Go big on solar or go home
August 13, 2016
OPINION by ROGER FREBERG
The impending draw down of Diablo Canyon raises a number of questions, not just for local government entities dependent on the huge tax windfall they’ve enjoyed for decades, but also for PG&E employees, the people who provide services and goods for those employees, and the consumers of electric power in California. Diablo Canyon, built in 1985, provides electricity for over three million consumers and supplies about 8.6 percent of the electricity used in California.
On a larger more global scale, significant threats to U.S. energy security are an ever-present danger. Although the fracking process has breathed new life into U.S. energy capabilities, and the majority of US imports come from Canada and Mexico, big question marks about Persian Gulf imports remain.
Twenty percent of the world’s oil supply travels through the Straits of Hormuz. Any interruption of that pathway could send oil prices through the roof overnight, throwing economies and everyday living into chaos. With Iran rapidly moving forward towards a nuclear solution to their problems (i.e. nuking everyone who does not agree with them and live according to their rules), and their ongoing threats to close the Strait of Hormuz if their nuclear ambitions are blocked, it is not outside the realm of possibility that we might be facing a 1970s level or worse energy shortage sometime in the future.
Remember often mile long lines in 1973 at gas stations? Stickers telling you what day of the week you can buy gas? Huge double digit inflation (remember that the trucks that move goods also use gas, so increases get passed along to us)?
Okay, that was depressing! My psychologist wife tells me that the best way to manage stress is to take action. So what can the average person do to keep the lights on at home without facing imminent bankruptcy?
Well, we live in California, and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s pretty sunny here. I’ve been watching home solar systems for quite some time, and frankly, there have been a couple of big barriers to entry. One has always been cost.
Friends of ours have invested nearly $100,000 to put solar panels on their roofs. Although you might think solar panels would detract from the look of your house, many people prefer to have them on the street side—they’re an expensive status symbol. And like driving a Prius or other hybrid, part of the appeal of solar panels is appearing “more moral” than your neighbors. But that’s an expensive game. The second barrier, for me, has been lack of back-up. I see no reason to put up panels that are wholly dependent on the grid. If the grid goes down, I want to keep running.
In answer to the first problem, cost, the good news is that solar is becoming increasingly affordable. You can essentially “lease” your roof to a solar power company. You pay nothing for the panels, and your electric bill is cut quite a bit (usually 20 to 50 percent, depending on the company).
Buying your system is still on the pricey side, but much better than just a few years ago. Most of the solar power companies provide helpful financing, and you might qualify for some tax deductions.
If you buy your system, you will probably send about $6 per month to PG&E for the privilege of being part of the grid. Needless, to say, the power companies want to raise that amount, just like our insatiable state legislators want to charge us a mileage tax (those pesky hybrids and EVs just don’t pay their share!). If you invest in a solar system, be prepared to watch these incursions and weigh in.
If cost is an issue for you, a lot depends on how much you currently pay for electricity. I don’t think of us as energy gluttons, but I confess to having higher bills than our neighbors. We’re still running lower than our bills in Houston in the 80s, but air conditioning there is a 24-7 affair.
You might think that it’s our multiple computers and other tech, but I blame the toaster. My toaster gets regular use and I believe it is responsible for our ridiculously high electrical bills. I’ve cut back on toast, but we still have a long way to go. Although reducing your electric bill to $6 puts a lid on monthly costs, some of us probably won’t live long enough to recoup our investment. So other goals are probably important, too.
So that brings us to the second barrier—back-up. About a year ago, my wife happened to be shopping at Home Depot, and stopped to talk with one of her former students, now an engineer for Solar City. She told her student that we really liked the idea of solar, but that I wouldn’t budge until we could go off-grid with a back-up battery. Ta da! Solar City was in the process of developing one. Even better, the battery they were offering was developed by Tesla, and we’re big Musk fans. We signed paperwork.
A big side benefit for us is the security our back-up will bring to our youngest daughter, who has autism. Her internet is her lifeline, and she has to be very brave whenever our power goes down. Of all of us, we’re pretty sure she’s the most excited about getting the solar panels and battery.
We knew from the outset that we would be delayed in our installation due to waiting for Musk to tweak his battery. While we were waiting, we decided to take one further step towards our energy self-sufficiency. PG&E, like the other power companies, will only let you put enough panels on the roof to cover your existing bills. They don’t want to be in the position of buying lots of power back from solar customers (even though this is pretty cheap). So we were told that if we ever wanted an electric car, the time to get one would be before the system was designed, not after.
We really liked the Tesla, of course (who doesn’t), but a $100,000 car is a bit over-budget for us. We could wait a couple of years for the “affordable” one, but that would defeat the EV ‘before panels’ plan. So we started looking at other models. My wife was reading through Car & Driver and other review sites at the Nissan Leaf, the VW Golf, the EV version of the Ford Focus and so on (although neither of us are BMW fans and their EV has really weird wheels), when I surprised her by suggesting she look at Mercedes. “Mercedes makes an EV?” she asked. This is pretty much the same reaction we get from everyone! Yes, they do, and it’s a good one. Mercedes is the only manufacturer outside of Tesla itself that uses a Tesla battery (you can see this is a theme for my decisions). My wife has always liked Mercedes, and although I put in a further suggestion for the $450,000 Rolls Royce EV, she came home with the Mercedes.
The car was surprisingly affordable, plus you get a $2,500 check from the state for buying an EV and $7500 off your federal taxes. These benefits are phasing out, though, as the government is figuring out that $10,000 to a person who can afford a Tesla is not a big deal. Remember, too, that there are no maintenance costs. You have to rotate the tires and check the brakes, but that’s about it—no oil, no filters, etc. Most importantly, the car can really hold 4-5 people, even Frebergs.
My wife loves the car—she grew up around fast cars, as her dad’s Smithy Mufflers company made very loud glasspaks and chrome things—and the EVs are peppy. Getting onto 101 on our super short onramps is no problem for the EVs, unless, of course, you’re unlucky enough to get behind a really scared person who stops ….. there are always those people…..You have to watch for pedestrians and bicyclists with an EV, too—the cars are virtually silent, so you have to assume they don’t know you’re back there.
The current crop of EVs, with the exception of Tesla itself, still have limited driving distance, usually around 80 miles. Many new ones on the horizon will have a 300 mile or so radius. However, most of the driving my wife does is to Cal Poly and back, with the occasional errands as far as Santa Maria or Paso Robles. The EV is fine for that (although we gulped a bit the first time we took it up the grade as the miles estimate plunged), and we still have our Expedition for the occasional road trip. To make the car even more convenient, we installed a Bosch level two charger in our garage, which makes charging the car really fast. There was also a nice tax deduction for that, too
Even though you can charge your car for free while you shop (charging stations are becoming more common, and you can get an app that shows you where they are and whether they’re in use or open), we have been charging the car at home, to make sure that we can qualify for enough solar panels to run it if needed. It did pop up the bill a bit, but not all that much. Hard to compete with that toaster!
So…..drum roll…..this is the week for our solar installation. Today, we had a brand new circuit panel installed. Tomorrow we get the Tesla battery, and the next day, the panels go up on the roof. Another week or two later, with any luck, we can get the city inspectors and PG&E to do their thing and we’ll have a “turning on” ceremony. I’m told that seeing your meter go backwards is truly epic! So not only will we run our house on solar power, but we’re also going to run our car on solar.
In the meantime, I confess to having some fun with my “green” friends. I tell them that if if will make them feel better, I will tape a toilet paper roll on the back of the Mercedes to make it look like it has a tailpipe like their “polluter” hybrids….This kind of gets the same reaction as when I advertised my ’94 Harley Fat Boy as part of the “look who’s riding a bike to work” campaign….
So maybe you like what solar does for the environment, or maybe you’re like me—wanting a little independence until you can find a good place to retire in the great redoubt—but at any rate, it’s worth checking out what solar can do for you today.
Roger Freberg is a San Luis Obispo resident who is using his retirement to write a culinary-inspired blog, comment on important local events and occasionally enjoy getting sued for his journalistic excellence. Roger’s View of the World, Love and Seafood Gumbo!