Reach for the Sun

My yearlong adventure in getting solar panels for my home.

Solar Panel Installation
Solar panels are finally cost-effective and can power our activities without a huge impact on our planet.

Photo by Elena Elisseeva/Thinkstock

One day, as a child in the early 1980s, I spotted a strange device on my grandfather’s roof in San Diego. I asked my dad about it, and he told me, “That’s a solar water heater. Your grandpa doesn’t like spending money, and now he gets his hot water for free.” I digested the information and never really thought about it again—until, 30 years later, my wife and I bought a house. Suddenly the prospect of saving money with solar energy became relevant.

But it wasn’t just the high cost of homeownership. Every time I turned on the A/C, I imagined a coal-fired power plant belching out pollution, warming the planet, and destroying the lives of poor families in developing countries. If I didn’t want to live with a perpetually guilty conscience, what were my alternatives? Going without air conditioning was one option—I have lived in rural Nicaragua, and my wife spent a summer in India, so we could certainly endure the Washington, D.C., heat. But it would also make my house intolerable for guests.

Then a friend tipped me off that we could purchase 100 percent wind-generated electricity as an alternative to our standard utility provider. For the first time, I seriously considered renewable energy for my home—which led me on a yearlong saga of exploration and learning. It made me more aware of the weather conditions every day, the appliances that I rely on, and how electricity powers nearly everything in our lives. Knowing that we are in a unique point in history in which wind and solar power are just entering the mainstream, I decided to document my experiences and share them with those who want to look before they leap.

After investigating my options and crunching numbers, I signed up with Clean Currents, a local company that sold renewable energy to utility customers. It worked great for a few months, but the especially frigid winter of 2013–14 wreaked havoc on wholesale energy prices, and it bankrupted Clean Currents.

Back to square one. As I continued my search, I noticed that many houses in Washington had yard signs saying that they had switched to solar power. It seemed like an attractive option from a sustainability perspective, but would it make sense financially? I had heard for years that solar power was a luxury item for hippies and rich liberals. But after doing some research, I learned that the price of solar panels had decreased 80 percent since 2008. Even more surprising, I discovered that I didn’t have to spend a huge sum of money upfront to buy solar panels anymore—instead, I could lease them.

It’s easy to forget that few homes or businesses in the United States had electricity until a century ago. Thomas Edison debuted his electric lighting in Manhattan in 1882, but it didn’t come to most rural areas until the 1930s. Wherever electricity arrived, it quickly changed from novelty to necessity.

One of the reasons that people loved electricity was that it was “clean.” They no longer had to rely on kerosene or gas lamps, both of which burned fuel and produced unhealthy amounts of smoke and soot inside of buildings. Although electricity was primarily produced by coal-fired generators, one could site them far away from where the light was needed. Edison’s invention, powered by fossil fuels, illuminated the world.

Solar power languished throughout most of the 20th century, but as billions of people adopted electricity, it became apparent by that we could no longer afford to use our skies and water as our dumping grounds. Decades of research and development by scientists and engineers has finally produced cost-effective solar panels that can power our activities without the huge impact on our planet.

When I began my solar-power journey, the first question I faced was: Should I buy, or should I lease? The way solar leasing works is that a company installs panels on your roof. Rather than paying for the panels themselves, you are charged for the electricity they generate. (The exact way this works depends on the agreement you sign. In some cases, you’re charged for all the electricity the system generates, and the extra that goes into the grid generates a credit from the local utility company to lower your bill. In other cases, you are charged a fixed fee from the solar company regardless of how much energy your panels produce.) In many cities across the United States, the solar electricity rate is actually lower than what you’d pay on your regular utility bills. So I could save money and reduce pollution by leasing solar panels? It sounded like a no-brainer.

The next step was deciding which solar company to choose. I stumbled across a TED Talk from Sungevity co-founder Danny Kennedy that was so inspiring that I bought his book, Rooftop Revolution. And since Sungevity headquarters in Oakland, California, are close to where I went to graduate school, I felt a special kinship with them.

Before signing a lease, I decided to do a little more investigation, just to be thorough. First I had a couple of local solar companies come to my house, climb up on the roof, and design a system to fit my budget. Then I stumbled across a neighborhood co-op in Washington that organizes bulk solar purchases to save homeowners money. Suddenly, buying solar panels started to look even more attractive than leasing—with a 30 percent federal tax credit, renewable energy credits, and additional savings as part of a group purchase, I would only pay a fraction of the upfront cost of solar. After I told my neighbors about this deal, four of them joined the bulk purchase.

Participating in the neighborhood co-op didn’t just offer us a chance to save money—we also had an opportunity to learn about different types of solar panels, inverters, roof mounting options, net metering, and warranties. We learned industry lingo and even some intriguing trivia—did you know that Canadian Solar is actually a Chinese company?

Perhaps the most perplexing element of the process was Solar Renewable Energy Credits. States with strong renewable energy portfolios can penalize utility companies for not producing enough electricity from renewable sources. To avoid paying large fines, the utilities can purchase credits from residential customers with solar panels. Each time the panels produce 1 megawatt-hour of electricity, it generates a credit that can be sold on the market. In some states the credits are quite lucrative, which creates a huge financial incentive to buy solar panels. Because I live in Washington, I was in a position to earn thousands of dollars from my SRECs.

I thought that once I signed a contract with local installer Solar Solution, everything would be completed in a few weeks. But I was mistaken—it turns out that solar panels require a lot of paperwork. Fortunately, my installer took care of all of it, but it did require some patience—three months’ worth, in fact. (The national average is six to eight weeks, but in Washington it takes especially long to get building permits.) In spite of the long wait, following what was happening behind the scenes was fascinating.

First we needed permission from the local utility (in my case, Pepco), since my system would be connected to its electrical grid. Second, we needed a building permit for the installation of the panels. Third, we had to send a letter to Pepco informing it that the installation was complete. Fourth, Pepco came to the house to install a smart meter to measure how much energy my system was feeding into the grid. After that, Pepco sent a letter informing me that it would start giving me credit for the excess electricity my panels produce. Finally, I signed up to sell my SRECs on the spot market.

My favorite part of the whole process was the installation of my solar panels. On a bright day in early December, I took off from work to watch the crew install the system. Although I expected the panels themselves to be big and bulky, I had no idea how much hardware was involved. Since my rowhouse has a flat roof, the next step was to build a frame for the panels to rest on an incline. It required six 20-foot aluminum beams to span the width of my roof. After that, they hoisted 12 solar panels up the two-story ladder and then bolted them in place. The last step was running an electrical conduit down the front of my house to connect the panels to the electrical box, inverter, and utility meter.

Solar panel installation on the author’s home.

Photo by Thomas Burnett

Solar panels on the author’s roof.

Photo by Thomas Burnett

From start to finish, a crew of four guys needed only four hours to complete the roof work, and the electrical connections took just a bit longer. Once the system was up and running, my installers provided me access to an online tool that monitors the power production of the panels in real time. This monitoring device is not only useful for calculating the renewable energy credits I produce and sell, but it’s also really fun to check on a regular basis. Now I find myself rooting for sunshine every day, and I can check online to see how much of it my panels captured. What’s the difference between sunny, partly cloudy, and overcast? With my system I can precisely quantify the amount of sunlight hitting my roof. It’s like keeping a daily weather journal without having to do any work.

How much power a solar array produces depends on its size, local weather conditions, and the season. When my system was installed in the dead of winter, direct sunlight hit my panels for only about eight hours per day. As you can see on the chart below, a really sunny winter day got me between 8 and 12 kilowatt-hours per day. Overcast days consistently produced less than 3 kWh. One day stands out in particular—Jan. 6, when 4 inches of snow covered my solar panels. As you might expect, my system produced zero energy.

Courtesy of Thomas Burnett

It was forecast to be extremely cold for the rest of the week, so instead of waiting several days for the snow to melt, I decided to climb onto the roof after work to clear off the solar panels. But getting up there was a real challenge. Since my attic doesn’t have roof access, I talked my next-door neighbor into letting me climb through her roof hatch. Unfortunately her hatch didn’t have a fold-down staircase, so I resorted to climbing up to the top rung of a footstool and used some ninja moves to pull myself through the hatch while avoiding a flurry of lead paint chips falling from the ceiling. Once I got onto the roof, I relied on a long-handled dust broom and my nearly frozen hands to wipe off most of the snow. Standing out there shivering in the pitch dark with woefully inadequate tools, wondering how I was going to get down without hurting myself, I still felt a great sense of satisfaction for rescuing my buried solar panels.

Even with the occasional snowstorm in Washington, my system is estimated to generate about 5,000 kWh per year, which averages out to nearly 14 kWh per day. But what can a kilowatt-hour of electricity actually get you? This is not a unit of measurement that most people think about. To my delight, I discovered a data visualization from General Electric that answered this very question. One kilowatt-hour can power a ceiling fan for 12 hours, make 36 pieces of toast, or blend 400 frozen margaritas. On the other hand, 1 kilowatt-hour can give you 12 minutes of central air conditioning. Maybe we should be making more margaritas and less cold air.

The data visualization taught me that it really makes a big difference what appliances you have in the house and how often you use them. With solar panels on my roof, I’m much more aware of the energy that our household consumes each time we run the dishwasher, dry clothes, or turn on the oven. Other appliances like the Internet router, the refrigerator, and the hot water heater consume energy 24 hours a day, whether we’re home or not. After installing solar panels, I’ve come to realize that all of our modern conveniences come at a cost. Fortunately, by relying on renewable energy, we don’t have to give up all of our amenities in order to reduce our impact.

When I look back 30 years to the first time I saw my grandpa’s solar water heater in San Diego, I think he would be proud of me. I wish he were here to see the new panels on my roof.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.