Think of power outages and you may picture stormy December nights with sleet spattering the windows–probably with lights flickering out just as you cook for a dinner party. However, many of tomorrow’s outages will look completely different, coming in balmiest summer as longer, drier fire seasons force utilities to shut off power to prevent sparking from power lines.
Such is now the case in California. The state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, is bankrupt due to lawsuits over its failure to shut off power lines during windy weather in the longer, drier fire seasons brought by global warming. State investigators blame PG&E for 17 wildfires in 2018 alone, exposing the company to $15 billion in payments for fire damages and related lawsuits, plus billions more if the company is found responsible for the horrific Camp Fire that wiped out the town of Paradise, killing 88. Murder and manslaughter charges against company executives have also been discussed.
The changes wrought by these cases are rippling far beyond California. Any utility with power lines and substations in drying Western wildlands now faces hard decisions about when to hit the “off” switch, and those decisions will only grow more frequent as climate change stretches fire seasons months longer, wringing every molecule of moisture from vegetation and soil. California is merely a preview of coming attractions for other western states, as well as for other dry-summer regions worldwide.
Many Californians are buying solar power systems of their own, hedging against increasingly spotty utility power. Combined with batteries, even a modest solar array can turn a home or business into a self-sustaining microgrid that keeps humming when the neighborhood goes dark. And, because fire safety outages happen during warmer months when solar production is high, solar power systems can power household basics for days or even weeks without grid power.
Maybe it’s Time For Time-of-Use
California is already a leader in battery-equipped solar due to two smart, intertwined policies:
- Time-Of-Use electricity pricing, which raises electricity prices during peak demand hours and lowers them when demand is less, and pushes you to capture power when it is cheapest.
- State subsidies that pay most of your battery’s cost.
These complementary programs make batteries an easy addition to home solar, and now many Californians are reaping the rewards, keeping lights on when grid power goes out.
Better still, the whole community benefits from lower electricity prices, from electrical demand spread throughout the day, and from electrical generation closer to consumption, which reduces needs for more power plants and for more miles of power lines through tinder-dry forests.
Neither Washington nor Idaho has time-of-use electricity pricing yet, and we don’t have any significant battery incentives, but we will probably eventually have both as the climate challenge continues to grow, and as wildfire seasons grow even faster.
What This Means For Washington and Idaho
At Northwest Renewables we often install battery-equipped solar power systems for off-grid customers in remote locations, yet we’ve never pushed batteries for the other 90 percent of our customers, who are grid-connected. After all, batteries are costly, and the Northwestern states have uniform electricity pricing throughout the day so there is no incentive to shift one’s time of consumption.
However, the prospect of extended power blackouts during longer, more dangerous fire seasons changes the conversation. Home batteries may begin to make sense here, especially for those in more remote locations where power lines are more likely to be shut down during fire weather, and where traditional winter outages are more likely as well.
Although batteries come in many varieties, the two basics are lead-acid and lithium-ion, with the latter being smaller, a little more expensive, and more tolerant of deep discharge (which can still ruin any battery, however). Yet lead-acids still excel in handling surge needs for large electric motors such as well pumps. In either case, batteries large enough to power your basic loads usually cost thousands of dollars, while shipping and installation add thousands more. Your electrical service panel probably also needs some work to allow battery backfeeding, and to create a backup loads circuit, so add another thousand or more for that. Even a starter system can easily exceed $15,000.
And because batteries are also somewhat sensitive to extreme heat or cold, an unheated outbuilding isn’t the best place to put them, so you’ll probably want to make space somewhere in the house close to the main electrical service panel. If that panel is out in the shop building, the usual solution is to house the batteries in a climate controlled box.
However, all of these expenses are eligible for the 30 percent federal tax credit so long as the batteries are installed as part of the solar power system and are primarily charged by it.
The Energy World Ahead
There is little question that battery-equipped home solar will see growing advantages in the Northwest. As the region’s population continues to grow, time-of-use electricity pricing becomes ever more likely. We may also see other policies that are already widespread elsewhere, such as property owners selling their solar production for cash, and carbon pricing driving up fossil-fueled electricity costs.
You don’t have to look far; just turn your gaze south to California’s required solar power systems on all new homes and buildings, or its incentives for batteries, or its laws requiring utilities to shut off power during wildfire danger.
All of this is on its way to you, with fire liability by utilities at the top of the list, casting increasing doubt on utility claims of uninterrupted electricity. Why wait for the lights to go out? A durable solar power system of your own, with batteries to provide power through fire-season outages, could be a smart investment that pays dividends for many years to come.
Fresh from a day participating in state government rule-making for the Clean Energy Transformation Act, Northwest Renewables managers are stretching cramped legs and sore bottoms while discussing what all this means.
After flying in on the 5:00 am shuttle, coffee in hand, we began with the Department of Commerce’s planning workshop through the morning, followed by the Utility and Transportation Commission’s afternoon planning hearing. Exciting stuff, no? Well…no. However, as is so often the case in government planning meetings, little actually happens but much is revealed about what will happen, and when. A few of our impressions:
- Business and environmental leaders are engaged, with both meetings attended by scores of utility execs and lobbyists, green group leaders, social justice advocates, a few renewable energy companies, and even a few of those rarest creatures in state agency meetings — unaffiliated, concerned citizens. Still more attendees joined by Skype and by phone. The turnout was so unexpectedly large that Commerce had to open an overflow room on another floor, and even that room was packed. Clearly, we aren’t the only folks who think this is important.
- This rule-making phase will take time — 3 1/2 years in the case of the Department of Commerce — although each December 31 locks in some rules, and after 2022 things will have to move fast in order to make the law’s key dates, especially the 2030 requirement for all utilities to be carbon neutral. Hence all the cooks now in the kitchen.
- Fossil-fueled, investor-owned utilities are playing heavy defense, deploying squads of attorneys and lobbyists to argue that any change to the climate-killing status quo threatens grid reliability. Their basic message appears to be “all change is bad,” which may be a little troublesome in this age of climate crisis.
- The Utility and Transportation Commission is already overworked and understaffed. Commissioners began their meeting by detailing the daunting workload already under way, even before beginning this transformation to clean energy; the Sierra’s Club’s Doug Howell opined that without more budget, the Commission will be unable to manage it.
- Renewable Energy Credits came up repeatedly, as gas-fired utilities will need to buy credits to make up for any remaining gas generation by 2030. Making these RECs accessible to homeowners, small businesses and nonprofits would be a huge help.
- Social justice is a concern voiced by many, as the costs of transitions like this shouldn’t be disproportionately born by the disadvantaged.
- “Renewable natural gas” — methane captured by garbage and sewage digestion — was also much discussed by utilities that said they are working on it. However, nothing was said about the fact that this is still methane, 87 times more climate warming than CO2 is over a decade, and it still leaks disastrously as all other gas infrastructure does.
More to come, as other agencies such as Ecology, Health and the Auditor’s office hold public input meetings of their own. They were all here at these meetings to gauge public interest, which, if this July 30 attendance is any indication, means they should start reserving their largest auditoriums now.
Avista has put in for a 13.5% rise in electric rates over the next two years, with 9.8% coming in 2020 and 3.7% in 2021. Gas rates will rise even faster, with a proposed 10.4% climb in 2020 followed by 4.7% in 2021.
Although we don’t yet know what further increases will come beyond 2021, they’ll likely be dramatic despite a brief “stay out period” that will prevent further rises until late 2022. Many other utilities across Washington are kicking up rates as well, and these rises are likely to continue. A recent University of Chicago study finds that when states raise “renewable portfolio standards” — laws that mandate cleaner energy to address the climate crisis — fossil-fueled utilities respond by raising rates steadily above trend by an average of 11% over 7 years, which is significant because Washington’s new 100% clean energy law amounts to a very aggressive renewable portfolio standard. Buckle up.
Although it mandates completely carbon-free electricity in our state by 2045, our new law’s biggest challenge for utilities is that it requires them to get 80% of their power from “nonemitting and renewable resources” by 2030. That means Avista must not only completely eliminate the 14% of its power that comes from coal, but also a third of the 31% that comes from gas, all while abandoning investments and plans for further gas generation (many utilities planned to meet the climate challenge by burning more methane, which we now know to be far dirtier than advertised).
This is a major turn, and Avista is hardly alone. Washington’s largest utility, PSE, generates 59% of its power from gas and coal, and most of it must go. Utah-based Pacificorp, serving much of Southeast Washington, faces even larger challenges as it gets more than 75% of its power from coal and gas.
These utilities owe you thanks when you go solar, as the surplus power you feed into their territories helps them meet the new state mandates. Meanwhile, of course, you can relax knowing that you’ve escaped the skyrocketing utility rates that come from burning dinosaurs!
One of the questions we often get about solar in the Inland Northwest is, “how can I keep snow off my array?”
Our answer: don’t bother.
In Spokane, 82% of our annual solar production comes in just five months of the year; April through August. July is a monster, producing nearly eight times more solar power than December. So why worry about a little snow on your roof array in December, when it barely produces?
Washington’s net metering law makes this all work for you, crediting your summer power surplus against your winter utility bills. With the vast difference in day length from winter to summer, net metering is the key to making solar economics work for small system owners. (Which is why you should urge your district’s state legislators to support the Solar Fairness Act right now, to strengthen our state’s net metering.)
It’s different for off-grid systems on remote mountainsides, where snow removal does count and where there is no metering at all. However, for the grid-tied systems that make up 95% of what we install, December and January are almost irrelevant. Besides, that is no time to scale your roof, and, if you have a ground-mounted system, most snow will slide off anyway.
So spend your winter weekends skiing or curled by the fire with a good book, enjoying all the power credits you built up the previous summer and looking forward to harvesting plenty more in the sunny season ahead!
Just back from the Amazon Basin, Northwest Renewables manager Grant Neely reflects on his January adventure with solar nonprofit Twende to electrify the remote Peruvian indigenous village of Mushuk Llamas.
Shapaja, Peru- The steep, two-mile hike to Mushuk Llamas is daunting but beautiful, alternating between forest switchbacks and straight shots up the slopes until views open up, and you can see the muddy Rio Huallaga far below, wending its way to the Amazon. The air is warm, moist and rich with jungle scents.
We’re carrying heavy packs. Fortunately, a boy from the village brought down a horse to help haul gear and tools — a huge relief. We struggle as we make repeated laps up the trail, lugging twenty-eight solar panels, six big 50-pound batteries, a dozen 14’ aluminum rails, plus bags and boxes of hardware, brackets, inverters, charge controllers, and other electrical components. Every piece of this village’s new solar power system must be humped up to the village. However, for the Mushuk people this is just another day hauling heavy loads up steep slopes, and many power past us in flip-flops or bare feet. They’re the strongest people I’ve met.
Mushuk Llamas turns out to be a dozen single-story wooden buildings and huts roofed with palm thatch or corrugated steel, perched in a large clearing on a less steep section of hillside with commanding views of jungled ridges extending into the distance, while at night the valleys below twinkle with the lights of tiny nearby Shapaja and more distant Terapoto, the San Martin region’s hub and airport where we flew in. However, this is officially a cloud forest habitat, and we are about to find that it often lives up to its name with frequent rain and fog.
Unlike the towns and the eco-tourism lodge we passed on our way to the trailhead, this is a world apart. At first glance, the place looks poor, with dirt-floored homes, thin livestock, and guard dogs kept to fend off predators like jungle jaguars. However, if you asked the Mushuk if they are poor they would most likely say “hell no!”. They merely know how to live well with less. They know the Internet, and how to find America on a map. Yet they are also steeped in indigenous tradition, and many speak Quechua, the ancient Andean language that predates even the Incas, and which the Spanish tried but failed to suppress for centuries. Many of the village elders have been here all their lives. It’s common to see a woman in her eighties huff past, barefoot, carrying a heavy, head-strapped backpack. Other villagers spend their days picking coffee and climbing palms for coconuts — and then offering evening physical therapy sessions to us, who haven’t done anything nearly as strenuous.
Villages like Mushuk Llamas don’t get much support from Peru’s government. Schools are few and far between, and they also have strict entry standards plus requirements such as costly uniforms and books that discourage low-income families. Also, teachers don’t make very much so there is little incentive for good teachers to stay in Peru. Therefore Internet access and the ability to do homework remotely are very important, so our electrical system work will be a huge boon to students and families here.
Once the gear is up the hill, the first order of business is digging eight one-meter-deep foundation holes where we’ll erect the array posts in concrete. How does one get concrete at the top of a mountain, you ask? Simple. Mine and make it on site! A dozen bags of cement were hauled up the trail by villagers and horses, but the sand to complete the mix now comes straight from the land — from a sandstone outcropping a kilometer away, where villagers show us how to chisel off chunks and then pound them into sand, which we then bag and carry back to the village. It seems so easy to the Mushuk; merely making use of their resources as they always do, which impresses us even more.
Beneath the grass at the array site lies thick clay and mud, ideal for trenching. We and dozens of villagers spend an entire day digging trenches for electric lines from the array above the village twelve meters down to the community center, then another fifteen meters to the nurse’s station, then thirty meters more to the all-important soccer pitch. A great community work party by all: builders working at the array to set posts; curious newcomers to electrical work helping wire every single outlet, switch, and light socket; and even young boys swinging picks and shovels alongside us all day through the beating heat.
It rains the next few days and everything becomes a muddy mess. Still, in less than three days our gringo team and a dozen villagers have the foundations poured, the posts set, the rails up and the modules installed. After the local elders express concern about children getting into the wiring, we engage a local woodcutter to provide lumber so we can create an enclosed electrical room beneath the array. The woodcutter fells a nearby jungle tree and then, with nothing more than his chainsaw, deftly mills a whole stack of boards and posts sized for our needs. Amazing.
Two days later the electrical components are mounted in the electrical room, and wires are run in buried conduit to outlets and lights in the community center, nurse’s station and soccer field. As rain pours in warm dusk, we gather the work crew along with curious kids and women cooking our food nearby, we flip a switch and…there is light! A warm glow shines from the windows of the nurse’s station and community building, while the two floodlights we installed at the soccer field turn half of the village to daylight. A whoop goes up as villagers clap, looking back and forth at the lights, at us and at each other, agog and grinning from ear to ear.
In the gathering darkness, despite the rain, dozens come out to stroll and admire the lights as kids play soccer later than they’ve ever played in the village before.
Soon a man shows around a text he just received from a friend a few miles away in Shapaja, the nearest town with utility power: “What’s going on up there? We see lights but our electricity is out!” Yes, down in “civilization” people were groping through darkness while up here in the hinterlands we partied under solar-and battery-powered lights!
Two days later it’s 10:00 am and time to say goodbye to this place and the people we’ve come to love. The sun is out and so are all of Mushuk Llamas’s people, to help the Apu (chief) formally thank us. Speeches are made, toasts are raised with beer and chicha (corn liquor), and each of member of our Twende team is called up to the stage, one by one, and presented with a handmade belt embroidered with our name. A small marching band has appeared from the valley below, striking up tunes we don’t know, and the party is on. Two hours later it’s time to hoist packs and stagger down the trail, returning to the outside world.
Let there be light!
All the way down the mountain we can’t help thinking that we are witnessing much more than electricity’s arrival in a remote Amazonian village. This looked like the future, and a good future at that!
This is the latest report from Northwest Renewables’ solar project manager Grant Neely, who is currently loaned to U.S. nonprofit Twende Solar to bring electricity to the Peruvian village of Mushuk Llamas, in the Amazon jungle.
Mushuk Llamas, Peru – The villagers are thrilled to see us build their solar power system. However, an unanticipated concern arose: how to keep the electrical gear and DC connections out of reach of the village children, to prevent shocks and injury? Being constantly surrounded here by kids getting into all sorts of mischief, we immediately understood the worry and got to work thinking of ways to enclose the batteries, inverter, combiner, charge controller and wires beneath the array.
“Do you have any lumber?” we asked. The village chief answered with a wave at the forest; there was plenty of lumber, he said, and, by law, only the Mushuk are allowed to cut it.
Sure enough, the next morning a Mushuk man with a big chainsaw appeared, selected a nearby tall tree, then felled and milled it on the spot, sawing long, straight boards and posts from the rich hardwood; the strongest, prettiest wood I’ve ever worked with — material you’d only see back home sculpted and polished into high-end furniture or jewelry boxes.
“Wow,” said one solar pro. “This’ll be the world’s most expensive wiring back-board!”
Beautiful it was indeed. We added foundation and walls, and soon the child-resistant electrical shed with its power-generating roof array was finished. Everything beyond the shed would be safer, usable AC electricity, with circuits to the community center, nurses station, community kitchen, and even to two floodlights for the small village soccer field.
Almost every new and unusual solar project brings an unexpected challenge at some point. This one turned out to be a very cool learning experience for all of us!
You can support the Mushuk Llamas Project with a tax-deductible donation at twendesolar.org/grant.
Here is the latest installment by our intrepid project manager Grant Neely, whom we loaned to Twende, a non-profit organization that brings electricity to small and developing communities across the world. Grant is now in Peru’s Amazon Basin, working with other solar professionals to install a solar-and-battery system in the isolated indigenous village of Mushuk Llamas.
Grant Neely, Our Man in Peru
Terapoto, Peru – Our team met two days ago in dry, coastal Lima then flew 250 miles north over the Andes and down here to this hub of San Martín Province, on the range’s damp, tropical side, where the solar equipment and supplies we shipped from the States awaited us.
The landscape here is verdant, bird-filled rainforest; jungle waterfall country where streams tumble from the hills, flowing into dozens of rivers that feed the Amazon. After packing our trucks, we’ll drive fifteen miles down the gorge of the Rio Huallaga to meet village leaders and start packing our solar components and supplies up mountain trails to Mushuk Llamas. Then the important work begins, building a power system!
Our team leaders have worked closely to understand the needs of the Mushuk Llamas community, designing a system that will bring the village lights, Internet access, and refrigeration for food and medicine for the first time. Children will be able to study at night; a small-scale coffee bean processing operation will become more productive; online education will become an active learning tool for everyone in the village.
Children of Mushuk Llamas
I always knew I wanted to work in remote places bringing solar power to people who need it most, so this is an incredibly exciting opportunity to make a big difference for this small village of indigenous Peruvians in the Amazon Basin.
As we see it, working in the solar industry brings an obligation to practice what we preach, using our skills to improve lives and to spread a technology that helps combat climate change every day. Northwest Renewables’ support for this Peru mission is an important step towards our active collaboration with local and regional partners, as well as to our industry’s commitment to renewable energy and its importance to our global family.
Grant with Katie Martin of Imagine Energy and Zach Sippel of The Energy Trust of Oregon, enroute to Mushuk Llamas
For now, we’re into the project and out of touch for the next two weeks. I’ll post if I get back to Tarapoto for supplies in the meantime. Hasta luego!
You can support the Mushuk Llamas Project with a tax-deductible donation at twendesolar.org/grant.
NWR Project Manager Grant Neely
In coming weeks we’ll follow Northwest Renewables project manager Grant Neely on a remarkable adventure, bringing electricity and Internet access to the community center in the remote Peruvian native village of Mushuk Lamas.
For the project, Northwest Renewables is lending Grant to Portland-based solar charity Twende, which has electrified rural schools in Cambodia and Guatemala, along with doing major charity projects in the United States. We are proud to support Twende because, to us, solar power is more than a business; it’s also a cause, bringing the world desperately needed clean energy — and that is never more true than for electricity-starved communities like Mushuk Lamas.
In January Grant will join eleven other Twende volunteers in this coffee-growing village in the eastern Andean hills, where the Huallaga River flows from a steep canyon into the Amazon jungle. 25 indigenous families live here, speaking a unique blend of Andean Quechua and jungle Cahuapana, making their living from handcrafts and coffee, and guiding bird watchers and others who come to see the lush cloud forests of the surrounding Cordillera Escalera Conservation Area.
The coffee is the main thing. Picked on nearby hillside plantations, Mushuk Lamas’s beans are laboriously depulped, dried and peeled by hand, limiting both production and the villagers’ time for other work. With electricity, the coffee drying and peeling process can be automated, improving coffee quality and bringing the village more income.
With electricity, all of the village’s children can study at night — not only those whose families can afford expensive kerosene lamps and flashlights.
With electricity, villagers can refrigerate food.
With electricity, villagers can access the Internet via a wireless connection to nearby Tarapoto, using donated laptop computers the Twende volunteers will leave behind.
Soon, this electricity will come from 24 solar panels and a bank of lithium-ion batteries installed by Twende — all of it carried miles up Andean mountainsides to the village, by backpack and burro. We look forward to seeing Grant return with quads the size of tree trunks!
Follow us as we keep you posted on Grant’s exciting venture.
Meanwhile, you can join the effort! Chip in a few dollars to help cover materials and expenses for the Mushuk Lamas project: twendesolar.org/grant.
The Solar Age has clearly reached the Inland Northwest. Although the area has had a smattering of small solar projects for decades, the past two years have seen an explosion of new companies and larger systems. For a look at what is coming, just travel a bit — to almost anywhere. As costs drop and climate needs grow, solar is sweeping the world.
If you’re thinking of catching this wave, you now have a brief opportunity to make the move to solar with enormous help from the U.S. Government and the State of Washington, although you’ll need to move quickly.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when going solar yourself:
NOTE TO RECENT READERS OF THIS POST: ON FEBRUARY 1, 2019 THE WASHINGTON RENEWABLE ENERGY SYSTEM INCENTIVE PROGRAM CLOSED TO NEW APPLICANTS. HOWEVER, THIS DOES NOT AFFECT OTHER STATE AND FEDERAL INCENTIVES THAT ARE STILL FULLY AVAILABLE AS OF FEBRUARY 2019.
The Dollars and Cents
A typical suburban Spokane family home using around 15,000 kilowatt-hours per year will spend around $36,000 after taxes for a high-quality 12 kW system that cuts utility bills to nearly nothing. Given a sunny rooftop, 80% of that cost can be recovered with government incentives, leaving a net cost of $7,200—which lowered utility bills will equal in about seven years, with huge savings beyond. Better still, systems recoup most of their costs in improved property value the minute they are installed.
The basic drivers of financial return fall into five categories that, combined, typically recover system cost in short order and provide handsome savings for decades:
- The federal Investment Tax Credit: Pays 30% of your system’s cost, taken as a deduction on income tax. If that 30% of the system cost exceeds your taxes owed, you can save the remainder to deduct in the following year and possibly beyond.
- Washington State’s Renewable Energy System Incentive Program: Pays 50% of your system’s cost, or makes payments for eight years, whichever comes first. For a residence using Washington-made panels, you are paid in annual checks at the rate of 18 cents per kilowatt-hour for the power your system produces. NOTE: ON FEBRUARY 1, 2019 THIS PROGRAM CLOSED TO NEW APPLICANTS.
- Washington State’s Net Metering Program: Allows you to credit excess power fed to the grid against utility bills within the same fiscal year (which begins April 1), typically crediting high summer production against winter bills.
- Increased property value: National laboratory studies show that solar power systems typically recover most or all of their cost in higher property resale value.
- Protection against utility rate hikes: With utility rates rising over time at 2 percent or more annually, you can benefit by locking in lower costs with a system you own, especially if you plan to stay in your home for more than ten years.
As you see, it’s easy to confuse the two Washington State programs. However, they are very different incentives created at different times. The Renewable Energy System Incentive Program is a “production incentive” that pays you for all the power your system cranks out. The Net Metering Program is simply a law that commands utilities to credit you for excess electricity that you send back to the grid, using your summer surplus to cut your winter power bills.
Time is Running Short
Access to the state production incentives may indeed end soon. Once your system is certified, you lock-in the incentives outlined above, which pay up to half the cost of your system over eight years. But don’t delay; after ordering, it takes an average of six weeks to get a good system built and certified for the state production incentives. About 80% of the $110 million allocated by the legislature last year has now been reserved for projects, and access to the remainder probably won’t last more than a few months. August alone saw $10 million of these funds committed to new systems. The better installers are in demand, and it is likely that we’ll see a rush to build systems this fall. Although the legislature may renew these incentives next year, or funding may come through Initiative 1631 if that wins in November, those outcomes are very uncertain.
Even if the legislature renews funding, another deadline looms on June 30, when state production incentives for new systems drop from 18 cents to 15 per kilowatt-hour, if you use Washington-made modules, for systems certified after that date.
Meanwhile, the 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit for new systems remains in place, declining to to 26% in 2020.
No Batteries Required
Nearly all solar installations in metro Spokane are grid-tied, with no battery needed.
Why? Because Washington State financial incentives only pay for grid-tied systems, and because batteries remain costly. It appears that you can still capture the 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit if the battery is upstream from the inverter, but good, lithium-ion batteries for grid-connected home use still start at around $8,000, even after that incentive. Also, we have no time-of-use electricity pricing in our state, unlike California and New York where it pays to store power when it’s cheap and discharge your battery when power rates are higher during peak demand hours. In utility speak, this “demand response” pricing is much discussed, but no one knows when it will arrive here. Although one or two local companies build both on-grid and off-grid systems, most just stick to the grid because that’s where the state incentives are.
- Modules (aka “Panels”)
- Nearly everyone in Washington uses ITEK 300s, because they are the only brand made in large quantities in Washington, and Washington State incentives pay you 4 cents per kilowatt-hour for power from panels made here. Bellingham-made ITEKs are quality products, warrantied 12 years for workmanship and 25 for power production (production degrades around 0.3% per year, so your modules are guaranteed to generate at least 80% of nameplate capacity at year 25).
- These small, rugged processors attach to each module, regulating voltage, communicating with one another and the central inverter. They mitigate shade effects, so that if a couple of panels get shaded by a tree, that won’t fool the inverter into thinking that all modules should be throttled back to the same low production level—which used to be a serious concern for most systems.
- Because your modules produce direct current (DC) electricity, you’ll need an inverter to “invert” that to alternating current (AC) for your household use and for feeding the grid. Inverters come in two basic types: central and micro. One central inverter serves an entire system, versus microinverters that are installed in platoons spread throughout the rooftop array, one to every two modules.
- Years ago, microinverters were popularized to handle the shade challenge mentioned above. However, all inverters are somewhat delicate—most have an expected life of around 15 years—so hardier optimizers have largely superseded microinverters on the rooftop, handling the basic shade mitigation and communications chores. Connected to that network of optimizers on the roof, the central inverter is kept in a more sheltered environment like a garage or an exterior wall. Then, when the time comes, a single central inverter on a garage wall is far easier to replace than dozens of microinverters dying one by one on a roof, each requiring costly disassembly of array sections.
- Central inverter monitoring systems tend to be much better, reliably connecting to the cell phone network rather than trouble-prone wi-fi, so you can view your system’s performance any time on a richly featured app. And some central inverters even include electric vehicle fast-charging stations at minor additional cost, eliminating the need for multiple devices on your garage wall.
- Racking Hardware
- This is the catch-all term for all the rails, bolts, bars, clips, clamps and brackets that hold your modules in place on a roof or a ground stand. Often overlooked, these are actually very critical items that keep your system durable and your roof intact. Insist on the good stuff: solar-specific hardware from a reputable manufacturer. Good rails are built to secure wires for decades in special channels, with purpose-designed clips rather than breakage-prone zip ties in order to keep wires from falling loose and abrading against rough shingles or edges. Better rails are also anodized aluminum rather than steel, to reduce weight and strain on your roof.
At right: Fully flashed, bolted footings on a rooftop, ready for installation of rails and then modules. On common composite shingle roofs, full flashing kits are vital, keeping water off of roof-penetrating bolts and preventing leaks for the roof’s life. On good installations you’ll see footings attached to a metal square tucked into the shingles at every mounting point, carefully sealed and bound to the roof.
The 12 kW Sweet Spot
For larger residential and small commercial buyers, 12 kilowatts is a common target for system size in Washington, because this is the maximum size eligible to receive state production incentives at the very attractive 18-cent residential rate; if you cross the 12 kW threshold your compensation drops to just 8 cents per kilowatt-hour as a “commercial-scale” system. 12 kW translates to 40 Washington-made ITEK 300-watt modules, each 5’6” x 3’4”, so it takes some roof space to accommodate a system this size.
What Makes a Roof Great For Solar?
You want an unshaded south-facing roof plane, although east and west facings are adequate, paying an 18% penalty in production. Forget about
north facings altogether.
Tilt matters less, and flat roofs are generally the only ones requiring stands to achieve the proper angle.
Shade from tall trees and neighboring buildings is a greater challenge. As much as we enviros hug our trees, don’t forget that they compete with you for solar energy. And, because solar power systems are designed to last 30 years or more, it’s important to evaluate not only the trees you have but also the trees they’ll become. That little fir or poplar in your south yard could soon be a sun-hogging monster, so this may be the time to replace it with a lower- growing tree such as a Japanese maple or any number of fruit varieties. A good rule of thumb is that a good solar site should have no shade between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm on a summer day
The Ground Game
If you have land, you may be thinking about putting solar modules on ground-mounted stands.
The usual reasons for ground mounting an array are cosmetics and size: some people just don’t like the look of solar panels on their roof; others need large arrays that won’t fit on a roof. It’s also nice to be able to brush off snow, although short, cloudy winter days make this less important than many think.
At the residential scale we aren’t often talking about robotic trackers that follow the sun, which require constant professional maintenance. Rather, we mean fixed-mount or adjustable arrays affixed to a steel framework. “Adjustable” means you can manually change the tilt a couple of times a year or more to capture up to 15% more energy.
The ideal candidate for a ground-mounted residential array would be someone who lives on acreage, with heavy annual electricity consumption of more than 30,000 kwh. Although some suburban mansions fit this description, the more usual case is a rural home with an electric heating system and outbuildings, where annual electricity needs can sometimes exceed 60,000 kwh (more than five times median household consumption).
However, ground mounting solar adds 15-40% to cost, and it generally requires a more sophisticated installer with real expertise in stand construction. You’ll also need to think about trenching for a buried cable connected to your electrical service panel, which can get costly with runs of more than 200’, due in part for the need to buy heavier wires to reduce line loss. So, you usually want an array site relatively close to your main electrical service panel. If the array is at all large, you may also need to upgrade that electrical panel.
That said, going large with a ground-mounted system can make excellent sense if you have high electric bills, especially if you plan to stay in the house for a decade or more.
The Biggest Decision You’ll Make in Solar
Many solar buyers tend to focus on the gear: “What kind of panels am I getting? What brand of inverter?”
To be sure, those are important considerations, but they skirt the larger issue: whom you hire for the installation. Solar installation is a fine craft that combines electrical expertise, carpentry, roofing, and the rapidly evolving discipline of system design. Nearly every installer in Washington installs ITEK 300 modules, but the way they install them varies widely, and those differences will matter a great deal in a decade or two. Did the installer use microinverters that are now failing one after another? Are unflashed roof bolts leaking moisture? Are cheaply built racking systems rusting? Are poorly secured wires popping loose and rubbing rough shingles?
A standard home rooftop installation takes at least a couple of days, not a couple of hours. It pays to look at an installers previous projects to check for good roof flashings, high-quality anodized racking gear (not the plain steel bars you see in things like shelving), and snugly secured wires.
NABCEP certification is a good indication that your installer knows their business. The North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals provides the country’s leading solar industry installer credential, requiring rigorous training and adherence to high standards. Northwest Renewables is one of extremely few Inland Northwest firms to achieve NABCEP certification.
As thick wildfire smoke blanketed Spokane in a poisonous pall last Monday, the City Council voted 6-1 before a packed chamber of supporters to move our city to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, and to run city operations entirely with renewable energy by 2020.
To accomplish these goals, a new city ordinance forms a Sustainability Action Committee charged with finding ways to achieve these goals along with improving Spokane’s resilience to climate change.
Spokane now joins 78 other U.S. cities in pledging to adopt renewable electricity from sources such as solar, wind, hydro and biomass, while leaving behind coal-fired and gas-fired power responsible for warming the climate and oceans.
Nora and Hope Henning testify in support of Spokane’s renewable energy ordinance.
Although the Ordinance defines the transition to 100 percent renewable electricity as, “an aspirational strategic goal” rather than as a firm requirement, that change bought acceptance by a powerful ally: Avista, the area’s largest electric utility. In Monday’s meeting, Avista executive Bruce Howard endorsed the measure, saying, ““We support growing our use of renewable energy in a timeframe and through approaches such as the advancement of energy storage that continue to provide reliable, affordable service.”
Several Council Members also praised the close collaboration between city leaders, activists, businesses and utility interests.
Numerous environmental and social justice organizations voiced support, largely led by 350 Spokane, the local climate activism group that originally championed the idea with its Fossil Free Spokane campaign. Other supporting groups include The Lands Council, Upper Columbia River Sierra Club, Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, Pax Christi Spokane, St. Clare’s Ecumenical Catholic Community, Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, Westminster Congregational United Church, Spokane NAACP, Spokane Independent Metro Business Alliance, Spokane Riverkeeper, The Center for Justice, Citizens Climate Lobby, and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The new 11-member Sustainability Action Commission will reflect this diversity, including utility representatives, low-income citizens, public health interests, local businesses and environmental groups, among others. They will be charged with analyzing costs related to the Ordinance–including the costs of not meeting its goals.
All of which makes this an exciting time for those of us in Spokane’s growing renewable energy industry. As several citizens testified Monday night, studies show that Spokane already has 260 jobs in solar power, with another 157 next door in Kootenai County, and “Wind turbine technician” is the nation’s fastest-growing occupation. These industries provide America’s fastest growing family-wage, blue-collar job opportunities while also helping solve the world’s most pressing challenge: climate change.
At Northwest Renewables we are excited to be part of this movement and thrilled to be located in Spokane, the latest addition to the long list of American cities committed to renewable electricity!