Posted by: Sandy Graham | August 18, 2021

Fossil to Sun in Seattle

Prior to 2017, my thought of solar power on the Pacific coast boiled down to “forget it, too many cloudy days and there would be no significant payback through the winter months”.  An article introducing net metering changed that. It described how the power company would bank credit for surplus power generated during sunny days to pay for shortfalls in the cloudy ones. And it claimed there are enough clear days in the Seattle area to do that. Frequency of baseball games with the roof open supported that claim.

We decided to investigate solar power and a little internet browsing allowed us to home in on two installers in our area, each with over ten years experience. The first one contacted, Sunergy Systems, sent a man out to survey our situation. He quickly identified optimum panel locations on south and west facing roof surfaces. Once on the roof-top, he used a device that measured tree locations and heights that might shade the panels. This data was later fed into a program that computed expected power generation throughout a year. Past power bills gave an indication of our annual consumption. Relating expected generation to this resulted in a recommendation of 26 panels, 17 facing south, 9 facing west.

The second installer contacted came to much the same conclusion working from satellite images. Probably the openness of our roof allowed that shortcut to succeed.

There was a choice of three solar panel manufacturers: a California company (Sun Power) on the high end in cost and performance, an Oregon company which was mid-priced, and a Washington company which was the lowest cost and also benefitted at that time from a higher State rebate for power generated. In the end, we opted for SunPower even though data showed it would take ten years to pay back the initial cost. SunPower enjoys a good reputation for reliability and standing behind their products. And the higher efficiency of their panels seemed important in our climate.

Cost quotes from the two installers for our configuration were essentially equal. We chose Sunergy Systems simply because they seemed more professional and they had no marginal reviews. I liked the fact that they are employee owned so they all have an incentive to perform. It proved to be a good choice. The two men who did the work were friendly and clearly competent. Our panels are on roof surfaces facing away from the street. After they were mounted, the man who installed them noticed that their top edge could be seen from the street. Instead of leaving them that way, he insisted on lowering them all to keep them out of sight.

The coup de grace came when the inspector took one look at the control units and said he could see this was a Sunergy installation. He related how they use Sunergy jobs to train new inspectors on how it should be done. Our choice of SunPower was also validated a year later when a micro-inverter on one of the panels failed. Their automated monitoring detected the failure. Since they had experienced other failures of these components, they had improved the design. They sent replacements for all our panels to Sunergy, who replaced them at no cost to us. In fact, it was done while we were out of town since they had no need to get inside. We were and are sold on the Sunergy Systems/SunPower combo.

The first two years we banked enough power to cover the winter months. That satisfaction prompted us to look at our gas consumption. A gas furnace/air conditioner combination was targeted when the air conditioner left us baking for four days during a hot stretch. We opted for a high-efficiency heat pump which drove our gas bill down to about ten dollars a month. We also replace our conventional water heaters with tankless units.

The solar panels were supplying 99% of our energy needs. That is, until we decided to abandon the gas pumps with electric cars: a Tesla and a plug-in hybrid that uses about one gallon of gas per month. Only problem with that, the extra load meant we were not banking energy during the warm months. The irritation of paying for electricity during the past two winters grated on us. The answer was to go back to Sunergy Systems and add ten more panels. The simplest solution would have been to add them on the west facing roof. However, I had built a detached shop specifically oriented to catch sun earlier in the day and more effectively during winter months. As a side benefit, the panels improved the appearance of the shop’s architectural shortfall. Sunergy Systems dealt with the added complexity without complaint.

The original panels were on a pace to pay for themselves in ten years. The additional panels will stretch that out but the satisfaction of knowing the sun is providing for the energy we use makes that more than worthwhile.

Two very minor uses of gas remain. Our lawn tractor forces me to head off periodically to the gas station in the Tesla. It’s kind of fun to note the second looks while waiting in line. Perhaps people hope to see me jam a pump nozzle into the charging socket and are disappointed when I drag a jerry can out of the trunk. We also have a small gas furnace that augments the heat pump when outside temperature falls more than a few degrees below freezing. We live in a rural area prone to loss of the grid during storms. After a week of running on a small portable generator years ago, we invested in a natural gas backup generator that automatically powers twelve circuits. One of them runs the gas furnace so we can heat the house as well.

A purist might ask why not install battery packs and go off the grid entirely. Two PowerWall units could replace our backup generator if we could tolerate a cold house when the grid goes down. Significantly more storage would be needed to support the current demands of range, water heaters and Tesla charger. It’s just not economically viable today. We happily join forces with the power company, giving them about twenty dollars a month to fill in our gas and electricity needs. Increased house value and enjoyment we feel from producing more energy than we use, make solar power a wonderful investment.


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