Close up man installing solar panels

I’ve signed up to get a solar power system installed on my home, what happens now?

For grid-tied systems, the solar company you have chosen now gets to work on obtaining the approvals you need to install your solar system.

How does my contractor get approval of the Utility to install your solar panels?

 

solar installation diagram

 

Contractors handle most of the steps necessary to install your solar or renewable energy system and connect it to your utility electric grid.

Depending on your utility there may be either one or two forms you need to sign.

In the case of PG&E there is the Agreement and Customer Authorization (A&A) form and Standard Net Energy Metering (NEM) Interconnection Application. With other utilities these forms may be in one interconnection and net metering agreement.

By singing the Authorization agreement you are authorizing your utility to release data about your usage and your installation to the solar company.

By signing the net metering agreement you are agreeing to install only the solar equipment contained in the interconnection application and to operate it only in accordance with the instructions from the utility.

A nasty sting in the tail is that in this agreement you are also indemnifying the utility against any damage to its grid or other loss caused by your solar generation equipment installed in your home impacting on the grid. To my knowledge no homeowner anywhere in the world has ever been sued under such an indemnity but it is something you should be aware of nonetheless.

Can I negotiate the interconnection and net metering agreement with the utility?

In short the answer is no, you can’t. It is a case of either agreeing to the utilities terms or not getting solar.

How do I get a digital solar meter installed that can record usage and power export for net metering?

In most parts of America the net meter will be changed and installed by the utility or their metering contractor but in the case of some utilities they allow the solar company’s licensed electrical contractor to pull the service fuse and upgrade the meter. Any fees associated with this should have been included in your solar quote (or at least disclosed).

A net meter measures the kilowatt hours being delivered to your home as well as what the system over-produces and feeds back into the electric grid. This is recorded in real time; when a meter reading is taken, only the net usage is recorded and billed.

What happens if I produce more solar energy than I use?

Excess generation month to month is banked up. So if you exported 100kwh more than you used in July this could cover the first 100 kwh you imported from the grid in August.

For each system there is what is known as an annual true-up. What this means is that once a year if there is excess solar credits (i.e you have exported over the year more solar power than what you have used grid power) then the utility will do one of three things with these excess credits, depending on the net metering rules in place that govern your utility:

  • Pay you out for them at the full retail rate (fairly rare but a few utilities do): 
  • Pay you out for them at an avoided cost rate of 3-4 cents per kwh (this is the case with the California, Massachusetts, Utah, New York, New Jersey and most of the other leading solar states) An avoided cost rate is designed to be something similar to what the utility would pay a normal fossil fuel burning power station for power and so is a completely unsubsidized rate; or 
  • Cancel the excess credits with no compensation to you. This is less common but you should understand how your utility deals with excess credits at the annual true up date when sizing your system.

An off-grid solar installation bypasses the local utility provider altogether but must include a sizable budget for batteries and/or other storage mechanisms. The biggest reasons people opt for net-metering over off-grid solar installations are initial costs and uninterrupted delivery of electricity. If your solar array is not producing enough energy to power your home (for example, at night), interconnection allows you to pull what is needed from your region’s power grid.

Most residential installs take advantage of net-metering, if it’s available - but be aware that your local utility will likely set limits on the capacity of the system you are tying into the grid.

Who actually installs the system on my roof?

Generally a solar installation crew will be one electrical contractor and either one or two roof workers.

It is wise to ask the solar company for the electrical contractors license number for the actual electrician who is going to install the system.

It is also worth knowing if these people work for the solar company or are contractors.

Although anecdotal, evidence seems to suggest that solar installers who work full time for the solar company do better work and are more careful. Given these people are walking over and penetrating your roof you want them to feel a sense of responsibility for the outcome.

Installation quality has been a real problem for the largest solar companies who employ many contractors.

How long does an actual solar installation take?

For the installation of most standard sized residential solar power systems a crew of three people will install them in a day. If your roof is difficult or the size of the system is 10kw or larger then perhaps two days might be more realistic.

However, you cannot turn your system on until it is inspected by the utility and the meter has been changed (or programmed if this was all that was necessary)

Is net-metering available for a solar panel installation at my home?

Not every state in the US offers net-metering. Colorado and 37 other states mandate net-metering is made available. Idaho and Texas allow for individual utilities to offer net-metering voluntarily. Seven states have elected to offer a different kind of compensation, in lieu of net-metering. Or, your area may have no options to tie into the system. The first step in deciding on a solar installation must be an investigation into the options, with precise specifications, available in your area for tying into the electric grid. A good place to start is to view the state solar guides.

Should I include a solar installation in the construction of my new home?

The best-case scenario for solar production is when the system is included with new construction. In the Northern Hemisphere, optimum efficiency from a solar installation calls for a south- or south-west facing pitched roof. Roof-pitch angles vary between regions, an architect or contractor specializing in solar installations will have specific recommendations for your area.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to optimize your home or business construction and orientation when it’s being built, you will need to get your architect and solar installer talking right away. Both should be well-versed in building codes at every level of authority applicable. With new construction, roof-mounted systems are usually preferred over ground installations in most regions. But in less temperate climates, considerations must be made for snow and wind loads. If you’re starting from scratch, there could be no additional delays in permitting if everyone is aware of all the applicable regulations in your specific location.

Your architect and solar installer should also consider how much of your roof will be shaded by the surrounding trees or other obstructions, and for how long, each day. Conversations with these professionals should include whether an array that tilts to follow the sun, or one with micro-inverter solar panels would be cost-effective and design-feasible. Choosing your system is as unique as choosing your home décor – no one solution fits all. A well-balanced decision using as much information as possible is your best bet while developing a solar installation plan.

What happens if my solar installation is a remodel?

Things can get a little trickier when the installation is a remodel. Few people pick a house they are going to buy based on its ability to be the best solar farm. Most people fall in love with a house because of the views, or its location, or other personal preferences. So, when you perform a solar installation on an existing home, there might be a few more hoops to jump through. Again, it’s wise to hire a contractor experienced in such work locally. You can expect various numbers of permits, inspections, and change orders to accompany this process. You may need to trim some trees, or move other obstructions on your property to realize the greatest possible efficiency of your system.

Working with your local utility

Coordinating a net-meter installation with your local utility is important. Before the system can be turned on, a net meter must be installed. Make sure the utility billing department has put you on its net-metering rate, too. It is probable that rules about the maximum capacity of the system are set by the utility which will be described in the interconnection agreement between you and your utility provider.

Monitoring the production of your new solar system

Depending on where you live, the ability to generate energy with solar power varies. Most solar installations include a monitoring device which tells you in real time what your system is producing once it is operational. You need to be well acquainted with the rated efficiency of your system. You will notice an increase in production when the sun is directly over the panels, a decrease when it’s cloudy, or when they are shaded or covered in snow. If you elected to install solar panels with micro-inverters, the entire interconnected array does not stop producing when one or two panels are shaded. Production stops at night, of course. The course of the day’s production can be charted and displayed graphically, which is an interesting snapshot of the system’s capacity. However, this system-specific metering should not be confused with the results of your net meter. Remember, you are being billed on the net result of the system, after your home has utilized what it can. Your net meter numbers will never match what your system is producing. In addition, there is a little loss with resistance as the energy travels through the interconnected system which cannot be quantified.

Measuring the financial sustainability of your solar system

No matter your system’s rated capacity, the test of sustainability will come with the collective savings reflected on your utility bill. It’s best to take the average of an entire year, as solar production fluctuates with the seasons. If it’s a typical year for weather conditions, it would be safe to use that as an average to calculate how many years it will take to pay off your initial investment. Be aware that as a solar system ages, its capacity diminishes somewhat. Some generalized predictions of your cost-savings are included in the results of our solar calculator.

If you are on a net meter, you are being credited (or refunded) based on usage. In most cases, your monthly utility bill includes a base fee independent of how much your system produces. This fee is necessary to pay for infrastructure costs such as power lines, transformers, and line maintenance. Depending on your utility’s billing structure, this fee may or may not be paid for by any extra electricity your system generates and feeds back into the grid.

If your solar installation is an off-grid system, added initial costs will include batteries and pay-back calculations should include the depreciation of the batteries, which occurs at a faster rate than on the system itself. See more information on this subject here.

Other benefits of installing solar

Another effect of adding solar to your home or business is an increased awareness of your energy consumption. The usage that is reduced through behavioral changes is very difficult to measure but should be considered when calculating the reduction in consumption of billable electricity after a solar installation. An effective solar installation can increase the value of your home and lower your utility bill. For those in remote areas, an off-grid system can offset the initial charges of extending the nearest utility service lines to your location. A thorough investigation of all your options through consultations with professional installers and/or architects and a comprehensive knowledge of your local building and electrical codes will prepare you well for an upcoming solar project.

 

Interviews:

-Thomas W. Beck, architect, TW Beck & Associations, Estes Park, Colorado http://www.twbeckarchitects.com/ thomas@twbeckarchitects.com

-Reuben Bergsten, Utility Director, Town of Estes Park, https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/townofestespark/solar-power; rbergsten@estes.org

-Susie Park, Administrative Assistant for Net Metering, Town of Estes Park; sparker@estes.org

Resources: -National Conference of State Legislatures; State Net-Metering Policies as of November, 2017, http://www.ncsl.org/research/energy/net-metering-policy-overview-and-state-legislative-updates.aspx Town of Estes Park Interconnection Agreement and Net-Metering Policy, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0aDyxAOzAJEcl9FaTlFQlJCMlE/view https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0aDyxAOzAJEcl9FaTlFQlJCMlE/view