In 2003, I purchased a photo voltaic system for my house at a cost of $27,000. The system consisted of a 2.5 kW grid-tied inverter and 18 – 135 watt solar panels, along with the mounting hardware and installation. At the time, there was a tax incentive which paid $8,000 of the cost of the system, leaving me with paying $19,000.
In 2003, my local power utility had a time-of-use metering schedule that charged me much higher rates during the day when my PV system was generating the most power. I was sending most of the power I generated to the grid and I was able to draw electricity at a much lower cost during darkness. For about 10 years, my electric bill amounted to $200-$300 per year. I had a good feeling about being able to generate a good portion of the electricity I was using from the sun. At the time my system was installed, I never considered the actual cost of materials provided to me by the solar company that did my installation.
About 3 years ago, my local power utility company changed the rules of the solar generation game. They moved peak time farther into the afternoon, so that I was generating very little electricity during half of the peak period. My cost for electricity from the utility skyrocketed to about $1,000 per year. Apparently, the electric utility, with all of the residential solar installations, wasn’t making enough money because they didn’t have to sell as much.
The time-of-use schedule I was given was workable. I just had to account for the higher cost of electricity. Unfortunately, the rate I was given was not available to new solar generators. Anyone buying a new solar installation would have their peak time start at 3:00 PM, a time when the sun is on its way down and solar power is generally low. As much as electric utilities say they are proponents of renewable energy, they are only interested in how much money they can make from their customers. The closed rate schedule I’m on will phase out in 6 years. At that time, I will be forced into the 3:00 PM peak time schedule, which will make grid-tied residential solar of no financial benefit to homeowners.
A couple of weeks ago, I walked into my garage first thing in the morning and checked my PV inverter as I do each morning. On that particular morning, the inverter had some bad news for me. It was on, but it was not generating any electricity. The inverter display showed there was a ground fault in my solar array. I did a quick search on the Internet and decided it would be prudent to just call the solar company and have them troubleshoot the problem.
I expected that I might have to wait several days for a technician to come out, but I was surprised when I was told that a technician would be out by the end of the day. Late afternoon, the technician arrived and began looking at my system. His first comment was that he didn’t realize my inverter was such an old one. It was over 15 years old. The technician didn’t look much older than my inverter.
The technician ended up calling the company that made the inverter. They talked him through some diagnostics and decided that the problem was with the solar array. At the time this troubleshooting was going on, there was a steady rain falling. The technician reluctantly said that he would need to go up on the roof to check the array. I suggested that going up on the roof could be saved for another day when it wasn’t raining. The technician packed up and left. I called the solar company and made an appointment for a return visit the following week.
When you have a solar electric system and it’s not working, it feels a bit like not having your cellphone with you. I kept thinking of all the electricity I wasn’t generating. Nearly a week after the first service visit, the same technician came back and went up on the roof to check my array. He was up there for about a half hour, then came down and reported that there was no short circuit in the solar array. The inverter was still reporting a ground fault in the array. The technician was beside himself. He clearly had no clue as to what to do next. His last comment to me was that he would need to go back to the office and call the inverter company again. It was obvious that he didn’t know what to do and just wanted to leave. I let him leave and then I went back to the Internet.
I did some searches for less than an hour and ended up with the exact cause of my inverter failure. It seems that a number of people, with the same inverter, had experienced the ground fault error when there was no actual ground fault. The culprit was a solid-state module in the ground fault detection circuit. I found that I could order the module from sellers in Hong Kong and China for about $18, but it would take 30 days to ship the part to the United States.
About 4 months before my inverter failed, I had contacted the solar company and asked for a quote for a new inverter and to add 3 additional solar panels to my array. The quote from the solar company was not itemized. It listed the inverter they proposed to install and said they would add 3 additional panels for a total cost of $4,900. Initially, when I got the quote, my thought was that it was more money than I was willing to spend and I had set the quote aside. Because of my inverter failure, I started researching the cost of new inverters.
In the grand scheme of things, I found that inverters are not very expensive. The inverter that the solar company had proposed as an upgrade retailed for $1,100. The 3 additional solar panels would cost $750. So, the total retail cost for the equipment for my system upgrade was $1,850. With the solar company quoting $4,900 to do the upgrade, I wondered how it could cost over $3,000 in labor to install a new inverter and 3 new panels?
I called the solar company and spoke to the sales person, who had written the quote I’d received. I questioned why the quote was not itemized and if I was correct in my observation that his company wanted to charge me more than $3,000 in labor to upgrade my system. The sales person was very vague, just saying that the $4,900 was for equipment, installation, insurance, warranty, etc, etc, etc. I said thank you and hung up.
I contacted another local solar company and asked for a quote to install a new inverter and 3 additional solar panels. I was shocked at the quote I got from this second company. They wanted $7,890 to install a new inverter and add 3 panels to my existing array. I said thank you, but no thank you.
I set to work searching the Internet for a solar equipment distributor where I could buy my own equipment. I found a company that seemed like just the ticket, EcoDirect.com. I was able to purchase all of the equipment I needed to get my system back up, better than it was before for a total cost of $3,375. After watching a number of DIY YouTube videos, I installed my new equipment and my solar electric system is again generating power for me. As a side note, after a week and a half from the time the technician from the first solar company last departed from my house, I have not heard a word from them. That’s a bit surprising, but it is a good thing because I didn’t need them after all.
This experience clarified something for me. It is obvious that solar companies charge huge premiums to install solar equipment. Going solar would be much more affordable for homeowners if the companies doing the installation weren’t expecting such huge profits. Both of the solar companies I contacted about upgrading my system lost out on my business because of what they expected me to pay them.
Power utility companies have made solar to be less of a financial benefit to homeowners. However, solar installation companies are going to lose in the end because, with their high prices for installation, along with the power companies wanting more money, the solar installers will ultimately kill solar for residential themselves.