Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why I went Solar

    I have been asked a few times why I decided to go solar.  I am not someone that has ever been considered an environmentalist.  I leave that to my sister.  However, I can say this decision was all about green.  As in money.
     A few years ago, we moved from Folsom, CA to Cameron Park, CA.  A distance of about 12 miles.  In Folsom, we had natural gas for heat, the clothes dryer, the stove, and the hot water heater.  In Cameron Park, we are 100% electric.  In Folsom, electricity was provided by SMUD, in Cameron park it is PG&E.  I never knew what a difference it makes.  Our combined gas and electric bills in Folsom rarely exceeded $200 a month, and were often half that.  My first power bill in Cameron Park exceeded $600.  Talk about sticker shock.
     We did what we could to reduce the electric bill.  I replaced the 15 year old AC unit with a brand new one.  I was promised 20% savings on electricity the first year.  It was more like 5%.  Not good enough.  Electricity prices kept increasing, and my monthly bill remained way too high.  I kept hearing ads for solar on the radio promising savings, but I didn't think it was real.
      I called a few companies, and had them come give the sales pitch to us.  I did the math, and the payback periods for buying the system were long.  I am an engineer, I put the data in spreadsheets, I ran projections.  Even with the government incentives, the numbers didn't pencil out.  I dropped it for a few years.   More ads came along, promising new pricing models.  I took a look again.
      This time, the numbers came out closer.  I could achieve $60-$70 a month in savings with no upfront costs.  This was better, but would require me to commit to a long term contract.  Another company came in, and the numbers were similar.  I was on the fence.  Then, Real Goods came back with a new promotion.  I could get the same pricing they had offered before, but the first year would be free.  Now, instead of saving $60-$70 a month, I would be saving over $200 a month the first year.  I finally pulled the trigger.
      Results so far have been in line with expectations.  One thing I learned is that PG&E net billing method calls for me to pay only some of the taxes each month, resulting in a bill of about $12.  At the end of a year (I assume after my February bill), PG&E will send a bill for the net cost of what I used.  This essentially means they are providing me with a free loan.  Another side benefit.
      The key thing I have found is to take a look at all the data the salesmen throw at you, and make sure to do your own analysis.  Your savings can vary quite a bit depending on the plan you pick and how much you invest.  Sometimes, investing a little more actually lowers your savings quite a bit.  Always run the numbers, and figure out where your break even point is.

Monday, July 2, 2012

June Update

Since I was on vacation for the past week, I didn't have a chance to post about the totals from my June bill and so I will combine that with the June actual vs expected.

To start with the simple one, June generation was 786.56 KWh, while expected was 938.  While there was only 1 day of low generation in June, the higher temperatures apparently lower the efficiency of the panels, so I never had a day above 28.5 KWh generated, and had only 1 day below 23 KWh (in fact, it was only 2 days under 25 KWh, with the second lowest day coming in just over 23 KWh).  So far, the total generated is up to 2865 KWh, while the expected was 3317.  When I called Real Goods last month to ask about this, they said the expected was too high and they would work with the web guys to get that fixed, but so far, it is unchanged.  According to my contract, the estimated generation from year 1 is 7545 KWh, while the guaranteed total is 7168 KWh.  There is no breakdown by month in the contract, so I don't know if I am on track or not.  I am 4 months in, and at roughly 40% of the guaranteed number (and 38% of the estimated number).

Now for the more interesting part.  I once again used negative peak power (-18 KWh).  But, I used more part peak and offpeak power than last month (a total of 521 KWh vs 353 KWh), probably due to the increased temperature.  My total PG&E bill was $49.56 this month.  If I had used the same amount of power last year, the bill would have been $287.43.  The medical exception alone would have reduced that to  $176.20.  With solar, the medical exception doesn't even kick in, since I stayed below the baseline.  Solar this month saved me $237.87.  So, it is right in line with the $90-$100 dollar savings I expected to have if I had to pay for solar ($141 a month next year, since the first year is free!).