Picture of a single-family homeTurns out that you should wait until after you’ve had your solar system installed before you practice true energy conservation. That’s because lower household energy usage could dramatically affect the size solar system your energy utility will allow you to have – and still receive a rebate.

editor's blog iconXcel Energy is the utility on Colorado’s Front Range, where we live. And, according to our solar installer, REC Solar, Xcel is balking at approving a 5.5 kW system expected to produce about 7,900 kWh of electricity annually for our home.

The reason: Xcel claims this system will put us in violation of the Coloardo Public Utilities Commission’s so-called “120-percent rule.” According to this guideline, homeowners cannot install a solar system which produces more than 120-percent of their home’s annual electric use. If they do, Colorado utilities such as Xcel will not grant a rebate for installation of the system.

And, without Xcel’s rebate – to be fair, it is a generous one that currently is covering up to 60-percent or more of the cost of a solar system – no one is going to be able to afford to put a solar system on their home.

Certainly not us.

Coming up against the “120-percent rule”
It’s an all-or-nothing deal: Either you are, in Xcel’s view, under the 120-percent OR or you’re over it. And you either get the rebate, in its entirety – if you’re under – or you don’t, if you’re over. There’s no pro-rating, etc.

In fact, when we and REC Solar submitted our request to build a 5.5 kW system on our roof back in August 2009, we submitted a year’s worth of electric bills. These showed that between June 2008 and May 2009 we used 6,200 kWh of electricity.

That means that the 5.5 kW system – which, by the way, we have scheduled to have installed on our roof in June of 2010 — would kick out about 122 percent of our annual home electric usage. This puts us just two percent above the 120-percent rule.

But, this is before an EV.

An EV will easily increase our electric usage by 3,000 or more kWh hours a year.

Then we should have no problem, then, right?

Turns out, we should have been cranking our AC the entire summer. In other words, we’d be in a better position now in terms of having a 5.5 kW system put on our house if, for the last nine months, we’d been energy hogs!

Wrong.

We do not yet have an EV. After all, they’re not yet being produced by automakers.

Xcel says we need to produce a receipt for our EV to prove our energy use will increase and we won’t be in violation of the Colorado PUC’s 120-percent rule.

Of course, you can’t produce a receipt for something you don’t yet have, can you?

And, just to make one’s head spin even more, it gets more complicated. Xcel is apparently taking different figures for our home electric use – ones lower than the annual kWh hour usage I cite above – and using this as a baseline for its estimates.

Using their figures, they say our 5.5 kW system will put us at 150-percent of our home’s annual electric use.

Not using the AC — not a good idea this time
It seems likely to me that Xcel is taking the last nine months.

During that time, we’ve installed energy efficient light bulbs, conscientiously run our dryer in energy efficiency mode and – this is most important – we did not use our central AC a single time.

This makes this past summer the first one in five years in which we have not turned our central AC on a single time. That’s because, for the first time in recent memory, we actually had a normal, average-temp summer in Colorado.

Turns out, we should have been cranking our AC the entire summer. In other words, we’d be in a better position now in terms of having a 5.5 kW system put on our house if, for the last nine months, we’d been energy hogs!

In effect, it appears Xcel will be penalizing us for being energy efficient – because our increased energy efficiency has dropped our monthly kWh average, and therefore made it appear as if the 5.5 kW system is “too big” for our house.

In fact, if you add the 3,000 to 4,000 kWh an EV will take per year to our lowered household energy consumption, we will clearly still fall well within the 120-percent rule.

But, again, we don’t yet have the EV– because they’re not on the market yet.

Our solar future in limbo
So, right now, everything is in limbo – our solar system, our ability to solar-charge a future EV, and our ability to do what’s right environmentally speaking, which, of course, is to cover as many EV miles as possible with solar-generated electricity.

Frankly, my fear is that the system size will be so small that it will only minimally cover the charging of an EV, if it covers this charging at all.

Xcel has not yet responded to requests by REC Solar, our solar company, to explain which monthly kWh figures it’s using to reach the conclusion that a 5.5 kW system would produce 150-percent of our home electric use – again, this estimate is without an EV, which we do not yet have.

Among other things, it’s unclear what size system Xcel will “allow” us to put on our roof.

Frankly, my fear is that the system size will be so small that it will only minimally cover the charging of an EV, if it covers this charging at all.

To me, this puts a huge damper on my desire to move to an EV. I don’t want to be driving around in an EV that’s running primarily off of coal-fired electricity. It makes very little sense environmentally speaking – and, to me, it would not be at all satisfying.

At this point, I’m actually contemplating going out and buying some electric wall heaters for our home, or even an electric water heater and handing over a receipt for these to Xcel.

The heaters would be a better bet as they would run only during cold weather. An electric water heater sucks a lot of electricity, at least 4,000 kWh a year for a household of four.

Should we increase our electric use?
Basically, what I’m contemplating is increasing our energy usage so that we can end up with the solar system size that we need in order to come as close as possible to powering a future EV 100-percent with sun-generated electricity.

This runs completely counter to the energy conservation ethic that drives me – and which serves as a primary impetus for  the founding of SolarChargedDriving.Com.

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But, at this point, ridiculously, it seems like potentially our best option. If, that is, we want to become solar-charged drivers, rather than coal-fired drivers.

Another potential option would be to build a smaller system right now, and add on later, though Xcel hasn’t indicated to us what that smaller size “must” be.

I’m very reluctant to do this, though, because: a) I think Xcel is using kWh figures for our home that are fundamentally unfair to us; b) Xcel’s current rebate levels are almost certain to drop substantially in the next few months as the utility comes closer to achieving the state-mandated 20-percent renewable energy mix that one might suggest is the primary reason it’s offering homeowners rebates to go solar in the first place.

Obviously, I will need to do more research on this.

At this point, the bottom line is: Trying to break into the realm of 100-percent solar-charged driving isn’t necessarily easy.

Frankly, that’s a bummer because it reduces the chances that the synergy between EVs/PHEVs and solar energy will be harnessed on a widespread basis.

Do little guys have a chance?
Not that this is a big surprise to me: I’ve always believed the big guys control 90-percent of the game. This whole solar system size saga is just more fodder for this belief.

You might want to spend six to eight months artificially inflating your energy use – turn on those lights! – so that, down the road, you can earn the rebate you need to build the PV system you need in order to cover most, if not all, of your EV miles with PV-provided juice.

That said, I don’t give up easily. And, as the presence of SolarChargedDriving.Com attests, I do believe there’s still room for the 10-percent power the little guys hold to potentially shift the playing field.

So to sum it all up, if you’re thinking you’d like to become a solar-charged driver yourself, think about:

a) waiting until you actually have the EV to go solar;
b) if you don’t wait, think about planning ahead and looking into whether your utility links rebates to a rule similar to the PUC’s120-percent rule in Colorado. If it does, you might want to spend six to eight months artificially inflating your energy use – turn on those lights! – so that, down the road, you can earn the rebate you need to build the PV system you need in order to cover most, if not all, of your EV miles with PV-provided juice.

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