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About Those Solar Panels Now

November 2nd, 2015

Remember those solar panels I was all excited about back in January?

Remember those solar panels I was all excited about back in January?

I’ve had them up on my roof putting out clean energy for almost a year now. Eleven months ago today, I generated my first watt, and I’ve been meaning to post about it ever since. The trouble is, for the entirety of those eleven months, until this very morning, I was locked in bureaucratic battle with the electric company to get them inspected, signed off on and correctly wired into the billing system so I could actually benefit by them. That was frustrating. It was Kafkaesque. And it didn’t seem worth posting about until I actually had something to celebrate.

My first day's worth of power - Dec. 30, 2014

My first day’s worth of power – Dec. 30, 2014

Now, finally, I do. Here, then, is a bit of a roundup. This is the laughably short version. More to come, maybe, if you’re interested in the nitty gritty.

I started looking seriously into residential solar around July 2014, when I realized I could afford it. I solicited quotes from the only two companies I could find doing solar installation in southeastern Michigan. The first, Michigan-based, refused to quote me for more power-generating capacity than the paltry ~200 kWh I was consuming monthly at that time, citing restrictions imposed by the electric company, Detroit Edison (DTE). So I went with the Ohio-based company, who agreed to install sixteen Canadian-assembled, China-made, 240-watt photovoltaic panels, each with its own American-assembled, Singapore-made microinverter, at a cost of ~$18.5k: max capacity 3.7 kW. They showed up a few days after the winter solstice, the bottom of the solar year, and had everything in place and running in under 48 hours. I got $5.5k back on my taxes via the 30% renewable energy tax credit (which, if you’re considering taking advantage, now has been extended through 12/31/2019), for a net cost to me of ~$13k.

Notably, this installation did not include a backup battery: I decided they were too expensive and didn’t last long enough to justify it. I hoped soon there would be new, better, next-generation batteries like Tesla’s ballyhooed PowerWall; I still have that hope.

I filled out the small mountain of paperwork required by DTE to get on their Net Metering program. Net Metering: they tally up my electricity usage and generation over course of the whole year, then bill me or credit me for the net. This accommodates the peaks and valleys of the solar year: there’s a lot more sun in July than January, and likewise we use more power at different times of the year than others. Without this or some kind of agreement with my electric company, my solar panels would have availed me nothing: they were hooked up to the grid and were feeding power into it as soon as the installers turned the system on, but DTE, who owns the grid, has no obligation to acknowledge or repay me for this power until we’ve come to a legal agreement on the terms.

I secured the documentation, submitted the many forms, waited, chewed my fingernails and waited. After three months, DTE came back asking for a letter of intent: before they would approve me to plug into their grid, I had to promise I would be using a lot more electricity in the very near future. I am frugal with power; I’ve worked hard to become so. I use a tiny fraction of the average; I purposely installed more capacity than I needed. But DTE didn’t want to pay me for the power generated by that extra capacity. A Michigan state law requires them to do so–but only if I have previously entered into an agreement with them on those terms. To get out of that, they just refuse to enter any such agreement that doesn’t include my promise not to make them have to pay me.

Yes, this is where Kafka rears his mouldering head to laugh at my misfortunes.

Yes, this is where Kafka rears his mouldering head to laugh at my misfortunes.

I wrote a letter avowing the aforementioned. They sent more paperwork, which I filled out and returned. I got impatient and looked further into battery backup; sadly the few Tesla Powerwalls made available so far seemingly all went to people in Silicon Valley; more won’t be available until at least 2017.

Three months after that, a DTE service guy came out and flipped a switch on the meter. We were now connected to the grid! Finally!

rEs nEt = Residential Net Metering

rEs nEt = Residential Net Metering

Nope. Whatever switch he flipped, he left others unflipped; the meter was monitoring but not reporting our power generation to the motherbrain; we were therefore neither getting charged for power we used nor credited for what we generated. Great! Free power! Yes, true…but we were generating twice as much as we were using. We gave DTE a heck of a lot of free power during this period; I had already given them a heck of a lot of free power in the preceding six months. In fact, in the eleven months it took them to get through all the paperwork and finally get this set up right, we fed into their grid, free of charge, no less than 3,712,806 Wh or 3.7 Megawatts.

Lifetime power generation for our system. That big gap around June was when I turned the system off so the DTE people could come flip (some of) the switches.

Lifetime power generation for our system. That big gap around June was when I turned the system off so the DTE people could come flip (some of) the switches.

Anyhow, I didn’t actually figure out they hadn’t flipped all the switches for another three months, because none of the half dozen people I’d talked to at DTE seemingly understood or was willing to explain how this was supposed to work. So I got on with the business of figuring out how to use up all that surplus power. I requested a special power-monitoring device that would have let me figure out the draw of every appliance in the house and monitor my usage in real time; this thing, it turns out, would not have worked anyway because the switches weren’t flipped, but that’s moot because they mailed it to the wrong house and didn’t tell me about it for three months. I researched at length and eventually leased an all-electric car, a 2015 Nissan Leaf. It is a joy. I had a dedicated EV charging port installed in my garage; by this time I was an old pro at navigating the bureaucracy, I knew just the right things to say, DTE came out and set that up perfectly within only a few weeks. I spoke to the technician who did so–she was very nice.

And don’t get me wrong about DTE. Almost everybody I talked to at my electric company was very patient and kind, and a lot of them were frankly surprised at how much effort this was taking and why their company saw fit to hold me to the wall like this. I was not surprised. I was, however, happy to explain everything to all these people, over and over, in more detail every time. Until, finally, my head burst above water.

It is good to breathe again.

And hey–if you’re interested in installing residential solar, particularly if you happen to live in Michigan, and if you have any questions about any of the above, please drop me a line. Seriously. If I can make this any easier for anyone else, it would go a long way towards making me feel like it was worth my while.

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