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Our perfect-for-solar roof finally has solar!

Our solar system: An overview

we-got-solar-small-box1 System size: 5.59 kW
Annual system output: 8,000 kWh
Panel type: REC 215 watt
Solar inverter: SMA Sunny Boy 6000
Number of panels: 26
Approximate out-of-pocket cost: $8,500
Estimated payback time: 4 years
Greenhouse gases reduction: 267,127 lbs.
Solar installer: REC Solar

editors-blog-entry3We’ve been waiting a long time to go solar. Nine months to be exact. We finally went solar during the first week of June 2010. REC Solar workers installed a 5.5 kW system on our perfect-for-solar-south-facing Aurora, Colo. roof, June 1 - June 4. Our system is expected to pump out 8,000 kWh per year, enough electricity to power 100-percent of our home’s annual electric use plus approximately 10,000 air pollution free miles in a solar-charged electric car. On this page, we chronicle the installation of our system with a picture gallery, which includes dozens of photos of our installation – including the ceremonial visit of the City of Aurora Building Inspector, who signed off on the system on Friday, June 4, 2010. On Monday, June 28, 2010 we officially went online. Since then, we've banked 22 kWh per day, meaning we've generated 22 kWh more per day than we've been using (right now, our per day kWh use is about 8.5 kWh). Now that we've officially gone solar, we're doing what tens of thousands of other Americans are also doing – powering their own home with rooftop solar PV. And, when that EV lands in our garage sometime within the next two years, it, too, will be solar-powered!


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Editor's solar story: Solar a lifelong interest

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oil right with superimposed sun image on rightI’ve wanted to “go solar” for a long time. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to solar energy. It seems so much more sensible than virtually any other kind of energy.

After all, the sun is the original source of energy for all the other forms of energy on earth.

It seems so incredibly inefficient to drill for oil and gas and to mine coal, all of which have the sun to thank for being there in the first place

Especially with gasoline, you expend tremendous amounts of energy in exploring, in drilling, in transporting the oil, in refining it, and then, again in transporting the refined product.

With the sun, and solar power, you tap the solar system’s original source of energy – directly.

Solar panels offer direct energy production
True, solar panels do not have a 100-percent energy transfer rate.

But even with a 15 to 20 percent conversion efficiency, they can produce a large amount of energy, especially when one has a vast, welcome-to-my-garage-and-directly-south-facing roof like we do.

It doesn’t hurt that we live in sunny Colorado either.

When our solar panels go up, no later than June 2010, our 5.5 kW REC Solar system is expected to produce around 8,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year.

For reference, the average American household uses between 8,000 and 12,000 kWh hours per year.

We’re quite a bit below average (we’re a family of four) with an annual home electric consumption of about 5,500 kWh per year.

Of course, we do watch our electric use. But not to an extreme. With the exception of our central air conditioning unit and our dryer, most of our appliances are not EnergyStar efficient.

Basically, we use energy efficient bulbs, turn off lights not in use, and only use the central air conditioning when inside night-time temperatures exceed 83 degrees Fahrenheit.

picture of colorado mountains bathed in sunIn fact, this past summer – which has seen the Colorado Front Range blessed with average temperatures, not below average, but average temperatures, for the first time since I can remember, we’re almost certainly going to make it through the entire summer without turning on our central AC a single time.

Why we’ve waited on going solar
As a lifelong environmentalist – I began birding when I was 11, you’d think that we would have put solar panels on our home, with its huge south-facing roof, right away when we moved in in 2005.

However, we originally only planned on staying in this house for five to seven years. We didn’t count on the crash in real-estate prices that’s occurred in the past two years. The crash means if we sold our house tomorrow we’d take about a $30,000 loss on a home we paid $215,000 for in 2005.

Yikes!

Can’t move to another house if you have no down payment for that house, right?

I came to the realization that we are stuck in this house (actually, it’s not bad, it backs to a golf course, sits near a major artery of Denver’s amazing network of bike paths, etc.) for probably another seven years (barring a miraculous housing boom) several months ago.

Naturally, I began to think solar.

A second, equally significant development, pushed me to get going on going solar.

My wife, Christine, finished her master’s degree in public health in May – and landed a job. This boosted our household income, though not by a huge appent, given that we have two young children (four and three years old) whose care takes about half of what Christine brings home, and, additionally, have tens of thousands in school loans to pay back for Christine.

Basically, the two biggest hurdling blocks to getting solar – the return time on investment and solar’s considerable upfront costs – were partially removed for us in June of 2009.

An investigation into solar leads to solar-charged driving ‘discovery’
I began investigating solar for our home, and, as I did, I discovered that not only would it be possible to cover our home electric with a solar system, but we could charge an electric vehicle (EV) from panels on our home as well.

I got excited. Really excited.

In my head, when I think cars . . . I think about smelly, dirty, disgusting gasoline. I think about gross gas nozzles, oil spots, grime, and loud self-serve gas stations with bright lights and Cheetos and Ding Dongs for sale.

I found the idea that you can run your car off the sun completely incredible, largely because it runs so strongly against my own image of cars being something powered by gasoline. Period.

In my head, when I think cars, and car engines, and cars driving around by the billions, I think about smelly, dirty, disgusting gasoline. I think about gross gas nozzles, oil spots, grime, loud self-serve gas stations with bright lights and Cheetos and Ding Dongs for sale.

gas pump

Virtually all Americans are familiar with a trip to the self-serve gas station.

When I think about the sun as fuel for a car, I think blue sky, wind, clouds, and air. In the visual imagery that running your car on the sun conjures up in my mind, I think about the car running on…air, thin air, or “nothing” at all.

But cars go fast, they’re loud and smelly – they can’t run on “air” – yet, incredibly, they can!

It’s the incongruity of it all that makes it difficult for even me to wrap my head around running a car on the sun. My imagery of auto-motoring is grounded in decades of real-life experience with cars powered by gasoline.

And I can’t seem to escape this image. Maybe once we actually are driving around in a sun-charged EV, my image will begin to change.

After all, reality affects consciousness.

I know the idea that you can charge an EV (or, really, its batteries) with electricity generated by solar panels on one’s home is not new. Nor is it news to some who’ve been doing it for years – though, of course, many of them have had to fight hard to hang onto their EVs, which, right now, are an extremely rare item indeed.

But solar-charged driving was, and still is, “news” – in the true sense of the word, meaning new – to me.

Charged by the excitement of solar in general, and, especially, by the thought of solar-charged driving, in late June of 2009 I dove into making solar a reality for our home.

Beginning of the solar odysessy
Somehow, I landed at a web site called “CoolerPlanet.Com.” The site is sort of a portal to different solar companies. While it offers general information on solar, It subtly, but clearly, tries to push you toward submitting a request for a free estimate by local solar companies.

After a couple nights of almost asking for an estimate, but not quite getting up the courage to do so – mostly out of fear of what my wife, Christine, would think – I submitted our personal information to CoolerPlanet.Com.

They selected three solar companies to come out and do a free bid. In fact, only two of those companies, REC Solar and RealGoods Solar – both major players in the national solar scene, especially in California, the epicenter of solar in the U.S. -- actually contacted me directly.

As a long-time teacher and former reporter, I like to be: a) well informed; b) well-prepared.

So, before either the REC Solar consultant or the RealGoods consultant came, I read up on both companies online, did general research on solar, solar panels, and, of course, solar-charged driving.

I also prepared a three-page list of questions I wanted to ask, with questions divided into categories such as “The Panels,” “Warranties & Guarantees” and “Financial Questions.”

Obviously, the solar consultants scheduled to meet with me had no idea what was awaiting them when they arrived.

Brian Sharpe, a solar consultant for REC Solar, was the first to come. He came at 9 a.m. on a bright, blue, warm, but not-too-hot June day. He didn’t leave until 12.

Yes, my excitement about solar – which Brian reciprocated – inspired me to talk about solar for a full three hours.

By the time he’d left, Brian had heard a lot about my desire to learn more about, and promote the synergy between solar power and EVs & PHEVs. Indeed, I’d even floated a proposal to “ad wrap” our not-as-yet-purchased EV for REC Solar in exchange for a discount on our system.

Personally, it’s hard for me to conceive of a more effective marketing tool for solar energy than a car that: a) runs on the sun; b) advertises the fact that cars can indeed be run on sun to thousands of prospective solar power and EV/PHEV purchasers every single day!

My idea to “ad wrap” my EV for REC Solar and for solar-charged driving and solar in general made its way all the way to the vice president of marketing at REC Solar. She apparently found the idea intriguing, but indicated there was no money in the REC marketing budget for this right now.

Hopefully, REC Solar – with whom we ultimately signed a contract – will find the money to “ad wrap” our EV when we get it (we hope in about 1 ½ years). Maybe not. If not, it will be their loss, as I will definitely wrap the car myself.

Personally, it’s hard for me to conceive of a more effective marketing tool for solar energy than a car that:

a) runs on the sun;
b) advertises the fact that cars can indeed be run on sun to thousands of prospective solar power and EV/PHEV purchasers every single day!

Not only is the car a rolling ad, but it advertises, by its very presence on the road, a possibility that few people have considered.

It’s concrete proof that, yes, you can run your car on sun.

Advertising the possibility of a sun-run car will be much more powerful than in the past, too. This is because in contrast to the past, in which getting an EV meant going out of your way in a big way to do so, other drivers will actually be able to go to a car dealer’s lot and purchase an EV and/or PHEV.

(Of course, I have a feeling demand for EVs will be so high initially that it could be hard to get one’s hands on, say, a Nissan electric car, or a Ford Focus EV, the latter of which I have my eyes on right now).

REC Solar or Real Goods Solar?
Andy Beekman, a solar consultant for Real Goods Solar came a couple of days after Brian. He, too, spent a significant amount of time with me, about 75 minutes.

Both REC Solar and RealGoods solar came in with similar initial bids for a 5 kW system, at around $9,200 each, after the Xcel Energy rebate and a 30-percent Federal Tax Credit (which, unfortunately, cannot be kicked back to you in the form of a tax refund).

However, he had an appointment after ours and had to leave before I had a chance to propose my car-wrapping idea to him.

Turns out, this was the turning point in my decision about which company to go with.

Both REC Solar and RealGoods solar came in with similar initial bids for a 5 kW system, at around $9,200 each, after the Xcel Energy rebate and a 30-percent Federal Tax Credit (which, unfortunately, cannot be kicked back to you in the form of a tax refund).

Given this, and the fact that Brian had spent three hours with me, I decided to go with REC Solar – without first going back to RealGoods Solar for a counter bid. I signed a contract with REC Solar, and put down a $1,000 deposit.

This turned out to be a mistake on my part, though, ironically, we ended up with a significantly better deal than we’d originally signed for with REC Solar as a result.

Play solar company bids off against one another
I’d definitely recommend that you work with your solar companies to get counter bids from all of them before you go under contract with one of them.

As it turns out, RealGoods Solar Consultant Andy Beekman called me a day after I’d signed with REC Solar.

He found out I was under contract with REC Solar. He asked me, ‘What if I give you an offer you can’t refuse?’

I felt uncomfortable, but said, okay, send me an offer.

It was a great offer, considerably less than what REC Solar had offered initially.

Feeling awkward – and sort of boxed in by the contract I’d signed just 36 hours earlier – I went back to REC Solar and asked about a possible counter offer.

I got one. And, although – at about $8,100 for a 5.5 kW system with system monitoring and a Sunny Boy Inverter big enough for us to add on to the system -- it was still a little bit higher than what RealGoods was offering.

I went with it, as: a) I’d signed with REC Solar; b) Brian had been very good to us; c) at a post-rebate, post tax-credit cost of about $1.50 per DC watt, it seemed like a very good deal.

The moral of my solar company story?
I learned a few things from this experience.

First – and I knew this already – play off different offers from different parties before going with a partcular deal.

Now, certainly, I want solar companies such as REC Solar and Real Goods Solar to prosper and to grow solar and the “green” economy in the U.S. At the same time, I need to get the best deal I can.

Second, apparently, as, for instance, when you buy a car, when you buy a solar system, haggling is the rule. The better you advocate for yourself, the more you play different offers against one another, the better the deal you’re going to get – and the less of a profit the solar company is going to make.

Now, certainly, I want solar companies such as REC Solar and Real Goods Solar to prosper and to grow solar and the “green” economy in the U.S. At the same time, I need to get the best deal I can.

In the end, I think we got an excellent deal, a far better one than we would have, if things hadn’t played out the way they did.

However, I would not recommend going under contract with one solar company and then playing off one solar company off against the other.

That’s what happened with us, and we ended up benefitting financially from it – but I can tell you, I didn’t plan it out that way.

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