-term investment, with payback periods often in the 4-7 year range, the hefty outlay is more than many homeowners feel comfortable fronting. Hence, the concept of the zero-down solar lease financing model and third-party system ownership (TPO) was born. While SunRun invented the model in 2007, the three behemoth national solar companies - SolarCity, Vivint Solar, and SunRun - rose to the top over the last five years due to the popularity and ease of the model for customers. Until this year, nearly 100% of Vivint Solar’s business was with solar leases and power purchase agreements (PPA’s).

However, as we at Run on Sun point out to all of our potential clients and in various blog posts, solar leases are simply a bad deal. And, what do you know, finally the wider public seems to be coming around to this fact! GTM’s recent report, “US Residential Solar Financing 2016-2021“, showed that for the first time since 2011, direct ownership of residential solar systems will surpass third-party ownership in 2017. The solar lease has been rapidly decreasing in popularity since it peaked in 2014 with 72% of the market. GTM predicts that in 2017 55% of residential solar systems will be bought outright through cash or loans, and the trend will continue with 72% of all systems sold owned directly by 2021.

GTM Residential Installations by Type 2010-2021

GTM Research: Residential TPO Penetration and Installations by Ownership Type, 2011-2021

There are several factors at play in this shift. The total cost to go solar has declined rapidly in recent years meaning the upfront cost continues to be less frightening. Today there are more attractive solar loan options available to homeowners as well. One popular option in California is the PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) government loan program which is repaid as an assessment on the homeowners property tax bill. Mosaic is another solar loan program available nationally. While loans do have interest rates and dealer fees to be aware of, the benefits of owning a system outright far outweigh the costs of third party ownership - such as financially damning escalator clauses, the inability to take the tax credit or local rebates, and the risk of selling your home to buyers who don’t qualify for (or want) the solar lease. 

Overall growth of the solar industry is also beginning to slow this year. After growing at more than 50% annually for the last four years, the residential market is expected to see a slower growth rate of 16% this year. The report shows that growth has slowed among all solar installation companies, but much more so for the top three national companies who previously relied upon the popularity of the solar lease. For the first time since 2013, these three will together install less than half the market’s solar systems as their growth slows to just 12%. By contrast, growth among the remaining solar power installation market will slow to 36% according to GTM. It will be interesting to see how the “big three” handle this shift in the coming years.

One thing to note is that while growth is slowing among the largest companies, solar continues to grow overall. Smaller local companies have always offered, and preferred, to sell systems outright rather than through leases and these companies are becoming more popular as more research shows the true value of ownership vs leasing. As one of those companies, we have always stood by the data and educate all our clients on the realities of financing options as the last thing we want is to be in the business of locking people into a twenty-year-long bad deal! Curious as to the specifics of leasing vs owning? Check out our blog from almost two years ago: Top Five Reasons to Stay Away from that Solar Lease! 

10/28/16

  12:14:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1654 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, PWP, SCE, Residential Solar, Ranting

Understanding Tiered vs TOU Rates

A client of ours noted that Pasadena Water and Power (PWP) offers, in addition to its regular, Residential tiered rate structure, the option to switch to a Time-of-Use rate structure, and he asked if he would derive additional savings from making that switch. Turns out that is not an easy question to answer, and there certainly isn’t a “one size fits all” result. We decided to take a closer look into these rates both for PWP and for the folks in Southern California Edison (SCE) territory.

SPOILER ALERT - The following is pretty much down in the weeds.  You have been warned!

Defining Tiered and Time-of-Use (TOU) Rates

Let’s start by defining our terms. Most residential electric customers, of both PWP and SCE, are on a tiered rate structure. That means that there are two or more cost steps - called tiers - for the energy that you use. Tiered rates assume that there is some minimally expensive charge for the first allocation of energy per billing cycle, and that as you use more energy your cost for energy increases. For example, SCE’s Domestic rate has three tiers and in the first tier the charge is 8.8¢/kWh, in the second tier the charge is 16¢/kWh, but the final tier is 22.4¢/kWh! (There  is also a non-tiered component that adds another 6.9¢/kWh to the customer’s bill.)

PWP, on the other hand, has a somewhat perverse tier structure in that the lowest tier is very cheap, 1.7¢/kWh, the second tier is significantly higher, 13.5¢/kWh, but the final tier actually goes down to just 9.9¢/kWh! Since the whole point of tiered rates is to provide an incentive for heavy users to reduce their usage, PWP is actually rewarding those who consume more than 25 kWh per day with lower rates! Very odd.

Time-of-use rates, on the other hand, are generally not tiered. Instead, the day is broken up into segments and the cost of energy varies depending on the segment in which it is consumed. PWP refers to these segments as “On-Peak” (from 3-8 p.m.) and “Off-Peak” (all other hours). But PWP’s TOU rate retains the tiered element as well, making it a truly odd hybrid rate structure.

SCE’s approach is more involved, dividing the day into three, more complicated segments: “On-Peak” (2-8 p.m. weekdays - holidays excluded), “Super Off-Peak” (10 p.m. to 8 a.m. everyday), and “Off-Peak” (all other hours).

For both PWP and SCE there is a seasonal overlay on these rates, with energy costs increasing in the summer months (defined as June 1 through September 30).

(It is important to note that both PWP’s and SCE’s TOU rates put the most expensive energy in the late afternoon to evening time period - pricing energy to offset against the “head of the duck.” Ultimately, these rates will create the energy storage market in California, but that is a post for another day.

Analyzing the Benefits of a Rate Switch - Pre-Solar

Assuming that one can create a spreadsheet to model these different rates (not a small task in and of itself!) there is one more hangup - data. Both PWP and SCE report total monthly usage to customers on their tiered rate plans - but in order to analyze your potential bill under a TOU rate, you must have hourly usage data for every day of the year! (Because there are 8,760 hours in a [non-leap] year, such a usage data collection is typically referred to as an 8760 file.)

The standard meters that PWP has installed simply do not record that data, so the average PWP customer has no way to know whether they would save money by making the switch.

On the other hand, most SCE customers do have access to that data and they can download it from SCE’s website.

After you create an account, login to it and go the “My Account” page. On the left-hand-side you will see some options - click on “My Green Button Data” (the too cute by half name for the interval data you are seeking), select the data range for the past twelve months, set the download format to “csv” and check the account from which to download. Then press the “download” button and cross your fingers - in our experience, the SCE website fails about as often as it actually produces the data that you are seeking!

Modeling PWP

Given that PWP doesn’t have data available, is there any way to estimate what the results might be? The answer is, sort of. We took an 8760 data set from an SCE customer and used that as our test data for both PWP and SCE. (The data file does not identify the customer.) Since the data file has an entry for every hour of every day, we can segment the usage against the On-Peak and Off-Peak hours, and using a pivot table - probably the most powerful took in Excel - we can summarize those values over the course of the year, as you see in Figure 1.

PWP segmented usage

Figure 1 - Usage Profile for PWP

Summer months are highlighted in orange. For this specific energy usage profile, Off-Peak usage is more than twice that of the On-Peak usage (9,806 to 4,009 kWh respectively). So how does that work out when we apply the two different rate structures? The table in Figure 2 shows the details of the two rates:

PWP standard and TOU rates

Figure 2 - PWP Rates - Standard Residential and TOU

Under both rate plans, the distribution is tiered (with the perverse reverse incentive for usage above 750 kWh). Added to that is either the seasonally adjusted flat rate for energy, or the seasonally adjusted TOU energy charge.

Applying those rates to the Usage Profile in Figure 1 allows us to see what the energy and distribution components would be under both approaches. Given the hybrid nature of these rates, you might expect them to be similar and you would be correct. The distribution charge - which applies to both - comes to $1,180 for the year. The flat rate energy charge comes to $893, whereas the TOU charge is $985. Meaning that someone electing to use the TOU rate would have a yearly total of $2,165, whereas the flat rate user would have a total bill of $2,074, making the TOU rate - for this specific energy profile - 4% higher.

Beyond that, PWP has a number of other charges - such as a public benefit charge, an underground surtax, and a transmission charge - that are only tied to total usage, so the ultimate difference between these two rates is even smaller.

Modeling SCE

SCE rate structures are significantly more complicated that PWP’s. For example, the tier 1 (aka baseline) allocation varies by location. Since SCE covers such a huge and diverse area from cool coastal regions to absolute deserts, customers are allocated more energy per day in their baseline depending upon where they live. In the area around Pasadena that is covered by SCE, a typical daily baseline allowance would be 13.3 kWh in the summer and 10.8 kWh in the non-summer months. The baseline then is that number times the number of days in the billing cycle. Tier 2 applies to every kWh above baseline, but below 200% of baseline. Tier 3 applies to everything beyond that. As with PWP, the tiered rate only applies to “delivery” charges. The energy generation charges are the same all year. Here’s what that rate structure looks like:

SCE Domestic Tiered rate

Figure 3 - SCE’s Tiered Domestic Rate

The first thing that you notice when you look at this rate is how much higher it is than the rates from PWP, and the end calculation bears that out - the same usage that resulted in an annual bill of $2,074 in Pasadena becomes $3,227 once you cross the border into Altadena, South Pasadena, San Marino, or Sierra Madre - an increase of 56%! (There’s a reason why a growing percentage of our clients are coming from those surrounding, SCE-territory communities!)

So what would happen if this beleaguered client were to shift to a TOU rate? First, we need to re-parse the usage data according to SCE’s more complicated segmentation scheme, which gives us Figure 4:

SCE segmented usage data

Figure 4 - SCE’s Segmented Usage Data

Once again, the On-Peak usage is the smallest category of the three, amounting to just 23% of total usage, compared to 42% in Off-Peak, and 35% in Super Off-Peak.

Of course, SCE can’t do anything in a simple fashion, so they have not one but two basic approaches to their TOU rates, Option A and Option B.  Option A rates run from a low of 13¢/kWh (in summer Super Off-Peak), to 29¢/kWh (during summer Off-Peak) to an eye-popping 44¢/kWh (during summer On-Peak).  However, Option A includes a credit of 9.9¢/kWh on the first baseline worth of energy which reduces the monthly bill by roughly $30.

Option B deletes that baseline credit and replaces it with a “meter charge” (even though it is the same meter!) of 53.8¢/kWh/day, or roughly $17/month.  In return, the On-Peak charges are significantly reduced from 44¢/kWh to just 32¢/kWh.

So how does this shake out?  The results are quite surprising, as shown in Figure 5.

SCE rate comparison - Tiered vs TOU

Figure 5 - SCE Rate Structure Comparison

The two left columns show the month-by-month calculations for both delivery (the tiered component) and generation (the flat component).  The two right columns show the month-by-month calculations for the two different TOU rates.

The bottom line is striking: under TOU-A there is a savings of 5% over the tiered rate, whereas the savings jump to 19% by going to TOU-B!  That is a savings of $600/year just by changing rate plans - a switch that any SCE customer can make.

MAYOR CAVEAT: YOUR MILEAGE WILL VARY!

The results displayed here are entirely dependent on your actual energy usage and no two usage profiles are alike.   It is possible, even likely, that some usage profiles will see an increase in bills under either TOU option.

The good news is, that for a nominal fee,  this is an analysis that we could do for any SCE residential customer - we would just need access to your usage data.

So that completes our pre-solar analysis. In our next post, we will look at how these results change when you add a solar power system into the mix.

10/24/16

  12:40:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 358 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, PWP, Ranting

How Green is PWP? Not so much...

Pasadena is not only the home for Run on Sun, it is also my home for many years now.  Pasadena likes to think of itself as a forward looking, environmentally conscious city.  So it was a bit of a blow to see the latest Power Content Label for our home-grown utility, Pasadena Water and Power (PWP), which reveals that when it comes to powering this city sustainably, we still have a long way to go!

Under California law, (Senate Bill 1305, Sher, Statutes of 1997), electricity retail suppliers are “required to disclose to consumers which types of resources are used to generate electricity being sold."  October 1 is the deadline for utilities to report this info to the California Energy Commission, and they are then required to disclose it to their customers by way of a flier included in the bill.  The disclosure is known as a Power Content Label and it breaks down energy sold by source and compares it to the overall mix in the state. 
Here is PWP’s PCL for 2015:

2015 PWP Power Content Label
ENERGY RESOURCES 2015 PWP POWER MIX 2015 CA POWER MIX
Eligible Renewable  29%  22%
 Biomass & waste  15%  3%
 Geothermal  4%  4%
 Small hyrdo  3%  1%
 Solar  0%  6%
 Wind  7%  8%
 Coal 34%
 6%
 Large Hydro
4%
 5%
 Natural Gas
6%
44%
 Nuclear 7%
 9%
 Other 0%
 0%
 Unspecified* 21%
 14%
 TOTAL 100%
 100%

Wow, that’s a lot of fossil fuels, with the majority of it coal. Contrast that with the rest of the state where coal is roughly 1/6 of the factor that it is at PWP, and keep in mind that you produce 2.1 pounds of CO2 per kWh when burning coal (on average) compared to just 1.2 pounds from burning natural gas.

Worse still, solar makes up 0% of PWP’s overall mix, compared to 6% for the state overall.

If there is a silver lining in these numbers it is this: 2015 is an improvement over the past. As recently as 2013, coal was a whopping 52% of PWP’s total power. So our hometown utility is getting better, but we are a long way from where we need to be!

(*Unspecified means “electricity from transactions that are not traceable to specific generation sources.")

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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.
Laurel Hamilton is Run on Sun's Projects Coordinator, and together they author this blog.
Run on Sun also offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities, and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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