Solar Projects – 4 Big Lessons Learned

Now that the White House has solar panels back on the roof, there will be more salespeople calling YOU saying that solar power is your patriotic imperative!

Here are 4 hard-learned lessons and how they apply to industrial facilities.

1) Your current “all-in” rate

Electric utility bills are made up of two parts – the charge to generate (supply) the electricity and the charge to bring it to the user (transmission & delivery). The “all-in” or blended rate is the combination of the two portions. For example, if the supply rate is $0.05 / kWh, and the T&D portion is $0.05, then the “all-in” rate is $0.10 / kWh. You can quickly find your “all-in” rate by taking your last electric bill and dividing the total amount due by the number of kWh used in that period (also on the bill – usually the biggest kWh number on the bill).

Some installers run the payback on a solar system using the “all-in” rate only. This shortens the payback period. However, every utility I have dealt with rebates (net meters) the solar electricity that you don’t immediately use (i.e. on a sunny weekend), back to you at the supply rate. In some cases they may even give you less than the wholesale rate, which is less than the supply rate on the utility bill.

Take-home #1 – Look the numbers over carefully, ask questions!

2) Solar exposure & solar rights

If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, having the solar panels face South (+/- 15 degrees) with a completely unobstructed continuous view of the sun, maximizes electricity production. The common installation practice in the Northeast is to lay the panels flat on the roof or tilt them 5 – 10 degrees. This limits wind loading and allows for a quicker installation. Check this chart out.

Solar Output for 3 Mounting Types.

Source: Chart by Mitch Kennedy, 2015

Tilt (based upon your latitude) can increase solar production by 10 – 15% over flat-laid panels, and field-mounted panels on solar trackers can increase solar electricity by 37% over fixed-tilt roof systems. The cost-benefit is significant once the system is fully paid for, even though the installation cost of trackers extends that payback by about 2 years over non-tracking systems.

Take-home #2a – Have contractor confirm local building code requirements for wind loading (i.e. in hurricane or tornado-prone areas).

Take-home #2b – if you can tilt & track – run the numbers, baby!

3) Solar rights / access will become the next legal conflict in land ownership

If you have great solar exposure now because of the vacant lot on your south property line, there could be legal ground to prevent the lot’s owner from obstructing your sunshine. Forty out of 50 states have some form of solar access law.

Solar Access Map

Source: DSire

Ask your solar contractor if he or she knows about the law in your State – (a good litmus test on who to use as a contractor).

Take-home #3 – mind the growing trees and the neighbors (PV panels can operate for 25 to 30years)

4) Timeliness matters

Choose a vendor who calls you back, and sends in a preliminary proposal quickly. A preliminary proposal is usually a “Google” or “Bing” photo of your roof with spaces blocked off for panels. This is a roof estimate, and commonly an overestimate!

I have been on roofs that look completely different in person, because the Google & Bing photos are a couple of years old – so beware. However, the faster the turn-around the more likely they will be quick on the install, and accessible in the event of problems.

Take-home #4 – don’t rush. As more states launch incentive programs to support solar, installers will try to get as many projects as possible into the queue just before the program deadline. We all know the adage, Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Don’t be pressured by someone else’s lack of scheduling to make incentive program deadlines. In most cases, these programs will be around for another year.

RESOURCE: 50 States of Solar Report

What other lessons have you learned about doing solar?

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