Going Solar – Part 1: Background Information

When I was living in Germany in the early and mid 1990’s renewable energy was just beginning it’s rise into a commercially viable option, and the German economy was a guiding force in that direction. I specifically recall the enthusiasm in the classroom of a multi-discipline seminar I took at the University of Karlsruhe on sustainable energy solutions during the discussions on getting the cost of solar down to a level which would enable it to be viable at a household level. I also recall the summary dismissal I received when, back in the United States, I suggested my home institution host a similar seminar – wind and solar power, I was told, were basically toys and would never be a viable large-scale option in the US economy.

Fast forward several years and an economic and priority shift had occurred. By 2009 massive wind turbine components were a regular site rolling along US highways, and communities such as Weitramsdorf in Germany had worked out the details of public / private partnerships for solar installations such that on an annual basis the town generated more electricity than it consumed. By 2014 it had become common to see solar projects across the United States, and particularly in the desert communities of Arizona and California it became unusual not to see evidence of solar power every few minutes. Even in locations like Indianapolis large scale solar farms were being implemented in open spaces surrounding the airport, while in Tucson the short term airport parking area was roofed by solar panels, providing both covered parking and generating electricity.

I had previously considered adding solar to the house at Rurikia, but the economics at that time and place remained beyond the bounds of what I considered to be a reasonable investment (as described in another post). Recently, however, I had an opportunity to visit the Burleson Institute and have a look at the demonstration solar system installed there. Although a modest 1.3 kW capacity, and installed in a non-optimal situation (relatively flat roof, NE exposure, and heavily shaded), over the course of several months the system had indeed managed to generate roughly 0.5 MW. To me, this indicated that the technology was far enough along to warrant a second look.

On the return trip to California I kept coming back to the thought of taking another look at solar for Rurikia West. The high desert of southern California is an excellent location for solar energy, and there are several commercial solar farms within a few miles of my house there. Many of my neighbors have already gone solar either with a purchased system or a solar lease. Despite the budgeted state and utility incentives having capped out, you can’t walk into a home improvement store without someone stationed at the entrance asking you if you would like a solar quote.

As someone who tries to be energy efficient and make wise use of resources, the economics of my monthly electric bill has been such that switching to solar does not bring much of anything in the way of short term economic value. I have replaced most of my lights with LEDs, and I tend to turn them off when I am not using them. In the hot months, I raise the thermostat and make use of the cool desert nights and a whole house fan to cold soak the house, then close everything off during the day – nearly eliminating the need for running air conditioning except on the hottest days. In the colder months, I do the reverse. I generally wait until I have a full load to do laundry, and most times I use a clothesline to dry the clothes. I unplug chargers when not being used, and when I am using the shop tools I turn them off when not needed, even if they could be safely left on. I try and keep the refrigerator and freezer relatively full to maximize the thermal mass effect, and I try to keep the time spent with the doors open to a minimum. In short, I don’t really use enough electricity to get over the initial cost hurdle of going solar from an economic viewpoint.

That said, the physical situation at Rurikia West is fairly good for solar, and I can make an argument that balancing resource stewardship, personal interest, and economics could tip the equation to the point where the current pricing of a household solar system isn’t out of the range of possibility.

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