Mitchell Goes Solar – an ES News interview

Are you thinking about getting solar panels for your home or curious about the process and results? This interview covers one Energy Sciences team member’s experience “going solar” at home.

At Energy Sciences – collectively and individually – our goal is to provide energy consulting services and solutions with pride and integrity, to practice and promote sustainability and strive to be socially responsible for the benefit of our planet and its inhabitants. Like the rest of us, Mitchell Gleason, an Energy Consultant at Energy Sciences, takes energy savings and sustainability to heart. So much so that he decided to put in residential solar generation. ES News asked him about it.

ES News:

What prompted you to go solar at home?

MG:

Ever since I got into the energy efficiency field, I’ve been really interested in solar, just the aspect of being able to generate my own energy. Also, someday I would love to be entirely off grid. So, when my wife and I went to purchase a house back in 2018 and decided it was going to be our forever home, part of my stipulation in picking a house was to find one that was going to have great potential for solar on the roof.

The house we chose was great for solar. Our percentage of sun on this roof is like 93%. When the sun is up, there is sun on the roof almost all the time.

ES News:

How did you determine that the roof was good for solar?

MG:

Mitchell’s House With Solar Array

First, I made sure the pitch was primarily south-facing, and there were no trees shading it. Then, there are online tools you can use to evaluate your house for solar. You can get solar viability and savings estimates through popular real estate sites like Zillow, which provides a “Sun Number,” or you can go directly to sunnumber.com. You can also look at Google’s Project Sunroof (sunroof.withgoogle.com).

ES News:

So, you found a house that was a good prospect for solar, and you had it put on as soon as you moved in?

MG:

Not quite. First, I established what our electric bills were going to be. You want to put up enough to cover your usage but not pay for more than you need.

Being the energy nerd that I am, I actually added up all of the watts of the equipment that I had in my house, including fans and lighting, counted lights and fixtures, everything that uses energy in the house. Then estimated how often we use each thing and calculated how much electricity we would use on average each month. I determined what I would need, and then I got a number of quotes from companies that do home solar.

Also, there are these fun calculators online that solar companies use, such as PV Watts (PVWatts Calculator (nrel.gov)) from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory – they are kind of for energy geeks – I used them to double-check my assumptions.

ES News:

Wow! That sounds like a lot of hard work! Does everyone have to go through that?

MG:

No, that was just me being an energy engineer. Most people don’t do all that.

An important thing here is that utilities limit the size of solar that you can put on your house. They want you to put in an array that will produce only as much electricity as you consume. The simpler, more straightforward way is to get an energy bill, hand it to the solar company, and they’ll do all the calculations for you.

ES News:

What if you need more power later? Maybe you get a new freezer or something?

Mitchell’s Inverter

MG:

Good question. The system works like this: you have the inverter, you have the panels, and you have the meter. Those are the three main components. Obviously, there’s more to it, but the three main things you’re looking at are the panels, the inverter, and the meter (provided by the utility). Your inverter size is based on your solar array, so if you get for instance and inverter that can handle 3 Kilowatts and your system is producing 2.5, you can throw up a couple more solar panels and increase your production.

So, what some people will do is they’ll put a bigger inverter in. Pay a little bit more in upfront costs. That way, they can expand if they want to.

Anyway, if you have a new house and no usage record, a good solar provider will ask questions about how many computers you have in your house, how many TVs, how many other items like fans, and things running a lot, and put it through a generic calculator. If you have been in your place for a while the solar provider simply uses your utility bill to determine your usage. You don’t do anything, they will calculate what you need and present you with a complete plan that will pass any utility requirements and meet your electric and budget goals.

ES News:

Speaking of budget, you had just purchased a house; how did you pay for all of this?

MG:

We actually took out a loan to cover the purchase. I did some more number crunching, looked at tax incentives, and determined that our monthly loan payment would be cheaper than what our electric bill would be on average for a month. I got our loan directly through Michigan Saves (Residential Home Energy Financing | Michigan Saves). They are a “green bank” that provides energy financing. A good solar company will help you do this too.

ES News:

Let’s get technical again. The solar panels produce energy whenever the sun is on them, but typically you don’t have the lights on during the day when the sun is shining? You can’t turn the solar panels down to only produce what you are using, and you can’t bring out the sun at night when you need the energy? How do you get power at night? And what happens if you generate too much energy, more than you are currently using?

MG:

Generating more energy than we are using at the moment happens all the time.

Solar energy is typically a “net metering” process. That is what it’s called. The utility is metering (keeping track of) what you’re using and they’re also metering what you’re producing. The energy that you take from the grid is tracked by your meter, and if you generate energy that you don’t use, it is pushed back onto the grid, which is tracked by your meter. All of this is kept in the utility’s records and so at the end of the month they give you a report that says you used this much, and you produced this much.

It’s all based on how much you use over time, not at any particular minute. During the day, and during the summer in general, solar produces more energy than we can use. That extra energy goes back into the wires, into the grid, and is used through the utility by our neighbors.

ES News:

Wait a minute, do you get paid for that?

MG:

Do I see that as money? No. It’s kept in a balance sheet somewhere. If the panels are producing and we are not using it, that energy adds up as a utility credit. The utility “owes” it back to us. So, during the night, or during the winter when we’re not producing as much, we get it back. We don’t pay for it, because we gave it to the utility before and they are giving it back when we need it.

If I do get a bill where I owe some money, it’s in January through March and it’s like 7 or 8 bucks. The solar array is still generating electricity during those months, just not as much, and sometimes not enough to cover all of our usage.

ES News:

So, you are not off grid now, you push energy onto the grid and get a credit for it and then pull energy off the grid if you don’t generate enough with the solar panels?

MG:

Yes. Eventually what I want to do is go completely go off grid, and that’s where batteries come in. You can get batteries that charge when you are not using all the solar-generated electricity. Then, when you need it – like at night and in the winter – you have energy saved in your batteries. But right now, economically, it did not make sense for us to purchase a battery system.

The whole home solar thing is a long-term investment in our own power generation and in producing and using clean energy. We want to do what is best both economically and environmentally.

ES News:

Thank you for telling us about your experience with home solar. For a final question, having gone through the experience, would you do it again?

MG:

Absolutely. There may be a few things we would do differently, but we would do it again. As I mentioned, we are looking at it as a long-term investment that includes both energy and financial security. For instance, the required payment on our loan is about what our average electric bill would have been. As rates increase, that payment will stay the same, so we are protected from rate increases. But we are actually paying more on the loan to get it paid off quicker. That way, in just a few years the loan will be paid off. The solar panels are warranted for 25 years. So, in a few years, we will be paying nothing at all for our own, clean electricity for decades to come.