Solar Analysis Paralysis

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Over the past few years I considered at least three solar proposals for my house before I was ready for solar.  I had even accepted one proposal before canceling it the next day.  But it wasn’t until I had also been in the solar industry for a year, myself, that I actually took the first step to get out of electric debt.

I connect my solar to the grid
PG&E gave me PTO – “permission to operate” and connect my solar to the grid.

How confident was I that I wasn’t making a mistake?

Confident, enough, I guess.  The deal I made was better than the previous ones, thanks to historically low interest rates and historically high PG&E electric rates.  Industry partners, from manufacturers to solar lenders, had made many improvements to meet demands from consumers, so the options had improved.

No down payment.  Long warranty.  It was a good deal.

My confidence came from understanding the economics.  I’m expecting inflation to continue to erode dollar value.  So, having a fixed price for any monthly expense, is a rare and valuable thing.  Turning an expense into an asset, even rarer.  Installing the right size system produces, in effect, rising income (i.e., savings, otherwise spent on increasing utility rates).

I was ready for solar in February, 2018, pushed off the fence by the talk of tariffs and rising interest rates.

Predicting the Future

Did I know exactly what I was getting or how it would work out?

Not really.  I bought a system with batteries to take advantage of TOU.  The battery-maker ran into financial trouble a few months later.  Then, the finance company stopped lending.  But, they take my payments, everything works, it’s under warranty for another 24 years, and my interest rate is locked in.

PG&E bill showing a credit balance for electricity
My electric usage at home is down this year and it looks like PG&E will owe me about $80.

Also, right now, PG&E owes me over $400 worth of electricity.  Because my household lost a member and electric use went down, and the system is producing more than I’m using.  So, I put a freezer in the garage without worrying my electric costs will go up too much.

An electric car or air-conditioning may be in my future.  Time will tell how much of that credit I use up, before the days get longer and I have my first True-up, in April.

I still had some doubts when I bought, but I’m glad I did.  I certainly knew more about what I was getting than when I originally signed up with PG&E.  PG&E used to give me all the gas and electric I needed for less than $15 a month!

I never expected my utility bill would become 10 times higher.  Or predicted that PG&E would be filing for Chapter 11 just months after installation.  Utility rates, inflation, and an uncertain future make solar ready for me!

Safer Than Driving

You probably know that flying is safer than driving.  The odds of being killed in a car are also greater than those of being shot.  Airplanes are scary because they’re less likely, and consequently less familiar.

Solar energy generation for most of us, is also full of unknowns, variables, and estimates.   But it’s safer than driving, and at the very least, should feel safer than loaning a car to your kids!

If you are considering buying a house that already has solar on the roof, someone else has already made most of the decisions.  That leaves you with a relatively simple, “yes” or “no,” decision.

graph of household energy use compared
Household energy use comparison

Tips for getting solar ready

There are two sides to every equation

I enjoy talking to electricians, contractors, engineers, and others who like to get technical (my Dad was an electrical engineer).  So, please, by all means, do some research if you enjoy it.  I am sure there were people who estimated their electric bills when they first signed up with PG&E!

But don’t forget to do the math (or let someone like me do it for you) comparing the Utility to your solar options.  Every month that you pay the Utility, you pay them for a past expense, and you’ll never get it back.

Lock in a fixed interest rate while they’re still historically low.

Before letting more solar savings pass you by because you are waiting for “things in the future” or more certainty, find out how much you’re sacrificing because you don’t feel ready.

Solar installers on a roof
Preferred partner, American Home Energy’s solar team installing on a rooftop in Pinole, CA for SunStor Solar.

Your time is valuable, too

One of my happiest customers is a general contractor who, besides being savvy about the process of a mini-construction-project, also realized that his time was more valuable elsewhere.  He was ready for us to save him time, and to let us suggest equipment and manage the solar installation.  He didn’t have to worry about permits and inspections, or the learning curve of trying to do it, himself.

Solar projects and construction are alike in that one must be ready for changes.  Manufacturers introduce improvements and finance companies offer new plans, mid-project.  Both things happened during the relatively short period of his job.  We were able to upgrade or update his equipment twice during the schedule with minimal delay.

Some benefits are easily calculated

Another customer who didn’t want to wait, is a bookkeeper who had a relatively small electric bill.  Smaller electric bills mean smaller savings.  But she has watched how utility rates rise for many years, and appreciates keeping her electric cost small, going forward.

Now, when she retires, she’s ready, because her solar-electric cost will be at a fixed rate, or possibly paid off.

A neighbor of hers who could have saved over $300 a month wasn’t ready for solar.  He has already delayed 15 months longer than she did, spending $4,500 to wait, so far.  That money could have been paying off his system in addition to giving him electricity, and it would have come from PG&E’s pocket.

Be very cautious about published advice (including mine)

The Internet is a great place to get some general terminology.  Economic and design considerations, however, vary hugely from location to location, and from time to time.  Even if the Internet information is up-to-date (this year), the advice, opinions, and recommendations, can be completely wrong for you and your household!

Make a list of questions

Before you talk to your solar professional, get ready by using the Internet and other published research to make a list of questions to ask.  But don’t feel you have to know everything.  It isn’t necessary to know exactly what a kWh is.

Reality check

When I sold computers in the 80’s, “Consumer Reports” came out with ratings for PC’s.  These included Atari, Commodore, Apple, Tandy, Kaypro, Amiga, and the like.  They produced some very useful comparisons of the hardware and available software.

However, they really had no idea what they were talking about when it came to some practical realities.  Even consumer experts can miss some obvious factors that affect real value.

Hardware vs Software vs Productivity

The availability of software was more important than the hardware in those days.  Most of the PC’s they reviewed and tested were going to be obsolete in 6-12 months, as it turned out.  If you didn’t already have software to do the work, you would be out of luck.

Reading the article, I didn’t think they understood the market forces at work.  I knew things they did not because I was in the middle of the action.

Personal computers were a new technology, actively developing to meet consumer demand.  Not only did each user have different needs, but each computer had different advantages.  And, consideration of sales momentum (or consumer preference momentum), was lacking in their analysis.

Patent drawing of Solar Inverter
1957 Patent Drawing of a solar inverter on display at SunStor Solar’s Yuba City store

Solar panels were patented in the 1950’s.  In California, as with computers, consumers are finally ready for solar.  You can see that by looking around the neighborhoods in California.  Now that they’ve reached a critical mass, after-purchase support is increasingly available.

Check the date

Recently, hoping to see if what I could find online about residential solar, I did some searching for some general reviews.  The first article I came to contained several errors of fact and opinion, so I checked the date (2014).  It was too old.  Solar development, like that of personal computers, is moving too fast to rely on old posts or old rumors.

California is not Average

The review also averaged several geographic regions.  California has utility rates that are double those in other states, so that impacts advice considerably.  This caused them to suggest problems or risks that don’t apply in much of California.

Equipment or Electricity?

Yes, innovations keep coming.  Needs vary with the weather and other things.  Government keeps changing the rules.

So how do you decide you’re ready for solar, when the train is already in motion?

When I bought my first PC in 1981, I may not have known the future, but I knew I was sick of using a typewriter, and having to start the page over if I made any edits.  I don’t know how Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott did it, longhand!

I just knew I was buying a computer that could word-process for me, and let me edit as much as I wanted without starting over, and I was willing to pay the price.   It was “obsolete” six months later when IBM came out with their IBM PC.  But it still did word processing for years.  (It still does, though I don’t use it.)

View between the legs of a high voltage tower toward another one in the distance
Electricity sent via high voltage transmission lines.

What are you buying, really?

Solar is similar in that respect.  Ask whether you’re ready for electricity to come from solar on competitive terms.  Buy it for the problem it solves.  Maybe someday you won’t need electricity, but right now, you need some.

New options will come.  Some realities will change.  On the other hand, electricity is electricity.  It’s far more simple and generic than disk-drives, RAM chips, or software.

Figure out what you want to accomplish before you figure out how

Suppose you know you don’t want to keep writing checks for last month’s electric debt to the Utility.  Or, maybe you just want a contracted price for electricity that doesn’t change based on political whims.  Perhaps you want to feel good about your energy footprint.  If those benefits are there, why wait to get them?

Then get time on your side

For electricity consumers, locking in an electric rate that saves compared to the Utility, is based on today’s conditions.  The cost trend for electricity is up, for as far as we can see.  So are interest rates and tariffs.  The price of a solar alternative is mostly determined by savings compared to the local Utility.

Waiting to predict the future has its downside.

Prices might come down in the future (when the tax credits go away).  Producers could become desperate for market share.  But what will waiting cost you?  Tariffs could go up.  The price of silver and other materials, fluctuate.  Meanwhile, you’re using carbon paper and correction fluid, scissors and paste.

Until the market becomes saturated, and solar manufacturers start trying harder to take your business from each other, beating the Utility is going to be the main goal.  So, the sooner you negotiate a better deal for electricity than the one you have, the sooner you get the benefit.

Danger Warning Electric Third Rail sign
Electric Third Rail Danger

Don’t put a fork in the electrical outlets

You already know that, don’t you?  And you know how to plug in a lamp.

You can make the decision complicated or simple.  You called up the Utility and got connected without too much trouble.  You agreed to pay the bill (whatever it was) when it came.  Simple.  You didn’t have to understand the science unless you wanted to.  Qualified professionals did the work.

Trust

Your solar advisor is going to have to try harder to make you happy than the Utility did, when the Utility was the only option you had!  Take advantage and compare quotes.  If you are considering offering on a house that already has solar, compare that to what it would cost to add to a home without it.  Compare it to Utility rates for power.

Make your list of questions, and then contact someone like me who can hook you up with the answers and options that matter to you.  You and solar may be ready for each other, or not, once you’ve had a chance to see a system customized for you.

Why did/do you hesitate?  Is it your personality?  Is it rational or irrational?  Are you waiting for a sign?  Is your usage too low?  Please comment below, and Bookmark, Like, Share, Follow, or Subscribe.  Contact me with questions or suggestions.

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