Category Archives: Environment

Let’s Talk About Electrical Storage and the Grid

 The American Electric Grid, Storage and Renewables

Let’s talk about something fun: storage, specifically electrical storage. I know what you’re thinking, “storage…bleh,” but we promise: it’s actually pretty cool! When most of us think of electrical storage we think of back up batteries for our homes; we want to know, are there back up batteries that will allow us to fully utilize all the power our PV solar arrays create? Additionally, we may wonder if there are back-up battery systems that we could install that will give us power from our solar arrays even in the midst of a power outage? Well, we’re going to talk a little bit about those micro battery systems in this article, but the bulk of our conversation will revolve around the electrical grid, large scale macro electrical storage and how they both relate to renewables.

The Over Arching Problems Plaguing Our Electric Grid

Back in August 2016, interviewer Terry Gross featured author and cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke and her new book, “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future” on her radio show Fresh Air. In that show, we were given a brief synopsis of the problems that our dated electric delivery infrastructure faces as we moved into the 21st century and its attendant focuses on energy conservation, renewables and climate change.

When electricity first became commercially available in the US, the relationship between supplier and user was simple; the supplier would generate more or less energy as needed to supply the demand on the other end. In other words, the supplier had complete control over the fuel source and the generation of electricity itself. This created a linear relationship between supplier and user: electricity only flowed one way. Electricity only flowed into homes and business, it never flowed out of homes and businesses. As the grid continued to mature, America’s thirst for energy continued to grow and utility companies grew comfortable with a business model that was built on seemingly endless growth. Enter the energy crisis of the 1970’s and the environmental consciousness engendered by the 1960’s. A new spirit of conservation presented a conundrum to utility companies: for the first time in their existence they saw a decrease in demand and a loss in profitability. This lead to utility companies cutting their costs: especially in maintaining the infrastructure of the grid. 

Control room of a utility where administrators watch the influx of energy through the grid and must make the tough decisions when portions of the grid are failing.

Furthermore, deregulation and renewables have presented another problem to our already fragile grid; they provide a fluctuating flow of electricity as opposed to a steady and linear flow of electricity. This means that if there is a surge of electricity coming into the grid from heavy breezes hitting wind farms, it becomes necessary to either ask industries to start using more power or to cut off the flow of incoming electricity from hitting the grid all together. Why? If there is too much unused incoming power it will fry the wires. Wild. On the other hand, during times when wind farms and solar are generating plenty of electricity to sufficiently supply demand, a problem occurs if the wind dies down or if clouds pass by overhead. In that instance utilities must scramble to supply the demand when generation from the renewables is lost. This has created an ironic situation in which utilities must fire up antiquated coal-burning power plants to meet the demand. These older fossil fuel plants are called “peakers,” and what we’ve seen in countries like Germany and the United States where renewables have made significant inroads is that when the need arises to suddenly produce more power utilities must fire up peakers to meet demand. This has created a spike in greenhouse gas production and additional costs to utility companies that must keep these facilites and its workers on standby. 

Deregulation has created a similar set of problems. By allowing other generators to set up shop and use the grid infrastructure maintained by the larger utilities to transmit their electricity, the large utility companies of yore struggle to keep up with the lopsided and irregular production and use of electricity. In large part, this is why American’s have seen such a dramatic increase in brown outs and blackouts in recent years. The utility companies who manage the actual delivery infrastructure struggle to stay profitable and have cut their maintenance budgets. The number one danger to the grid? Foliage. Often one of the first lines of service to have been sacrificed are the cutting crews who keep the lines safe by keeping trees at bay. While maintenance and crumbling infrastructure is a large problem that needs to be addressed, it won’t fully solve the conundrum presented by renewables. 

 

Large Scale Storage Solutions

What’s the solution to all of this energy that is either getting lost or is left to clang around the grid? Large-scale electricity storage. Storing unused renewable energy when its not needed will help to mitigate the uneven flow of electricity that renewables feed the grid. While still in its infancy, there are many exciting experiments in large-scale storage that are taking place across the globe right now. Here is a sampling of some of the systems being explored and deployed the world over:

Gordon Butte Pumped Storage in Montana

 

Japanese Storage Testing Facility Adjacent to Mount Fuji

Yamanashi Renewable Energy Research Facility at the University of Yamanashi, Japan where they built arrays specifically to test large scale storage technologies.

 

Hydroelectric Pumping Facility Using Abandoned Iron Mine in New York

Now abandoned mine in the Adirondacks that once provided iron for the Revolutionary War to be used as a hydroelectric storage facility.

 

Fly Wheel Batteries in France

Stornetic Flywheels developed in France.

 

The Advent Of Affordable Small-Scale Storage in 2017?

As we usher in the New Year, here at Maryland Solar Solutions, we’re readying ourselves for the advent of the affordable and easily-integrated in-home storage options that will be available from Tesla and LG this coming year. They say they will be ready in 2017 maybe, but we take everything they say with a grain of salt! But, have no fear, when they’re ready we will let you know!

Posted in Climate Change, Electic Grid, Environment, News, Renewable Energy | Comments Off on Let’s Talk About Electrical Storage and the Grid

The New Normal: Promoting Renewables and Combating Climate Change at a State Level?

MSSI Logo  Climate Change and Renewables        Under a Trump Presidency


2016 is almost out and 2017 is almost here. We’re booked into the New Year and we’re thankful to all our Customers from 2016, but post-election season, we are looking towards the future and we find ourselves wondering about the fate of renewables here in Maryland and the United States as a whole.

 

Climate Change and Renewables Under a Trump Presidency

There is not much faith that a Trump presidency will do much to either combat global warming or promote renewables. Starting with the President elect’s conflicting and muddled statements on global warming; that it’s either a hoax invented by the Chinese or claiming to “have an open mind” with regard to global warming, the message is uncertain and worrisome for renewable energy enthusiasts and environmentalists alike. With the formal announcement of Myron Ebell as President-Elect Trump’s pick to head the EPA under his administration, the future of renewables here in the US feels uncertain indeed. Known as a vocal global-warming skeptic, Ebell eschews Federal legislation that promotes renewables in lieu of coal. Obama’s Clean Power Plan seems to be on the chopping block and no one seems to know whether the US will back out of the UN Climate Change Accords. Needless to say, there is uncertainty as to whether or not the Federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit will be able to weather the storm.

 

Climate Change Legislation and Renewables Promotion Moving To States?

The silver lining? There is a trend towards States choosing to pick up the slack. For instance, California’s Senate Leader, Kevin De Leon recently stated, “Let me be clear, California will not retreat. We are more determined than ever before to move forward with like-minded states and other nations [with regard to fighting climate change].” Other blue states are picking up the ball, as are cities across the nation; at a talk in Washington, D.C. this past month Michael R. Bloomberg echoed similar sentiments, “Mayors and local leaders around the country are determined to keep pushing ahead on climate change.” Here in Maryland, Senator Paul Pinsky of Prince George’s County vows to overturn the Governor’s veto of the May 27th Maryland Clean Jobs Act that would have increased the State’s renewable energy goal from 22% to 25% of total electricity generated in the Maryland.

Image result for Maryland Clean Jobs Act

Want to get involved? The Chesapeake Climate Change Network is sponsoring a petition to push our Maryland legislators to overturn the veto when they reconvene in January.

 

Posted in Environment, Solar in Maryland, Solar Incentives, Solar Legislation | Comments Off on The New Normal: Promoting Renewables and Combating Climate Change at a State Level?

Don’t Let Phantom Energy Haunt Your Solar Investment!

MSSI Logo Killing Your Solar Investment with Vampire Energy!

phantom-energy

Standby. Vampire. Phantom energy. The same phenomena, different names, but no matter what you call it, it adds up to the same thing: energy being used to power items that you are not actively using. Needless to say, this puts an unnecessary drain on your wallet and/or PV solar array. Well, we’re here to tell you how to kill off that vampire once and for all and to further maximize your investment in solar.

What Exactly Is Phantom Energy?

There are a whole host of appliances and electronics around the house that technically remain on, even when not “on” or in use. Either they remain is standby mode, such as TV’s so that when you turn them “on” they light up and start displaying immediately; or they draw energy to power ancillary elements within the components themselves such as clocks. The EPA estimates that idle electronic devices use up to $10 billion in energy annually.

What does that look like in the home? We looked at four people in our office as examples of how vampire energy impacts our everyday lives. We based our calculations upon this handy chart that enumerates the average amount of energy needed to power electronics that are not being actively used.

Our four participants used very different kWh totals due to the different types and quantities of items used in their homes. For the sake of this example, we only counted the standby or “off” usage of electronic gadgets. The items used? Everything from cell phone chargers to laptops, coffee makers and microwaves, to TVs and cable boxes.

Here is an illustration of how much energy each person used to power unused items per year:

kwh-wasted

As you can see the highest phantom energy user stands to save about 4,604 kWh a year! How much are you inadvertently using? How much of your solar array is powering items you don’t need to have on? What does this look like in a dollar amount?

money-wasted

As you can see, failing to address phantom energy has the potential to sap your solar investment of life! 

The Silver Bullet?

power-strip

It would be a total drag to go around unplugging our gadgets individually, so instead use power strips. These are easier to place within reach and affectively ensure that all items drawing electricity are fully and effectively turned off. What’s the payoff? Faster payback and bigger bang for your buck!

We encourage you to look around your house and kill those vampires!

Posted in Environment, Renewable Energy, Solar in Maryland | Comments Off on Don’t Let Phantom Energy Haunt Your Solar Investment!

Want To Know Your Yearly Electrical Usage and How Solar Can Cover That Usage?

MSSI Logo  Finding Your Annual Electric Usage

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5.2 kW system MSSI installed in Colora, MD.

One of the most common questions we field at MSSI is, what can solar do for me in combination with how fast can I pay back the system I’ve had installed? These two questions are intimately involved and have everything to do with your electric usage. We pay for electricity by the kilowatt hour. Knowing our monthly kWh usage gives us a picture of what our usage is annually. Once we know that number, we can more accurately know what size system you need to meet your goals and/or current electrical demand. For instance, if I’m using 12,000 kWh per year and I want to cover my usage 100% with solar, my solar array would need to produce 12,000 kWh or more. On average Americans use 10,932 kWh per year. The higher your usage, the larger system you will need to have installed. The eventual size of your system depends upon your usage, goals and budget.

Finding Your Annual Usage On Your Bill

So, how do you find your annual usage without having to create an elaborate Excel sheet that you plod you way through for a year? While obscure, your bill will tell you. Below are examples of utility bills from across the state and how to discern that information from your bills.

Baltimore Gas and Electric

BGE Bill Example

Above the portion that you would tear off to send in with your payment, you will find the Adjusted Annual Usage. This is your current year-to-date electrical usage. The total kWh in this example is 16,485. In order to cover this usage the solar array installed would need to generate 16,485 kWh or more per year. 

Delmarva Power

Delmarva Bill

Extrapolating annual usage from the Delmarva Power bill is a little trickier than with simply finding a single number on the BGE bill because Delmarva provides your yearly kWh usage in a handy bar graph. The horizontal line along the bottom of the bar graph notates the years. In the above example the years in question are 2009 and 2010. The perpendicular line along the left hand side is indicative of the amount of electricity used.

In this instance, it looks like this family used:

May ’10:  700

June ’10:  1250

July ’10:  1260

August ’10:  650

September ’10:  630

October ’10:  700

November ’10:  650

December ’10:  1260

January ’10:  800

February ’10:  1500

March ’10:  1200

April ’10:  820

Total:  11,420 kWh

Potomac Electric Power Company/PEPCO

Example PEPCO Usage Chart

Like Delmarva Power, PEPCO uses a bar graph to convey annual electric usage. In this instance we’re looking at about 12,400 kWh per year. 

Potomac Edison

Potomac Edison Bill

Potomac Edison bills include both a bar graph and a line item that denotes the “Last 12 Months Use (KWH).”

Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative/SMECO

SMECO Usage Chart Example (1)

SMECO gives you a bar graph that takes all the guess work out because your monthly usage is numerated above each bar. In this instance, the yearly usage adds up to 29,751. 

 

 

Posted in Environment, FAQs, Solar in Maryland | Comments Off on Want To Know Your Yearly Electrical Usage and How Solar Can Cover That Usage?

Can You Afford NOT To Purchase Your PV Solar Array?

MSSI LogoCan You Afford NOT To Purchase Your PV Solar Array?

investing-in-solar

In this piece, we’re going to explore the differences between leasing and purchasing solar and then dig into the returns on investment that can be realistically expected from obtaining a solar array of your very own for your home or business.

According to Consumer Reports, the vast majority of Americans who go solar (72%) are leasing their panels or are participating in a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). With virtually no upfront costs, it is no surprise that the vast majority of Americans are choosing to go solar with a Lease/PPA. It’s predictable that the high introductory costs associated with PV solar causes a lot of people to move away from purchasing and towards the alternatives presented by leasing and PPA’s. In doing so, they lose out on the real financial benefits that accompany the purchase of their own PV solar array.

We recently heard someone say that, “purchasing a PV solar array costs as much as a car note!” It sure does, but what solar gives back is what makes this a poor comparison. When looking past the initial similarity in price tag, purchasing solar makes a great long-term investment; a car does not. You may pay the same amount for a car, but the difference is that once you’re done paying down the solar array you will be looking at a predictable and reliable source of additional income for the remaining life of the system (10-15 years). That’s 10 – 15 years of free energy!

Of course we’re being a bit prejudiced, but we really do think that investing in solar is a wise choice and something worth pursuing. 

 

Break It Down Now: What’s the Difference Between a Lease and a Power Purchase Agreement?

While leasing entails that you pay a set price every month for the panels on your roof, with a Power Purchase Agreement you purchase the energy generated by the array per kWh. For example, if you are leasing a 10kW solar array from a leasing company for an agreed upon price of $200/month, you will be paying the leasing company $200/month regardless of how much energy the array produces. If you had a Power Purchase Agreement for the same size system, instead of monthly installments, you would be paying an agreed upon price per watt and your cost would be based on the amount of energy that the system produces. At the end of the day, both add up to the same thing: you do not own the panels and do not have access to the considerable financial advantages associated with going solar. In our newsletter and blog, we’ve recently highlighted the incentives available to Marylanders who choose to go solar, so let’s take a brief moment to look at Solar Leasing and PPA’s and the drawbacks associated with them.

money-from-array

The Financial Disadvantages of Leasing and PPA’s

In a Leasing/PPA situation, the solar company essentially has ownership of the roof they install on. In common parlance it is suggested that you are leasing the panels from them, but in fact, it’s the other way around; the Leasing/PPA company is leveraging your roof as a means to turn a profit, while enticing the lessee with modest savings and no upfront costs. Why do I say this? Several reasons:

Loss of Incentives

There are several “payback” financial incentives given out by the Federal government, State government and sometimes even Local governments (refer to blog to see the incentives available to Marylanders) that are forfeited when a system is leased. This also includes the value-added benefits of solar: Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) and Net Metering.

Let’s say that you have a system that is generating 12,000 kWh a year. In this instance, you would be entitled to 12 SRECs whether you use the energy or not. Depending on market rates that’s an additional $216-$2,220 a year. Using that same scenario, if you’re generating 12,000 kWh a year, but only using 9,000 kWh a year, not only would you be paying nothing for electricity, but according to the Net Metering laws set in place, your utility would have to pay you for the additional energy you provided for the grid. Utilities in Maryland pay 7-9 cents a kWh and will pay PV solar array owners for the energy provided if it has a net worth of over $25. Additionally, the installation of a purchased PV solar system here in Maryland is a home improvement that cannot be added to your Property Tax assessment as an improvement to be taxed. Pretty awesome!

Lastly, the purchase of a system has the potential to free you from having to pay for your electricity for 25-30 years. A Lease or a PPA will never free you from that cost. Purchasing your own PV solar array is an investment that keeps on giving!

Selling a Home

Due to the long nature of Lease and PPA agreements, it is often the case that the original lessee may want to sell their home at some point during the term of the contract. This is made more difficult if the homeowner does not own their panels. When it comes to selling, the homeowner has a few options, they can Transfer the Lease/PPA to the new homeowner, prepay the agreement, have the system moved to their new home, or in the case of a PPA they can purchase the system outright (losing out on incentives already redeemed by the company you signed the PPA with).

When it comes to transferring your Lease or PPA, the homebuyer must meet certain qualifications: they must be willing to assume all of your rights and obligations under the agreed upon contract, in addition to qualifying for one of these three typical standards: having a FICO score above a particular level (usually about 650), by paying in cash for the home, or be willing to pay a $250 “credit exception fee.” Once these qualifications are met the transfer can go through to the buyer.

If the homebuyer does not want to go this direction, the homeowner has the option of Prepaying the Lease/PPA and just transferring the Use of the System. If this sounds like an awful option, do not worry, you are a completely sane person. With this option, you are essentially purchasing a solar system for your homebuyer that the homebuyer will only get to utilize for the amount of time left on the contract. During this time, they are responsible for all parts of the contract except for the monthly payment portion. This is very appealing for the homebuyer, as they essentially get a free solar system.

With moving the system you have two options. You can get the lessor to move it for you or you can go with a third party. It is wise to go with the lessor as getting a third party to move the system could potentially void any limited warranties that may be in place. This can be costly though. The price can be different depending on the installer. From the contracts we have seen, the installer requires that they perform an audit of the new property for $499. Then, if they deem the new property viable, they will perform the move for a minimum of $499. Imagine all your moving expenses, then add at least $1,000.

Although we have not seen this offered in a lease, in a PPA you have the option to purchase the system before the expiration of the contract. This can be done by calculating the amount you would have paid by using a production estimate and then multiplying that by the average kWh price you would have been subject to (times a 5% discount – maybe to make up for the fact they know they are overcharging?). Either way, if you think there is a chance you will sell your home in the next 25 years, read your lease or PPA terms and conditions very carefully…They don’t make it easy!

Additionally, by signing a lease or PPA agreement, there is a significant loss in potential home value. It is proven that adding a purchased solar system to your home increases its overall value. Then when you factor in the extra hassle of transferring or moving that leased/PPA system, you could even say you are depreciating the value of your home in a potential homebuyer’s eyes; not to mention the extra costs you could incur by having to buy out the remainder your contract.

Economy of Scale and Quantity Over Quality

Another drawback to big solar companies leasing or PPA option is that they are working within an economy of scale that does not see you as an individual. As of 2015 SolarCity boasts 190,000 customers in 16 states and have access to 190,000+ roofs from which they can deploy solar. In the lease/PPA business model, the solar array that they’re installing is an investment for the lessor and their backers, not for the lessee. While the Leasing/PPA scenario may be cheaper at the outset, the long term savings and benefits are modest.

Because they’re working within a much larger economy-of-scale Leasing/PPA companies do not need to spend as much money on equipment, nor do they need to confine themselves as strictly to the optimally-oriented roofs. We often have customers ask us why we do not install on northern facing roofs. In short, they do not produce as well since they face away from the most direct sunlight. Why would you pay full price for a panel that will, at best, only produce 50% – 75% of its maximum production? This is different for lease/PPA companies who are getting fixed payments from their customers, plus the added incentives, Net Metering benefits and SRECs. For lease/PPA companies the best bang for the buck is quantity over quality.

figure-1-graph

Figure 1: The figure above is determined using the rate of inflation for electricity in the US since 2000 and the current cost of electricity for residences in Maryland. The Lease and PPA numbers are from ACTUAL contracts from the largest Leasing/PPA company in the U.S. The Purchase numbers come from a system designed to closely mirror the size of the lease system utilized by the aforementioned Leasing/PPA company’s contract. The PPA system size is irrelevant as PPA costs are determined by power produced and not the overall size of the system. When placed at the optimal tilt and direction, each of these system sizes will cover all electrical usage of the average Maryland resident. The purchase numbers take into account all incentives that would be received (Federal ITC, Maryland Grant, SRECs, and Net Metering Benefits). The purchase numbers DO NOT take into account the amount of value a homeowner has added to their home. The lease and PPA take into account NO benefits as leases and PPA’s forfeit such incentives to the lessor.

 

Overall Cost Benefits of Purchasing PV Solar

When comparing the yearly costs for solar, purchasing is the only way to go. As seen in Figure 1, the yearly cost for purchasing your system stays consistent for the entire duration of the payback (assuming you took out a loan; if you paid completely out of pocket, you would expect to see no yearly costs) while the yearly cost of a Lease/PPA only rises by the predetermined escalation rate. While designed to ensure that you would not be paying more for your solar-generated electricity, this escalation rate may not actually result in lower payments. It is quite possible that you could be paying more for the power from the array than you would have paid staying on the utility after as little as ten years. This is due to the fact that the yearly PPA kWh price may rise faster than the prices per kWh that the utility could be offering. This is stated and built into the contract- we call this the “kicker.” The main reason the PPA company includes this inflated escalation rate is to maintain a steady, consistent revenue stream. Since the value of the SRECs generated by the system you are leasing steadily decrease in price, they must increase the amount they get from you per kWh to compensate for the loss.

At the end of the lease or PPA term, you will have spent as much money on your system as you would have with a purchased system. When you include the amount you would have gotten back in incentives, you actually end up paying substantially more for your solar system, as shown in Figure 2.

figure-2-graph

Figure 2: The graph above compares the total amount of money spent on a SolarCity PPA, SolarCity Lease, and MSSI Purchase both before and after incentives. All Lease and PPA numbers are from a standard 20 year contract.

Those are just upfront costs and totals!! When you begin to compare savings, you begin to wonder why anyone ever chooses a Lease or PPA Agreement!

 

The Long Term Gains Associated with Purchasing PV Solar

Although a PPA/Lease is initially a cheaper option, when it comes to the long term gains, purchasing is, without a doubt, the most financially beneficial way to go solar. When you lease or sign a PPA, you are paying continuously for the full length of the contract, which is conventionally 20 years. With a purchased system, you are expected to be receiving energy for 25-30 years. This is an extra 5-10 years of solar energy and if your system paid for itself (through the avoided electric purchase from the utility and incentives) in 10-12 years (the average for purchase system paybacks), you would be seeing 15-18 years of free energy. This can catapult your savings! Not only are you no longer paying for your system, you are getting free energy, money for your SRECs, you have increased the value of your home, and you are potentially getting paid by your utility! In figure 3 you can see this in action. Initially, with the Lease and PPA, you are saving more. Then around year 8-10 the purchase option surpasses the Lease and PPA in savings. Once you hit that 12-year mark (on average), it is off to the savings races!

figure-3-graphFigure 3: The amount of savings you would experience with the same 3 solar options used previously.

figure-4-graph
Figure 4: The difference in savings between purchasing and the other two solar options.

Figure 4 illustrates in more detail the money you could lose out on by not choosing to purchase your system. By the end of your system’s life, the average homeowner in Maryland, with a system built to cover their energy needs, would see tens of thousands of dollars in revenue that they would never acquire had they gone with a Lease or PPA Agreement. When you look at the long-term advantages, the option on whether to purchase your system or not becomes a no-brainer.

peace-of-mind

At the End of the Day…

If going solar is something you have been considering, you should now know that Leasing or signing a PPA Agreement is not an exemplary method to leverage your dollars. It makes it difficult to sell your home, you forfeit all financial benefits, and in the end you miss out on at least 5 figures of savings. No matter which path you choose, we urge you to thoroughly assess your contract and Terms & Conditions.

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