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Lessons I Learned from Going Solar

I wouldn’t be convicted by a jury of my peers, but I still feel guilty after all these years.

In May 2006, I took one solar installer’s brilliant idea and tossed it to another. Five company reps had suggested crazy arrays involving panels on south- and west-facing portions of my La Mesa roof.

Clean Power Resources, then a Poway-based company that’s since closed, suggested another way: Why not keep the system simple? Span your backyard patio and mount the panels on slanting aluminum racks.

The company rep bid $44,000 for a 5,100-watt system. Saying that a neighbor gave me the notion, I emailed the other bidders: How much would you charge for the same set-up?

DSH Solar Electric replied: $41,000.

I gave Clean Power Resources another chance: How about $42,500?

“I don’t believe I could lower the bid that much,” the representative said. “I do all of our bids with a very sharp pencil to begin with.”

The Clean Power rep expressed doubts about DSH (“We participate in a lot of alternative energy forums, workshops, trade shows and consumer shows, and I have never seen their name”), but I went with DSH nonetheless. They installed 27 SunPower panels and a SunPower inverter – the device that changes the current – that August.

With a state rebate, my out-of-pocket cost was $24,000.  We used a home equity loan to finance the project.

DSH changed its name to San Diego Solar and was acquired by Akeena Solar — which went bust. But the original owner, Dirk Hosmer, tells me he revived the company two years ago.

“My brother Brad, who ran operations back then, is back on board as of this week and my two best lead installers from back then are on board again, too,” Hosmer said. “You could say the band is back together.”

Today, my rooftop power plant is firing on all cylinders, helping power my plug-in Prius.

The experience taught me three big things: Get lots of bids. “Borrow” the best ideas. And don’t count on your top bidder’s survival.

Here’s what else I’ve learned as a solar consumer.

Get educated before you get schooled.

Knowing nothing about photovoltaic power — the science of solar —  I took a class. In spring 2006, I joined a few dozen other homeowners at the Foothills Adult Education Center in El Cajon. The one-day course was meant to show you how to install your own panels.

But my aim was to learn the lingo, so I could talk intelligently with company reps who would soon troop across my roof and into my living room.

When one of my bidders looked at our fuse box, noted the 100-amp handle and told me, “You cannot backfeed more amperage than 20 percent of the main busing of your service,” I had a clue.

It also helped that I stayed in touch with my teacher, Ron Ontell, who’s had rooftop solar since 2002.  Via email, he helped me navigate some of the wilder claims.

Beware the artisanal pitch.

One of my bidders was Borrego Solar, whose sales rep said the company’s installers considered installation an art form and themselves artisans. He also warned that Borrego’s bid would come in higher than the others — due to its excellence.

Another rep — for Silverwood Energy — sighed upon hearing that, saying Borrego just had a lot higher overhead (with fancy showrooms and offices and a big advertising budget).

Borrego’s rep was right — his bid did come in higher. I dropped them from contention.

Not insured and bonded? Oh, brother!

My brother Roger owns a Newport Beach insurance agency. He made sure I got proof of insurance from the solar installers.

One company balked, and Roger wrote me: “He can explain all he wants. The fact remains … if one of his guys falls off your roof, you are responsible for paying for his injuries.”

He also advised me to check with the Contractors State License Board, and “find out if they are even licensed to do solar installations.”

“Can you tell I don’t like these guys?” he said of one bidder. “This is the kind of stuff that causes everyone to pay more for insurance.”

Be aware of rebates, tax credits and deadlines.

First there was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Million Solar Roofs plan in 2005. Then the Emerging Renewables Program offered rebates until Dec. 31, 2006. The current Go Solar California campaign runs through 2016.

My rebate of $14,300 was based on the size of my system and a declining rate. It was $2.80 a watt when I signed up, but soon fell to $2.60. A federal tax credit for $2,000 helped the following year.

But you may need an accountant to figure out the current rebate.

“California Solar Initiative rebates vary according to utility territory, system size, customer class and performance and installation factors,” according to Go Solar California [1]. Indeed if you’re in SDG&E territory, you’re out of luck [2] – they stopped taking new applicants in 2014.

Federal tax credits also end in 2016.

Buy name-brand panels and gear.

When my inverter, mounted on an outside wall, failed to show the correct kilowatt hour totals on the display panel, I called DSH. They put me in touch with SunPower, the well-regarded maker of my system.

SunPower, based in San Jose, sent a technician and fixed the problem.

Get radicalized by SDG&E.

Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman was a San Rafael Assembly member in 2009 when he got my attention.

He wrote AB 920, a bill to force utilities to pay homeowners for any excess energy produced over the course of a year. For three years, under the old system, if my solar panels pumped more electricity into the grid than I used, I forfeited the profit. SDG&E just “zeroed out” my annual bill.

Now if I generate more than I use, I’m entitled to an annual check. We’ve paid $100 on the annual true-up dates — when solar customers are billed — in August. But we inch closer to getting a check.

SDG&E and fellow utilities lobbied to limit the size of rooftop systems, however. They still seek to slap solar owners with extra charges.

I smiled at a bumper sticker on an installer’s truck to the effect of “Annoy SDG&E. Go Solar.” Hosmer, the solar exec, said, “We used to advertise: Stick it to the man.”

Keep those panels bright and shiny.

I once inspected solar panels atop the new “eco-friendly” Pravada apartments on La Mesa’s Fletcher Parkway. I was disgusted. They were dirty and dusted — meaning very inefficient.

That comes to mind every four or five months when I scale a ladder with two pails of hot soapy water and a high-pressure hose attachment called the Aqua Cannon ($20 at the county fair). With a 12-foot Unger extension tool, I lightly scrub my 27 panels. Then rinse again. Takes about 45 minutes.

You can get even more vigilant, if you choose: One day, an engineer friend urged me to attach small fans under the panels, saying the cooling would boost their efficiency. But then he added: Buy a daylight sensor and use a battery-powered source for each fan. Acccck! Too much for my puny brain.

I never added the devices.

Feel superior to your neighbors.

La Mesans started to install rooftop solar in 2001, SDG&E tells me. In 2006, I was one of seven customers to go solar — among the first 40 in the city and the first 1,000 in the utility’s service area, including southern Orange County.

As of May 12, my city of 60,000 boasted 760 rooftop solar customers — a drop in the bucket for SDG&E, which had a total of 56,654 rooftop solar customers (including homes and businesses) in April.

The Jewel of the Hills has about 25,000 households, so that means only 3 percent of my neighbors have taken the plunge.

C’mon in, guys! The water’s fine.

So what’s my bottom line?

A confession: I’ve never calculated how much solar is saving me — or when I will break even on my investment.

When we had a teenager in the house, our annual electric bill was $2,000.  When our son went to college, usage dropped. But rates rose. We refinanced the house several years later, rolling our home-equity loan into the first mortgage.

All I know is that come 2021, we’ll own our home and solar system free and clear.

In other words: free electricity forevermore.

People ask: How long will your panels last? Sales reps told me some could last 50 years or more, but I’m not too concerned. I just love the idea of gassing my car with my home-grown juice, saving the Earth.

And never being at the mercy of a rate increase.

This is part of our quest on whether solar will pay off for San Diego. Check out our previous post, Rooftop Solar Doesn’t Help SDG&E with Clean Goals, here [3].