The Beginning — Anger
Anger is a good motivator for some people. I
am one of them. I had been trying to reduce my
electricity consumption during 2014. Despite my
efforts to reduce air conditioning, heating, and
lighting loads, my electric bill started rising
dramatically at the end of 2014 and into 2015 —
sometimes exceeding $250. I had even switched to
a different power generation company, which is
allowed in Massachusetts. However, the reduced
rate was on the “generation” part of the bill only.
After the power transmission charges, distribution
charges, and taxes were added, there was not much
change in the bill. I decided to measure and
quantify my consumption.
During the next several weeks, I graphed all the
historical data I could grab to determine what I was paying
per KWH (including all generation, transmission,
distribution, taxes, etc.). Figure 2 shows the results.
Although the rates had been somewhat stable prior to
December 2014, they began a steep increase after that,
peaking at 0.25 per KWH. Since then, the rates have
come back down, but not to where they were before. I
wasn’t sure if they would spike again, despite lower oil
prices. (Massachusetts generates most of its electricity
from natural gas, coal, and nuclear.)
Before I made a decision, I had to learn about net
metering (see sidebar). I investigated the topic and
everything still looked like a go. It was now time to make a
decision, but I knew it was not going to be easy to
determine if solar would be cost-effective. There are a lot
of companies today with many offerings and options.
The first issue I had was which company to choose. I
decided to initially limit my investigation to the top three
solar companies in the US who served my area. There
were some solar companies who made contact with me
who only served southeastern New England, while other
companies only consisted of five employees. I reasoned
that if solar credits and incentives go away (always a
possibility) or there is an economic downturn in the
industry, the largest and most established businesses
would be likely to weather it.
However, even that is no guarantee, and some large
companies have recently been in the red. Federal and
state tax credits are constantly expiring and changing, but
are usually extended. I started with Solar City, Sunrun, and
Sungevity as the three I would focus on.
Let the Games Begin
I contacted all three companies, and in short order I
had several conversations with each of them. I asked a lot
of questions (see the sidebar, Questions to Ask a Solar
Installer) and got references from neighbors that had
installations from each company. While I was speaking to
my neighbors, the companies analyzed a recent electric
bill I had sent them. They then used Google Earth to look
at my house to come up with a preliminary proposal. They
studied the orientation (I was 20 degrees off true south)
and size of my roof, shadowing from trees and structures,
and obstacles on the roof such as chimneys, vents, and
antennas that needed to be avoided.
My roof was about 7-8 years old. Obviously, if a roof
needs repair, the time to do it is before an array is
installed. The array will actually lengthen the life of the
part of the roof that it covers since degradation from
sunlight and snow will be minimized. After a comparison
of their proposals (which were all similar), it came down to
price and contract terms. After some more negotiations, I
Before the engineering could continue, I had to sign a
August 2016 37
FIGURE 2. My historical electric rates.
Net Metering is a service that allows a consumer to
deliver excess energy from a solar photovoltaic array into
the grid for credit. In effect, the grid becomes an unlimited
"battery" for storage.
Each state has different laws, regulations, and
allowances for net metering. In MA, a power utility must
provide a one-for-one credit for each kilowatt hour
produced (KWH). However, the utility only has to provide
net metering to its customers up to a percentage of the
utility’s generating capacity. Once, that threshold (cap) is
reached, the utility is not required to offer net metering
(unless the law increases the cap).
Also, there may be a limit to the size of the customer's
array ( 10 KW in MA). If the customer has a muncipal owned
utility, net metering may not be available or only available
for purchased systems. Net metering is vital to making
solar economically justifiable for the homeowner, so it is
critical to learn all the details. The solar companies should
know exactly what the rules are for your area.