Categories: All About Solar Power, Electric Cars that Run on Sun, Energy Efficiency, Energy Storage, Safety

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07/19/14

  07:53:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 146 words  
Categories: Energy Efficiency, Residential Solar, Ranting, Energy Storage

Can Renewables Power the US?

As renewables become an ever larger share of the energy mix on the grid, we constantly hear the naysayers bleating that renewables make the grid unstable.  Indeed, they claim that anything above a tiny fraction of total power demand penetration by solar sources will result in blackouts or worse since such sources are so variable. Besides, they say, what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow?  Renewables will never be reliable enough to fully power the grid.

But is that really true?  Could it actually be possible to power the US using only renewable sources?

Amory Lovins over at the Rocky Mountain Institute thinks the answer is yes, and the short video that they have created makes a pretty compelling case.  Take a look and decide for yourself.  (Hat tip, Climate Denial Crock of the Week.)

Remember: “Whatever exists, is possible.”

07/18/14

  09:27:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1775 words  
Categories: Safety, Energy Storage, Intersolar 2014

Intersolar Wrapup: Sexism Declines, but Chaos Looms

We spent some quality time on the exhibit floor, and at the social events, of last week’s Intersolar North America and here’s our take.

Overall Impressions - Does Size Matter?

The show felt smaller, to be sure, and we didn’t see anything that created a real “Wow” moment.  (Possible exception, the mini solar race cars which were very cool, but they didn’t really have much to do with anything.) With SPI looming in just a few short weeks in, wait for it… Las Vegas Man™… it was hard to shake the feeling that manufacturers were keeping their powder dry until October.

Merchatron tracker

Of course, not everything was smaller. 

The folks at Mechatron won the prize for the largest solar device at the show—an enormous solar tracker (which we were told took them a day and a half to assemble inside the hall!)—that has more than a bit of a Transformers feel to it.

Sadly it wasn’t moving during the show…

Look Who is Missing?

Given the show’s smaller feel you would expect some well known names to be missing and you would be right.

We are happiest to report that the number one no-show was last year’s Sexism Public Enemy Number One: RECOM.  Although they had a significant presence at Intersolar in Europe a month ago, they were nowhere to be seen at this show, and the folks from Intersolar confirmed that RECOM had originally booked a booth but then cancelled without explanation.  Did they back out due to the backlash over their nonsense last year? We can only hope…

Inverter manufacturers Enphase Energy, KACO and SMA were all missing from the floor—although that’s no surprise for Enphase who never shows at Intersolar, and who had a large presence elsewhere in co-hosting the Tweetup (thank you!) and the Solarfest. 

SMA touts made in the USA

SMA, although not on the floor did manage to take a swipe at its competition with this banner (that’s a really, really big banner!) and a van parked outside touting their market dominance—in the past.

We are all for made in the USA, but what percentage of the show attendees were walking around with smartphones that were made somewhere other than the USA? Uh, pretty much everybody. 

Not clear that this is a winning argument, or even SMA’s best argument given that their TL inverters are a very cool product.  If your only presence is going to be a banner, why not tout an actual benefit of your products? 
Opportunity missed.

Seeking Better Racking—with less Sexism

Our stated goal for the show was to identify a new racking supplier to replace our now discontinued standard (Unirac’s late, great, Solarmount Evolution) and toward that end we spent a lot of time on the third floor where the racking suppliers hung out. Continuing the recent trend, there was a lot on display.

Shoals promotes booth babe culture

A study in contrast could be found between the displays at the Shoals and Schletter booths.  Both supply racking gear.  Both offered coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon.  And both had attractive women handing out the drinks.  The difference?  The women at the Schletter booth actually work for the company (in a wide variety of jobs, other than marketing) whereas Shoals insists, defiantly, on promoting the Booth Babe culture with models in black cocktail dresses.  (Leading to scenes like this of guys standing around to photograph the models.  Not sure how that promotes solar or Shoals’ products.)

Still we did see racking systems that we liked.  Iron Ridge has an interesting rail shape which they insist is stronger than other products, and their CEO, William Kim, seemed very eager to connect with installers and learn from their experience—something that other companies need to do!

But our overall winner at the show was Everest Solar Systems.  Talk about learning from installers, all of their components are pre-assembled so the installer doesn’t find herself on a roof missing a bolt.  The parts work together in an intelligent fashion and seem designed to streamline the process on the roof where it matters.

Everest mounting system

For example, here is a picture showing their end clamp assembly (and attractive end-cap for the rail) and there are a number of features here to like.

To begin with, the clamp is extra wide giving you a firmer grip on the module.  The clamp has a small spring inside which means that once inserted in the channel, the clip stands up at full height, making it easier to insert the modules under the clip.  (The mid clamps also have this feature which we think is a great idea.)  The black piece next to the rail is a plastic grip that the installer can use to position the clamp in the rail and turn to align it properly—another clever feature which should cut down on fumbling on the roof.

Equally well thought out are the splices (which do not use self-tapping screws, thank you) that provide structural strength while allowing for thermal expansion.  Oh, and there’s no drilling required on the roof!

We are eager to give the Everest system a try on an install very soon.

Storage on the March

As we have seen in previous years, enthusiasm for intelligent storage systems is high, while actual products are few.  And even when a product is on display, it is not always clear that the folks talking about the product have really thought it through.

LG Residential storage offering

Take, for example, this potential offering from LG.

We say potential because this is really a concept vehicle, not something you can order now.  Indeed, the decal on the box proclaims that the product will debut in Europe the second half of next year.  Roll-out in the US is not slated until sometime in 2016.

More troubling though was, in our view, a misunderstanding of the nuance in this market.  The box shown has a storage capacity of only 2 kWh—less than a tenth of the daily energy output of a 5 kW solar power system.  How and when will that energy be deployed to assist the homeowner in reducing their bills?  In talking with the LG rep, we started to explain the differences between how you might use that energy under a tiered rate structure versus a time-of-use structure.  Instead of being told that their software was designed to handle those differences, we got a mostly blank stare.  Now that could simply be that the rep wasn’t fully up-to-speed on how the box is designed to operate, but it was not encouraging.

What is encouraging is that electronics giants like LG are starting to get serious about this opportunity and from what we have seen from LG in the solar module space, we are confident that they can develop a compelling product offering—just not yet.

Meanwhile, last year’s show standout for really grokking this space, Stem, was nowhere to be seen.  Nor was their SoCal competitor, CODA.  Perhaps both are keeping their chips in reserve, hoping to make a big play in Vegas at SPI.  Watch this space.

Burning Down the House

Finally, we have two things to report under this topic—one cautionary, the other celebratory.  Caution first.

Fire Code Chaos

Creeping up on the entire California solar market is the issue of Fire Code regulations that have the potential to bring things to a screeching halt come next January.  We are still trying to get up to speed ourselves on this issue, but there were fire code regulations that were supposed to go into effect last January but were postponed because no one had a technical solution for meeting them.  That postponement was for only a year, however, which means that come 1/1/15 we are subject to these regs.

As we presently understand the issue (and feel free to offer clarifications in the comments),  roof systems are rated under classes A-C based on how resistant they are to an outside source of combustion (think of a burning tree limb resting on the roof), with class A being the most resistant.  Solar modules on the market today generally have a class C fire rating.  The new regs would say that where a roof system is required to be class A (as in high fire threat areas), all components on the roof must also be class A—but if there are no class A rated solar modules, such buildings would be unable to add solar.  Moreover, even if a module were designated class A, it would still have to be tested with the roofing system to ensure that the combined system were class A.

If that weren’t bad enough, there is an additional categorization pertaining to fire spread, and because roof arrays more than a few inches above the roof act like conduits for spreading flame, such arrays cannot pass the flame spread requirements.  Yikes!

Both module manufacturers and racking reps that we brought this up with gave us a deer-in-the-headlights response initially (with the exception of Barry Cinnamon’s Spice product offering), with some subsequently saying that they were working on the issue.

As noted above, we are still getting up to speed on this issue and we will have much more to say about it in the coming weeks.  Watch this space.

Battling Bands - Again!

Finally, our Battle of the Bands karma continued to rock at Intersolar.

For those not in the know, the annual Battle of the Bands has two, parallel sets of competitors.  On the one hand are the house bands from various solar companies who go head-to-head to see who will be crowned the best of the best.  But just as fierce is the competition to get a ticket to the closed event!

Two years ago we got in on sheer force of personality (not ours, but that of Solar Fred) and last year Jeff (Solar) Spies’ crew at QuickMount PV provided the ducket.  But alas, not this year. 

We were directed to another booth where there was a raffle we could join, but no luck.

Yet then, we turned the corner and found ourselves at the NABCEP booth where Sue Pratt was about to raffle off two tickets.  We tossed our biz card into the bowl (complete with NABCEP Certified logo, thank you very much) and then crossed our fingers.  When the first card pulled turned out to be a no-show, Sue dug deep—and pulled out our card!  How cool was that?  (We gave the second ticket to another installer who had just had his hopes dashed by our good fortune—gotta pay that Battle of the Bands karma forward!)

Lots of photos from the party (though oddly, many are strangely blurry—sorry about that Kathie & Jessica) but we will leave you with our favorite—may your karma be so good next year!

Battle of the Bands 2014

06/28/14

  08:36:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 351 words  
Categories: Electric Cars that Run on Sun, Residential Solar

This Charge is on Us!

As a small business, Run on Sun is often approached about novel means of marketing, the vast majority of which we simply turn down.  Part of that is the sense that we really wouldn’t be reaching our target audience very effectively—do people think about solar standing in the supermarket checkout line? Nah, we didn’t think so either.

Run on Sun EV charge station ad

But then, along came Volta and a marriage perhaps made in heaven: an ad for Run on Sun on an EV charging station! Even better, a free to the driver EV charging station at Whole Foods market here in our home town of Pasadena!!!

Voila—we present the first ever, Run on Sun EV charging station in the wild.

The car being charged is a Tesla (natch) and what we really loved about this marketing opportunity was that when the driver gets out of that car they are looking right at our ad. Pretty close fit to a target demographic too: EV drivers shopping at an upscale market in our geographic center.

Are the stars aligned here or what?

Run on Sun EV charge station ad close up

 

Well, actually, time will tell (the ad just went live on Thursday), but it certainly feels right.

The ad features one of our charming and talented clients (thank you, M!) posing before her Leaf with our solar installation in the background.

The message is simple and direct: Your car should Run on Sun!  Indeed, for those of you taking advantage of the free charge at Whole Foods, your car is, at least for that charge!

The QR code in the lower right corner takes you to our newly minted, EV page on our website, where folks can learn more about solar charged driving and us.

And of course, since Whole Foods prides itself on providing locally sourced produce, we got in a reminder that Run on Sun is your local source for solar.

If you make it to Whole Foods (on Arroyo Parkway) check it out.  If you are driving an EV and you don’t have solar yet, we hope this will inspire you to take the plunge.  In the meantime, this charge is on us!

06/23/14

  10:44:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 565 words  
Categories: PWP, Electric Cars that Run on Sun, Residential Solar

Pasadena's Electric Rates Spark Concern

Pasadena Water and Power (PWP) is set to roll out an entirely redesigned Residential rate structure that could spark serious concerns if you are a big user of energy. Here’s our analysis.

PWP customers have been pretty smug (something we are apparently famous for) as we sit back and watch our neighbors in SCE territory suffer through significant rate increases.  Well, no more.  Now you too, fellow PWP customers, are about to feel the bite of a double digit rate increase.  And here’s the thing—the more you use, the bigger that rate increase will be!

PWP has a somewhat hybrid rate structure, meaning that while the pure energy charges are the same no matter  how much energy you use (in contrast with SCE’s four-tier rate structure), other components, most notably the customer and distribution charges, are actually tiered.  In the newly revised rate structure the customer charge is now split out and is a flat fee of $7.76/month.  The distribution charge, however, remains tiered under the new structure, albeit in an odd fashion.  The first 350 kWh of energy per month see a low distribution charge of just 1.5¢/kWh.   The next 400 are really jacked up: to 11.65¢/kWh before subsiding to 8.5¢/kWh for every kWh thereafter.  Which raises the question: if you want to incentivize people to reduce their usage, why is the third tier lower than the second?

As a result of the change in structure as well as the rate components, the impact on your bill varies a lot depending on your usage, as you can see from the following chart:

 PWP Rate Increase by Daily Energy UsageThe gray bars are the old rates, the red bars are the new rates and the red line tracks the percentage annual increase over the range of 15 to 100 kWh of energy usage per day.

As you can see, two bars (at 15 and 25 kWh) actually show rate decreases and the percentage increase continues to swing back and forth until you get to 35 kWh per day when the increase is monotonically upward.

Indeed, if you are sucking down 100 kWh/day, your rates will go up by nearly 50%!

Fortunately, very few customers are in such rarefied air as that; but a homeowner who had an average usage of about 25 kWh/day who then goes out and purchases an EV that she drives a lot, could bump into the 50 kWh range and she would see a 19% rate increase.  Have a big house with a pool and a jacuzzi and a couple of EVs? If that gets you to 80 kWh/day your rate increase will be 40%!

In fact, it is actually worse than what we are showing here since this is only looking at the energy services part of your bill.  On the left-hand-side of your bill you will find the Public Benefit Charge (tied to how much energy you use) and it is going up by 19%.  On top of that are taxes that you pay on those energy services amounts and you can see that PWP customers, except on the lowest end of the scale, are in for some serious rate hikes starting July 1.

Of course, solar is the perfect hedge against these rate increases (and others sure to come in the future) and PWP still is offering the highest rebates around: $0.85/Watt.  But in all likelihood we will see those rebates step down soon so now is the time to act!  Give us a call at 626-793-6025 and let’s get started.

05/27/14

  06:55:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1031 words  
Categories: Residential Solar, Safety, Solar Repairs

Solar Repairs Done Right!

Is your solar power system safe?  How can you be sure?

We are receiving more and more inquiries about fixing solar power systems from folks whose system has stopped working and the original installer can no longer be found.  Sometimes a violent act of nature prompts the need for our services, but all too often we are seeing shoddy work that has failed far too soon.

Case in point, we received a call from a true “rocket scientist” the other day who had a solar power system installed about seven years ago, but now he was having a problem.  We learned that the system had been installed by an air conditioning company (you’ve seen their ads), and it had two SMA Sunny Boy 2800 inverters—now well out of warranty—and one of them was displaying the dreaded, ground fault error.  Ground faults occur when a normally ungrounded, current-carrying conductor makes contact with something that is grounded, such as the frame of a solar module, the system racking or even the conduit itself.  Ground faults can be dangerous and are often difficult to locate.

When the solar system owner contacted his installation company, they offered to replace his offline inverter—for $5,000!  Of course, simply replacing the inverter was unlikely to do anything about the ground fault, and it was possible that there was nothing wrong with the inverter at all, apart from being out of warranty.  But in any event, charging $5,000 to simply do a one-for-one inverter replacement was highway robbery, and the system owner was pretty annoyed by the time he got around to calling us.  Since there was no way to properly diagnose the situation over the phone, we agreed to come out and take a look.

Sure enough, one of the inverters was working fine, but the other displayed a ground fault message.  The system owner told us that there was a combiner box on the roof, so we headed there to try and figure out where the fault might be.  Here’s what we found in that “combiner box":

This is NOT a combiner box!

This is so NOT a combiner box!

This is a junction box into which the folks who threw this system together crammed the wires coming from the strings, joined them together (without any fusing to protect the array, to say nothing of the house) and then routed them downstairs to the inverters.

Another problem—the wires coming into this non-combiner box are all THHN, which is fine for a conductor running in conduit, but is no good at all for conductors coming from solar modules in the array.  The insulation here is simply not designed to hold up under years of exposure to sunlight.

This is simply ignorant, shoddy work that has no place in the solar industry.  Sadly, this particular company has not gone out of business, though the world would be a better place if they had.

People can get hurt this way.  Property can be destroyed this way. 

And the solar industry can get a very bad reputation this way.

We broke the bad news to the system owner and explained that what was needed was to replace the box on the roof with a proper combiner box, replace the improper wiring with USE-2 wiring that is designed to last on a roof, and bring the system back online.  We also suggested that given that his existing inverters were out of warranty, he might want to consider upgrading to a single, transformerless inverter that would provide a ten-year warranty, the possibility of online monitoring, and much greater efficiency.  That was the path he decided to take.

We installed an Outback combiner and upgraded the wiring.  In so doing we managed to bring some order out of the previous chaos, take a look:

New, proper combiner box

Now each of the four strings is properly protected by a dedicated, touch-safe fuse, and there is proper stress relief on the USE-2 conductors entering the box from the array. 

We also installed ground lugs on each of the rails—something the air conditioning guys hadn’t bothered to do—and we installed two end clamps that had somehow been overlooked when the install was done.

The cool, new SMA 5000TL inverter allowed us to add monitoring to the system, as well as SMA’s emergency power outlet that provides a nominal amount of power from the array, even if the grid fails.  In the process we were able to clean up the wiring on the ground, get rid of those air conditioning disconnect switches and install a proper disconnect.  Oh, and while we were at it, we even arranged to donate the old inverters to Habitat for Humanity, providing the system owner with a charitable tax deduction!

Most importantly, we were able to restore his confidence in the solar array on his home.  And maybe, even a bit of confidence in the solar industry itself.

Moral of the Story

There are a number of take aways from this experience that we would like to stress:

  • First, if you are in the market for a new solar power system, please, please, please, go with a solar professional.  If you are confused about where to find one, start at the NABCEP website, they have a searchable directory of them.  (Full disclosure, you will find us there as well!)

  • Second, if you have an existing system that is more than five years old, you might want to have someone come out and check it out.  Start with your original installer—they should be happy to swing by and give things a look for a very modest fee.  If they refuse, or are no longer in business, you will want to contact someone else to do that for you.  (Yes, NABCEP again is the proper starting place.)  Insist on getting photos of what is on your roof.

  • Third, if your system components look like the nightmare we found, you should demand that the original installer repair it.  If they are no longer around, you should have it repaired before it causes a major problem.  A reputable solar pro will give you a fair price based on time and materials to bring your system up to code, and leave it safe to operate for a very long time.

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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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