Installing the 3KW addition

The 3 KW expansion required the addition of 6 more Renusol racks.  Each pair secured four 265W Suniva panels.  The rails themselves were fastened to the roof using EcoFasten GF flashing at 4 points.  Every other rail landed on an existing rafter.  As with the 1KW project, I used 4X4s between rafters for the others.  When all was finished, the south facing garage roof was completely covered with modules!


So how to do this….

For the rafter mounted rails I followed this process: First, I measured the distance between the topmost rack mount point and the mount point two positions below it on an existing rail from the 1KW installation.  Then, underneath the roof and next to the rafter that would hold the new rail, I measured down from the rafter peak board for the first mount point (again using the measurements from an existing rail as my guide).  At that spot, I drilled a small 1/8″ hole up through the roof right next to the rafter itself.  From that hole, I marked off the distance between mounting point one and mounting point three (determined above) and drilled another 1/8″ hole.  I then shoved up two 1/8″ rods so I could easily see where I drilled on top of the roof.  Once up there, it was a simple process to position two Ecofasten flashings directly over the rafter at mount point one and three.  The 1/8″ alignment holes were no problem because the flashing would cover them completely.  Once in place, I sighted down from the top of the roof to perfectly line up flashing two and four with flashing one and three.  The following shot shows three of the four flashing assemblies positioned in this manner:


With everything lined up, I drilled 1/4″ pilot holes into the rafter, cut and fit the flashing assemblies into the roofing shingles, installed rail brackets and secured with SPAX lag bolts.  The process for the non-rafter aligned rails was identical.  However, once the 1/4″ pilot holes were drilled through the roofing deck, I went underneath the roof again and installed 4X4 cross braces wherever daylight showed through…  On the bottom of the non-rafter rails, I cheated and left off the almost impossible to install cross brace, instead using a through bolt and large backing washer.

In two days, I had everything mounted.  From a sequence perspective, I installed the rack closest to the edge of the roof first.  This allowed me to stretch alignment string between the top and bottom so that I could build out a flat array on an undulating roof surface.

CaptureIn the photo below you can see a piece of blue tape with a mark on it.  This was used to identify the edge of a panel plus a 3/4″ inter panel gap.  I simply marked off the dimension on a 2×4 and used it for a gauge.


Here’s a shot of the installed racks:


Next, I installed the inverters/trunk cables.  The plan here was to extend the terminated trunk cable at the top of the 1KW array using Enphase Engage Couplers  (part #ET-SPLK-1 shown below) and 4 conductor TC/ER cable.

Enphase-ET-SPLK-01-2TOnce extended to the second to leftmost new rail, Engage trunk cable would resume and run up, then across to right side of the second set of racks, then down and across to the left side of the third set.  Using this strategy, only one unused connector would be needed.

It was a simple matter to mount the inverters.  Here’s what it looked like when I finished (just before a major downpour too).  You can see the unused connector at the top of the racks:


Then, we mounted the panels and called New Berlin for our final inspection!  By the end of May, the array was producing 3.5KW!

I think its important to make one final point here.  What made installing our 4KW array simple and quick was my initial rafter survey.  As with any project, careful planning and design work is essential, and this project was no exception.  To determine my optimum rail and panel layout, I first went up into the garage and precisely measured the distance between all rafters along with the exact size of the roof itself in millimeters.  Using this and panel dimensions from the Suniva cut sheets, I created a precise roof layout using my drafting tool of choice, Home Plan Pro.  Once everything was entered, I was able to play around with panel mounts until I had an optimum layout.  I wouldn’t want to even think about an installation such as ours without doing this essential, up-front survey work.

Remember to plan carefully before you jump into your own DIY Solar project!  Doing a rafter survey is a great winter project that costs nothing at all!  Here’s a final shot of the all important diagram that drove this effort:

solar overhead layout

So what was the bottom line?  Stay tuned for my next post!

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The 3KW expansion

It’s started!  I got an estimate for $8,850 yesterday and am meeting with our contractor on the 25th to submit my down payment/go over logistics.  We will be using the same panels/inverters/mounting system and once again, I’ll be doing the majority of the work.  My contractor will handle materials, WE energies related documents, permits, and electrical hook up.  I’ll do the Focus on Energy rebate paperwork which has begun again at the same price point ($700/KW installed).  It looks like the Federal Govt. will be continuing their 30% tax writeoff too which should bring my installed costs down significantly.

My biggest concern right now is how to keep the wasps from building nests in the garage rafters once I pull the soffit boards to make installing the lowest cross-beams possible…

more to come!

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Beating for the Harmony Ultimate

The Harmony Ultimate is a great remote, but the folks at Logitech have deliberately dumbed down our ability to program it.  Case in point, precise activity control.  There is no way you can add a precise startup sequence containing input changes, delays and power up commands.  myHarmony does this all for you and denies you the ability to change the sequence or add delays.  Sure, you can play with global on/off settings by device to add startup delays to the powerOn commands, but the effects are cumulative with the result being that it can take up to a minute to activate a complex activity involving many devices.

Here: When I start my streaming activity, I need my AV processor to power up and switch to the correct HDMI input, then I need my mediaPC to power up and my TV to switch to the HDMI monitor port.  What’s important here is that the HDMI AV processor input must be up and stable before the mediaPC polls it; a process that can take 5 seconds.  Otherwise, things may not sync up correctly.

Unfortunately, myHarmony does all this for you; It powers up devices then sets inputs.  You can see its order, but you can’t change it or add delays.  Sure, you can add commands after this default sequence, but you can’t choose input or power commands and the result, especially with HDMI is that inputs often don’t sync up properly and you lose picture, sound or both.  WTF???

….until now of course.

I spent the day working on this and I discovered something very interesting:  myHarmony hides all commands that start with “input” or “power” from the available custom programming set so the first thing you need to do is train in custom commands for these on each of your devices.  I start my commands with “mode”, so my AV processor has modeTV, modeVideo, etc.

Now you need to fix the power sequences.  Do this with an older remote that’s not currently used in your setup.  For each device in your system that always powers up at the start of an activity and powers down at the end (typically everything but the TV and the AV processor) add a “nullPowerToggle” (or “nullPowerOn” if your device has a button for on and another for off) command.  Train the command using any button from that unused remote so an IR sequence that isn’t understood by any of your components gets stored.

Now in Power settings, change every one of these devices to have two buttons, one for power on and one for power off.  For the powerOn sequence, send the nullPower command (which will do nothing), and for the powerOff sequence, send that device’s normal powerOff command.  That way, we can still depend on Harmony to automatically power off devices that need it.

For those devices that are used between activities, leave the power commands alone.  You have to allow Harmony to intelligently control the powerOn commands for those as well.

Now your’re ready to program activities.

Make sure that for each device in the activity you choose “do nothing” for the input.  You are going to choose inputs yourself during the custom script you see.  Now you are free to do the full sequential programming including delays where necessary in the custom script section of the activity.  Voila!  You have achieved Harmony.

Here’s my Streaming activity sequence:

(preprogrammed startup that you can’t modify)

  • Power on AV processor
  • Power on mediaPC
  • Power on TV

(preprogrammed input settings that you can’t modify)

  • AV processor : Do Nothing
  • mediaPC:          Do Nothing
  • TV:                    Do Nothing

(Custom Script)

  • Send the AV processor modeGame
  • Delay for 7 seconds
  • Send the mediaPC modePowerToggle
  • Send the TV modeHdmi1

See what’s happening?  Since the mediaPC has its powerOn sequence set to nullPowerToggle, the codes that are sent do nothing except inform the Harmony that the mediaPC is now powered on.  Also, no input commands are sent because I told myHarmony to do nothing with the inputs.  The actual sequence is all contained in the custom script.

Oh yeah.  Total Harmony has been achieved.  Enjoy!

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Another big leap for supercapacitive batteries.

I ran tracked this down after hearing an article on NPR this morning.  There has been a major leap forward in supercapacitor based energy density using straight-forward manufacturing techniques.  Expect this technology to start hitting all facets of the electrical storage industry within the next few years!

Source: Extreme Tech
Publication Date: August 5, 2013


Graphene supercapacitors created with ‘traditional paper making’ process, rivals lead-acid battery capacity

Capacitors (not graphene ones)

Materials engineers at Monash University in Australia have devised a method of producing graphene supercapacitors that have the same energy density as the lead-acid battery under your car’s hood. Not only are these supercapacitors about 10 times more energy-dense than commercial devices, but the method of producing the graphene inside the supercapacitors seems to be novel as well. The engineers say they used a process that is similar to traditional paper making — and that it could easily and cost-effectively scaled up for commercial production of graphene, and graphene-based supercaps.

Supercapacitors are essentially small batteries that can recharge and discharge almost instantly. While this results in a very high power density (lots of watts), their energy density is generally very low (watt-hours). For a conventional supercapacitor, we’re talking about a power density that’s 10-20 times higher than a conventional lithium-ion or lead-acid battery — but on the flip side, the energy density is 10-20 times worse. In short, supercapacitors are fantastic for when you need a short burst of energy — such as a quick burst of acceleration from a car’s kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) — but useless for powering everyday consumer electronics, like your smartphone.


Graphene, however, could change all that. The amount of energy stored by an electrochemical capacitor is closely tied to the amount of charge-carrying electrolyte that contacts the electrodes. The higher the surface area of the electrodes, the more charge-carrying ions that can be adsorbed (attached) to the electrodes, thus storing more energy. You can probably see where this is going. Because graphene is the thinnest known substance, it is capable of providing an astonishingly large surface area; somewhere on the order of thousands of square meters (that’s multiple tennis courts) per gram. The surface area is so large that graphene could be used to create supercapacitors that bridge the massive energy density gap between supercaps and batteries, while still retaining huge power density.

That’s the theory, anyway. The problem, of course, as with all things graphene, is that it’s still very hard to mass-produce commercial-grade graphene. The Monash engineers claim to have solved this problem, though, using a solution-based process that’s “similar to that used in traditional paper making.” Basically, they start with graphite (graphene) oxide, which is reduced to low-grade graphene flakes using a solution of hydrazine and ammonia. Then, the electrolyte and a solvent are added to the mix. As the mixture dries, the volatile solvent evaporates, causing capillary action to suck the graphene flakes together, with the electrolyte wedged between each of the flakes. Eventually the engineers are left with something that resembles a black sheet of paper — millions of layers of graphene, with oodles of charge-carrying electrolyte locked in.

Graphene 'paper'

Capillary action sucks the graphene flakes together, creating a dense structure that’s similar to paper

When fashioned into an electrochemical capacitor, this paper-like material has a volumetric energy density of almost 60 watt-hours per liter (Wh/l), which is just about comparable to a lead-acid battery. It retains about 90% of its capacitance after 50,000 charge/discharge cycles, and it even holds 90% of its charge after 300 hours.

Dan Li, the professor who led the work, says, “We have created a macroscopic graphene material that is a step beyond what has been achieved previously. It is almost at the stage of moving from the lab to commercial development.” There is no word on when these graphene capacitors will come to market, but the solution-based chemical reduction of graphite oxide is one of the most likely routes for commercialization of graphene.


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Today’s talking point.

RFID Chip Now Being Issued In Hanna, Wyoming As Part Of New “Obamacare” Plan

RFID Chip Technical Info

Read all about this at!  Or don’t if you support a different view……

The point here is simple.

The internet is a compelling tool. While the satire in this example is deliberate, other more insidious sources deliberately deceive to sway public opinion. Many have deep pockets too because they represent powerful people with focused agendas.

Sometimes I wonder if this is in some way responsible for the extreme polarization of American society today. From congressional blame to climate change, from evolution to intelligent design, its so very easy these days to spin up talking points with supporting factual data and publish to the masses.

There are some who believe that reality itself is simply the mass opinion of the majority. Perhaps this is true. Back in the day, we Americans had such a singular awareness of our common reality that we could do great things. We built the Interstate system and the Panama Canal. We brought equality to our citizens. We walked on the moon.

Today, we are so polarized that we can’t even pass a budget. A grand project such as the Interstate would be impossible given today’s fractured view of reality. We are running on autopilot because we have been so successfully splintered that we can’t collectively turn the ship any more. We are pawns.

I wonder how the game will end…

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A letter from Elon Musk

We received this letter from Elon Musk in our inbox yesterday.

October 4, 2013
About the Model S fire
By Elon Musk, Chairman, Product Architect & CEO
Earlier this week, a Model S traveling at highway speed struck a large metal object, causing significant damage to the vehicle. A curved section that fell off a semi-trailer was recovered from the roadway near where the accident occurred and, according to the road crew that was on the scene, appears to be the culprit. The geometry of the object caused a powerful lever action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons. Only a force of this magnitude would be strong enough to punch a 3 inch diameter hole through the quarter inch armor plate protecting the base of the vehicle.The Model S owner was nonetheless able to exit the highway as instructed by the onboard alert system, bring the car to a stop and depart the vehicle without injury. A fire caused by the impact began in the front battery module – the battery pack has a total of 16 modules – but was contained to the front section of the car by internal firewalls within the pack. Vents built into the battery pack directed the flames down towards the road and away from the vehicle.When the fire department arrived, they observed standard procedure, which was to gain access to the source of the fire by puncturing holes in the top of the battery’s protective metal plate and applying water. For the Model S lithium-ion battery, it was correct to apply water (vs. dry chemical extinguisher), but not to puncture the metal firewall, as the newly created holes allowed the flames to then vent upwards into the front trunk section of the Model S. Nonetheless, a combination of water followed by dry chemical extinguisher quickly brought the fire to an end.

It is important to note that the fire in the battery was contained to a small section near the front by the internal firewalls built into the pack structure. At no point did fire enter the passenger compartment.

Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse. A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank, which causes a pool of gasoline to form and often burn the entire car to the ground. In contrast, the combustion energy of our battery pack is only about 10% of the energy contained in a gasoline tank and is divided into 16 modules with firewalls in between. As a consequence, the effective combustion potential is only about 1% that of the fuel in a comparable gasoline sedan.

The nationwide driving statistics make this very clear: there are 150,000 car fires per year according to the National Fire Protection Association, and Americans drive about 3 trillion miles per year according to the Department of Transportation. That equates to 1 vehicle fire for every 20 million miles driven, compared to 1 fire in over 100 million miles for Tesla. This means you are 5 times more likely to experience a fire in a conventional gasoline car than a Tesla!

For consumers concerned about fire risk, there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid.

— Elon

Below is our email correspondence with the Model S owner that experienced the fire, reprinted with his permission:From: robert Carlson
Sent: Thursday, October 03, 2013 12:53 PM
To: Jerome Guillen
Subject: carlson 0389Mr. Guillen,Thanks for the support. I completely agree with the assessment to date. I guess you can test for everything, but some other celestial bullet comes along and challenges your design. I agree that the car performed very well under such an extreme test. The batteries went through a controlled burn which the internet images really exaggerates. Anyway, I am still a big fan of your car and look forward to getting back into one. Justin offered a white loaner–thanks. I am also an investor and have to say that the response I am observing is really supportive of the future for electric vehicles. I was thinking this was bound to happen, just not to me. But now it is out there and probably gets a sigh of relief as a test and risk issue-this “doomsday” event has now been tested, and the design and engineering works.rob carlson
On Oct 3, 2013, at 12:29 PM, Jerome Guillen wrote:Dear Mr. Carlson:I am the VP of sales and service for Tesla, reporting directly to Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO.

I am sorry to hear that you experienced a collision in your Model S 2 days ago. We are happy that the Model S performed in such a way that you were not injured in the accident and that nobody else was hurt.

I believe you have been in contact with Justin Samson, our service manager, since the accident. We are following this case extremely closely and we have sent a team of experts to review your vehicle. All indications are that your Model S drove over large, oddly-shaped metal object which impacted the leading edge of the vehicle’s undercarriage and rotated into the underside of the vehicle (“pole vault” effect). This is a highly uncommon occurrence.

Based on our review thus far, we believe that the Model S performed as designed by limiting the resulting fire to the affected zones only. Given the significant intensity of the impact, which managed to pierce the 1/4 inch bottom plate (something that is extremely hard to do), the Model S energy containment functions operated correctly. In particular, the top cover of the battery provided a strong barrier and there was no apparent propagation of the fire into the cabin. This ensured cabin integrity and occupant safety, which remains our most important goal.

We very much appreciate your support, patience and understanding while we proceed with the investigation. Justin keeps me closely informed. Please feel free to contact me directly, if you have any question or concern.

Best regards,
Jerome Guillen I VP, WW sales and service

Tesla Motors | 3500 Deer Creek Road | Palo Alto, CA 94304
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Test driving the Tesla Model S.


Yesterday we took this car for a spin.  Its a Tesla Model S with the 85K+ performance package and all the toys you’d expect in a luxury automobile.  I’m a tough customer too since I’m used to the performance, luxury, and handling of my BMW 5 series.

Well, after the test drive all I can say is this: Wow, what a car!

Brain dump follows:

  •  Everything you ever thought about cars is dead. This is a whole new paradigm. The model S performs like a BMW E39 M5 but acceleration is constant across the entire speed range. This car darts.
  •  The doors don’t even have locks… The map display is the size of a road atlas. No noise except tires. No engine to shut off so you just leave when you are done & it does the rest.  Conversely, as you approach the door handles pop out and the climate system engages.  When you sit down in the driver’s seat, automotive systems light up.  Too cool!
  •  It’ll cost us 800-1000 a month more than we spend on our cars now but in 3 years Tesla will buy it back for more than the remaining amount on the loan. Guaranteed. Its an investment!
  • The down payment is mostly covered by the Federal tax rebate.

Here’s a clip showing Angel getting some experience with regenerative braking…

Here’s a few more shots.  Look at the size of the full map display!  I have an old Rand McNally atlas that’s about that same size…


Another shot of the display, this time showing the backup camera.  There isn’t a knob or a button to be found in a Tesla except where you expect to find them.


Everything in this car makes sense.  There’s a little stick on the right side of the wheel.  Push up for drive, down for reverse.  Tap for park.   Left side has familiar lighting and cruise control sticks.  On the left door are the mirror/window controls right where you expect them to be.  The display is so big that its easy to see and use the touch screen controls.  In fact, in the image above you can see the climate system controls below the backup cam view.

Here’s what’s really cool: our 4KW solar array is designed to power this zero emissions car for over 14,000 miles a year.  Our Tesla will be powered by the sun!

Once again, its a whole new world folks.


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Monitoring Array Output with TED

Monitoring array output is pretty simple with my TED5000.  Once I extended the computer room circuit up to the attic, I installed a new MTU, clamped the circuit taps around the array hot wires and registered everything using the web interface.  The results were instantaneous:


TED was now showing Net energy usage and I could easily switch between Demand (MTU 1), and Generation (MTU 2).

Historical results began updating right away too.  Here’s the minute graph:


Green is my energy usage and dark blue is my net energy usage.  The aqua blue line represents power from the array.  Not too bad for two mostly cloudy days!  Here’s the monthly plot:


Data is stored historically by month as well so I should be able to build up a pretty good picture over time.

Of course, I have mobile monitoring capabilities too using an excellent app called EnergyViewer for TED5000 by BCS Software.


Screenshot_2013-09-20-09-43-20This cool little app allows me to see pretty much everything the TED website shows.

All in all a pretty good deal to at $.99.  There’s a tablet version too which adds multiple power graphing and historical displays to take advantage of a tablet’s larger size.

It does require that you map your TED5000 gateway to the internet however, but I prefer this to using a cloud based provider.

I’m currently debating whether I’ll also begin using Enphase Envoy which can give me detailed statistics by solar panel.  At $500 – $600 however, I may be considering this for quite some time….




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Distributed power and the Utilities. Change is in the wind…

I ran across this one while randomly surfing yesterday and I must say that its content couldn’t be more timely.  Distributed Solar installations such as the one I’m building have the potential to change the very nature of energy distribution as we know it.  The utilities have held this monopoly since electricity’s introduction in the early 1900s and they are worried.  To this effect, the EEI which represents the combined electrical utilities created a white paper back in January.  Their bottom line is that net metering tariffs are a bad thing for the current utility investment model and that Distributed Energy Resource (DER) providers along with Energy Efficiency (EE)/demand side management (DSM) adopters should also be required to pre-pay long term capital purchases (such as power plant investments) or even pay a penalty to recoup those same investments if they go entirely off-grid.  Otherwise, the EEI contends that remaining customers would be forced to pay ever larger tariffs to support the current distribution strategy, leading to a vicious cycle of customer desertion/tariff hikes whose final result would be the complete collapse of the traditional monopolistic model itself.

Never mind that similar investment strategies in more modern infrastructures with far faster ROIs (such as regional battery or flywheel systems that store DER power for non-peak distribution) would be something that benefits all customers.

The phone company and the airline industry are cited as prime examples of corporations whose once solid investment models were shattered.  Never mind that both of the above examples adapted their strategic focus to create a boom in their respective industries.  Furthermore, Telecom industry strategic change pressure resulted in a technological revolution that itself changed the very way we acquire and process content.

Why isn’t the EEI seeing this same opportunity in the brave new world of renewable energy production?  Because it threatens their investors’ way of life, that’s why.

Anyway, here’s David Roberts’ take.  To read the below referenced EEI paper for yourself, follow this link

Source: The Grist
Publication Date: April 10th 2013

By: David Roberts

Solar power and other distributed renewable energy technologies could lay waste to U.S. power utilities and burn the utility business model, which has remained virtually unchanged for a century, to the ground.

That is not wild-eyed hippie talk. It is the assessment of the utilities themselves.

Back in January, the Edison Electric Institute — the (typically stodgy and backward-looking) trade group of U.S. investor-owned utilities — released a report [PDF] that, as far as I can tell, went almost entirely without notice in the press. That’s a shame. It is one of the most prescient and brutally frank things I’ve ever read about the power sector. It is a rare thing to hear an industry tell the tale of its own incipient obsolescence.

I’ve been thinking about how to convey to you, normal people with healthy social lives and no time to ponder the byzantine nature of the power industry, just what a big deal the coming changes are. They are nothing short of revolutionary … but rather difficult to explain without jargon.

So, just a bit of background. You probably know that electricity is provided by utilities. Some utilities both generate electricity at power plants and provide it to customers over power lines. They are “regulated monopolies,” which means they have sole responsibility for providing power in their service areas. Some utilities have gone through deregulation; in that case, power generation is split off into its own business, while the utility’s job is to purchase power on competitive markets and provide it to customers over the grid it manages.

This complexity makes it difficult to generalize about utilities … or to discuss them without putting people to sleep. But the main thing to know is that the utility business model relies on selling power. That’s how they make their money. Here’s how it works: A utility makes a case to a public utility commission (PUC), saying “we will need to satisfy this level of demand from consumers, which means we’ll need to generate (or purchase) this much power, which means we’ll need to charge these rates.” If the PUC finds the case persuasive, it approves the rates and guarantees the utility a reasonable return on its investments in power and grid upkeep.

Thrilling, I know. The thing to remember is that it is in a utility’s financial interest to generate (or buy) and deliver as much power as possible. The higher the demand, the higher the investments, the higher the utility shareholder profits. In short, all things being equal, utilities want to sell more power. (All things are occasionally not equal, but we’ll leave those complications aside for now.)

Now, into this cozy business model enters cheap distributed solar PV, which eats away at it like acid.

First, the power generated by solar panels on residential or commercial roofs is not utility-owned or utility-purchased. From the utility’s point of view, every kilowatt-hour of rooftop solar looks like a kilowatt-hour of reduced demand for the utility’s product. Not something any business enjoys. (This is the same reason utilities are instinctively hostile to energy efficiency and demand response programs, and why they must be compelled by regulations or subsidies to create them. Utilities don’t like reduced demand!)

It’s worse than that, though. Solar power peaks at midday, which means it is strongest close to the point of highest electricity use — “peak load.” Problem is, providing power to meet peak load is where utilities make a huge chunk of their money. Peak power is the most expensive power. So when solar panels provide peak power, they aren’t just reducing demand, they’re reducing demand for the utilities’ most valuable product.

But wait. Renewables are limited by the fact they are intermittent, right? “The sun doesn’t always shine,” etc. Customers will still have to rely on grid power for the most part. Right?

This is a widely held article of faith, but EEI (of all places!) puts it to rest. (In this and all quotes that follow, “DER” means distributed energy resources, which for the most part means solar PV.)

Due to the variable nature of renewable DER, there is a perception that customers will always need to remain on the grid. While we would expect customers to remain on the grid until a fully viable and economic distributed non-variable resource is available, one can imagine a day when battery storage technology or micro turbines could allow customers to be electric grid independent. To put this into perspective, who would have believed 10 years ago that traditional wire line telephone customers could economically “cut the cord?” [Emphasis mine.]

Indeed! Just the other day, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers said, “If the cost of solar panels keeps coming down, installation costs come down and if they combine solar with battery technology and a power management system, then we have someone just using [the grid] for backup.” What happens if a whole bunch of customers start generating their own power and using the grid merely as backup? The EEI report warns of “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects” of utilities.

Utility investors are accustomed to large, long-term, reliable investments with a 30-year cost recovery — fossil fuel plants, basically. The cost of those investments, along with investments in grid maintenance and reliability, are spread by utilities across all ratepayers in a service area. What happens if a bunch of those ratepayers start reducing their demand or opting out of the grid entirely? Well, the same investments must now be spread over a smaller group of ratepayers. In other words: higher rates for those who haven’t switched to solar.

That’s how it starts. These two paragraphs from the EEI report are a remarkable description of the path to obsolescence faced by the industry:

The financial implications of these threats are fairly evident. Start with the increased cost of supporting a network capable of managing and integrating distributed generation sources. Next, under most rate structures, add the decline in revenues attributed to revenues lost from sales foregone. These forces lead to increased revenues required from remaining customers … and sought through rate increases. The result of higher electricity prices and competitive threats will encourage a higher rate of DER additions, or will promote greater use of efficiency or demand-side solutions.

Increased uncertainty and risk will not be welcomed by investors, who will seek a higher return on investment and force defensive-minded investors to reduce exposure to the sector. These competitive and financial risks would likely erode credit quality. The decline in credit quality will lead to a higher cost of capital, putting further pressure on customer rates. Ultimately, capital availability will be reduced, and this will affect future investment plans. The cycle of decline has been previously witnessed in technology-disrupted sectors (such as telecommunications) and other deregulated industries (airlines).

Did you follow that? As ratepayers opt for solar panels (and other distributed energy resources like micro-turbines, batteries, smart appliances, etc.), it raises costs on other ratepayers and hurts the utility’s credit rating. As rates rise on other ratepayers, the attractiveness of solar increases, so more opt for it. Thus costs on remaining ratepayers are even further increased, the utility’s credit even further damaged. It’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle:


EEI: vicious cycle of disruptive forces



One implication of all this — a poorly understood implication — is that rooftop solar fucks up the utility model even at relatively low penetrations, because it goes straight at utilities’ main profit centers. (It’s already happening in Germany.) Right now, distributed solar PV is a relatively tiny slice of U.S. electricity, less than 1 percent. For that reason, utility investors aren’t paying much attention. “Despite the risks that a rapidly growing level of DER penetration and other disruptive challenges may impose,” EEI writes, “they are not currently being discussed by the investment community and factored into the valuation calculus reflected in the capital markets.” But that 1 percent is concentrated in a small handful of utility districts, so trouble, at least for that first set of utilities, is just over the horizon. Utility investors are sleepwalking into a maelstrom.

(“Despite all the talk about investors assessing the future in their investment evaluations,” the report notes dryly, “it is often not until revenue declines are reported that investors realize that the viability of the business is in question.” In other words, investors aren’t that smart and rational financial markets are a myth.)

Bloomberg Energy Finance forecasts 22 percent compound annual growth in all solar PV, which means that by 2020 distributed solar (which will account for about 15 percent of total PV) could reach up to 10 percent of load in certain areas. If that happens, well:

Assuming a decline in load, and possibly customers served, of 10 percent due to DER with full subsidization of DER participants, the average impact on base electricity prices for non-DER participants will be a 20 percent or more increase in rates, and the ongoing rate of growth in electricity prices will double for non-DER participants (before accounting for the impact of the increased cost of serving distributed resources).

So rates would rise by 20 percent for those without solar panels. Can you imagine the political shitstorm that would create? (There are reasons to think EEI is exaggerating this effect, but we’ll get into that in the next post.)

If nothing is done to check these trends, the U.S. electric utility as we know it could be utterly upended. The report compares utilities’ possible future to the experience of the airlines during deregulation or to the big monopoly phone companies when faced with upstart cellular technologies. In case the point wasn’t made, the report also analogizes utilities to the U.S. Postal Service, Kodak, and RIM, the maker of Blackberry devices. These are not meant to be flattering comparisons.

Remember, too, that these utilities are not Google or Facebook. They are not accustomed to a state of constant market turmoil and reinvention. This is a venerable old boys network, working very comfortably within a business model that has been around, virtually unchanged, for a century. A friggin’ century, more or less without innovation, and now they’re supposed to scramble and be all hip and new-age? Unlikely.

So what’s to be done? You won’t be surprised to hear that EEI’s prescription is mainly focused on preserving utilities and their familiar business model. But is that the best thing for electricity consumers? Is that the best thing for the climate?


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The 1KW system is up and running!

The array was commissioned without a hitch last Friday.  It was a fairly simple process too.  Essentially, the WE Energies engineer had me switch on the disconnect then he waited for the meter to register energy production.  After five minutes, the array went into energy production mode and they saw what they were looking for.  Since the inverters themselves conform to UL1741, anti-islanding was guaranteed and that’s all WE Energies needed to see.  I signed the Distributed Generation Interconnection Agreement, everybody shook hands and they left.

Anti-climatic if you ask me.

Next up:

Extend the TED monitoring branch circuit up to the 6x6x6 junction box in the attic then install a TED5000 CT there so I can begin tracking detailed energy production.

By the way, I checked the price for OPT-265 solar panels and they are down to $281.  I paid $324 for ours.  M-215 inverter prices are also dropping since a higher powered M-250 was introduced in August.  We’re going to save quite a bit of money if this trend continues when we bring the remaining 3KW online next summer.

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