Solar 101

Jan 8, 2009

At Colleen’s suggestion, I’m going to chronicle the installation of solar panels at my house in Altadena.

It’s something I’ve been interested in doing for a while now. I have always been one to put my money where my (big) mouth is.  I am what I would call an amateur/dilettante conservationist — I bought a hybrid car in ’03 (a Honda, because I could not see out of the back of a Prius, though in retrospect Toyota turned out to make the much cooler/better car), have travelled a lot and observed how other cultures manage on little or no electricity, and frantically turn off lights around my house, even though I leave my computer on 24/7…. When I read that the gloomy, northern country of Germany is able to generate solar power, I thought, damn it, I’m going to do it here in sunny Altadena. 

I started the process in late October through Sol Source in Arcadia, a group with extensive solar experience recommended by my architect friend Georgie Kajer, who used them for the solar panels on her home in La Canada.

The first part of this process is the consultation.  Jesse Marez (a manager in the PV — that’s photo-voltaic — group), came over and we looked at our electricity bills. My family’s house is served by Southern California Edison, and we frequently get into the fifth tier (customers are charged a higher amount in each tier, the first being a baseline, the fifth being the highest per-kilowatt rate) in the summer, when our bills are in the $500 range. Ouch. Free electricity would be nice!

Then we walked around the house to see if we were good candidates for solar.  He wanted west or south exposure with at least 5.5 hours of sunlight per day.  I wanted to preserve my Spanish tile roof for aesthetic reasons, and he wanted to stay off it for practical (breakable) reasons. We checked out the site for about 45 minutes and went on Google Earth,  discussing possibilities that included building gazebo-like structures to hold panels.  He went away and came back in a month with a plan and a spread sheet that broke down our electricity bill, project costs, etc. 

It ended up that we can use two smallish, flat, asphalt roofs, one on our garage and one on a covered patio, which will become a covered porch (did I mention this is the first part of a big remodel?). Jesse estimates we’ll be able to generate half the electricity we use currently. That’s pretty green; price-wise, it will keep us out of that high-priced fifth tier.  

We are ending up with 26 panels, with an estimated price of $45,000, not including the trellis structure. After it’s done, we’ll get a $13,000 federal rebate. There are also some depreciation advantages I don’t fully understand, and the intangible increase in property values (bringing the house back to the level, of, say, 1996). The project pencils out in about fifteen years at today’s electricity cost… just in time for the NEXT recession.

Panels are on order.  Stay tuned.

— Mel Malmberg



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