Solar Power Shines in New Orleans

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Phillip Neal, atop his solar-electric roof.
Phillip Neal, atop his solar-electric roof.
The solar energy systems at the Neal-Clifford residence
The solar energy systems at the Neal-Clifford residence do not detract from the home’s charming streetside character.
The back porch roof had just enough room for two solar collectors
The back porch roof had just enough room for two solar collectors. The staging balcony was left in place to make future system maintenance easier.
The solar storage tank for the SHW system
The solar storage tank for the SHW system uses an internal heat exchanger.
Two backup water heaters, one on-demand and one tankless
Two backup water heaters, one on-demand and one tankless, provide supplemental water heating for each residence.
Laminate PV adhered directly to standing-seam metal roof
Adhered directly to standing-seam metal roofs and certified to withstand 146 mph winds, laminate PV is a good choice for hurricane-prone regions.
The main house system, with its balance of system components
The main house system, with its balance of system components in the shed.
The second system houses the BOS components in weatherproof wall-mounted boxes.
The second system houses the BOS components in weatherproof wall-mounted boxes.
The utility service entrance, with PV systems’ disconnects.
The utility service entrance, with PV systems’ disconnects.
Laminates typically offer better performance in situations of partial shading
Laminates typically offer better performance in situations where partial shading occurs. Each PV module is one long cell with a bypass diode, which makes it difficult to completely cut off a cell’s production.
Phillip Neal, atop his solar-electric roof.
The solar energy systems at the Neal-Clifford residence
The back porch roof had just enough room for two solar collectors
The solar storage tank for the SHW system
Two backup water heaters, one on-demand and one tankless
Laminate PV adhered directly to standing-seam metal roof
The main house system, with its balance of system components
The second system houses the BOS components in weatherproof wall-mounted boxes.
The utility service entrance, with PV systems’ disconnects.
Laminates typically offer better performance in situations of partial shading

In October 2005, only weeks after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita consecutively blasted the Gulf Coast, Phillip Neal and Jan Clifford returned to their home in the Mid-City section of New Orleans. “It was pretty sobering. We stood there and cried for about 20 minutes,” Phillip recalls. “Then, we did what we had to do—started cleaning up.”

More than 4 feet of floodwater had infiltrated the historic neighborhood, which sits on a slender finger of land between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Fortunately, the neighborhood’s characteristic shotgun-style homes—slender boxes, typically one-room wide—are made of local cypress, which dries out quickly, and built higher off the ground on piers to resist flood damage. That simple yet sturdy construction spared most homes from total destruction. Still, some suffered water damage from roofs that were breached during the hurricanes’ winds. But it was the compromised natural gas and power lines, as well as plumbing and sewer systems, that posed the greatest challenge to the rebuilding efforts after the storms.

Several obstacles to restoring utilities throughout the city reared their heads. In Mid-City, as in other areas, the wiring and plumbing in many of the older homes had to be brought up to code before utility services could be reconnected. “With a shortage of plumbers and electricians, that was no easy feat,” says Phillip, who works as an inspector for an engineering firm. “It took some people a year or more to get the work done and return to their homes.”

Solar Motivation

“With one look around the neighbor­hood, it was clear that we were one of the lucky ones,” Phillip says. “A few of the homes had to be torn down.”

In contrast, Phillip and Jan’s home suffered only minor damage. Structurally, the 2,400-square-foot double-shotgun held up well against the storms’ ravages. Boarded up with the original shutters, all the windows survived. But the saving grace was the new standing-seam metal roof they had installed five years prior. The decision, Phillip says, was largely based on research from the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC), which suggests that metal roofs provide greater energy efficiency compared to ordinary composition roofing. But it was a 50-year manufacturer warranty, a wind rating of 125 mph, and a UL-90 wind-uplift rating (the highest in the industry) that sealed the deal, giving the couple the peace of mind and hurricane protection they needed.

The decision proved to be a wise one all on counts. The Permaseam metal roof remained intact through the storms’ high winds and heavy rains, with only a few “bumps and bruises.” And, in the calms before and after the storms, the white surface does as Phillip had hoped it would—reflects a significant portion of solar radiation to minimize heat gain in the attic and reduce demand on the central air-conditioning system.

Fifty-seven-year-old Phillip has been keeping tabs on the solar energy movement ever since the energy crisis of the ‘70s. Though he’d done what he could to improve the efficiency of his home over the years—sealing holes in the building envelope, installing ceiling fans to decrease the air-conditioning load, replacing the insulation in the attic, and switching to efficient compact fluorescent lights—it wasn’t until after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that he got serious about solar energy.

“The storms put the fear of reality in me. Watching the government’s insulting response and having to wait two months for our utilities to be restored was all the convincing I needed,” Phillip says. “I knew then that I needed to take control over my living situation and be more self-sufficient for the next time—because there will be a next time.”

Shortly after the storms, the renewable energy movement finally started to gain momentum in Louisiana. Helping the cause were the millions of homes throughout the state that were left without grid-connected electricity for several months—longer in harder-hit areas. Like the rebuilding efforts, progress was slow. But all the political wrangling gave way in July 2007 to a generous incentive—a 50% state tax credit toward the first $25,000 spent on any residential RE system—solar hot water, solar-electric, solar pool heater, or wind generator.

The new incentive, coupled with the federal tax credit, made it possible for Phillip and Jan to move forward with not just one, but two grid-connected solar-electric systems with battery backup. Since they rent out half of their double shotgun, they could essentially get two solar-electric systems for the price of one—saving up to $12,500 per system. Recalling what it was like to be without clean drinking water and hot water for several weeks, the couple also decided to invest in a solar hot water system for both residences that would provide some emergency water storage.

Energy savings through net metering aside, Philip figured that the tax credits and depreciation on the rental property maintenance and improvements would put thousands back in their pockets over the lifetime of the property and systems. With a tenant who was equally interested in energy independence and sustainability, there was nothing holding them back—except Louisiana’s underdeveloped solar industry and the little matter of hurricanes.

Getting a Solar Start

For the installation of all three systems, Phillip hired Jeremie Branton of Freedom Power, the first state-licensed installer in Louisiana. While waiting for the delivery of the PV system components, Phillip and Jeremie focused on the solar hot water system since the components were readily available from a local distributor. Phillip chose a closed-loop system with a 120-gallon tank to provide ample hot water for both residences and limited water storage in the event of an emergency. 

The biggest challenge with the installation was maneuvering the 400-pound solar storage tank into the attic. To provide a staging area for working with the tank, Phillip hired a carpenter to build a raised platform off the back of the house. A mechanical lift was then used to raise the tank to the platform, where it was turned on its side, slid into the attic, maneuvered behind the chimney, and then righted into position.

While Phillip admits that it would have been easier to locate the tank in an existing shed on the lot, he decided to place the tank in the attic to keep it well above flood level and to maximize efficiency by placing it as close as possible to the collectors. The attic location also made it easier to feed hot water to both residences. He also installed a manifold so the solar hot water tank could feed the two residences separately—a necessary measure to ensure that some of the up-front costs for the SHW system could be depreciated for tax purposes. Phillip outfitted each residence with its own on-demand electric water heater, purchased at half-price with a discount for Hurricane Katrina victims, and a 6-gallon, electric tank-style heater.

Two 4- by 8-foot Chromagen flat-plate collectors were mounted on the south-facing roof above the rear porch. “Since no collectors are shown to survive better or worse in hurricane or high-wind conditions, all you can do is secure the collectors and hope for the best,” Jeremie says. “The collectors are in a good spot, but it’s not any more or less prone to wind damage.”

PV System Solutions

Armed with an associate’s degree in building science and years of hands-on experience with electrical wiring, Phillip took the lead on design and provided Jeremie with all the specifications for the solar-electric systems. The real challenge was to find a system that could withstand hurricane conditions. Again, Phillip turned to FSEC for advice. “Florida deals with weather patterns similar to those in Louisiana, so it seemed safe to say that whatever was doing the trick there would probably work well here,” Phillip says. “At the time, there were only a few PV installers in Louisiana, and the local resources just weren’t there yet—there was no one to hold my hand or walk me through the process.”

His research led him to Uni-Solar photovoltaic laminates (PVLs)—flexible, lightweight modules that are certified for winds up to 146 mph. Phillip read numerous stories of PVLs being used in residential and commercial applications along the Gulf Coast and learned that it was approved by Miami-Dade County, Florida, as “hurricane resistant.” Because the modules could be applied directly to the metal roof with a peel-and-stick adhesive, there was no mounting rack for hurricane winds to get under. On the downside, no racking meant that the modules’ tilt could not be adjusted and that the angle of incidence would be set by the roof’s pitch.

While these modules were chosen specifically for high-wind resistance, the Uni-Solar laminates have other attributes that work well for this installation. Made with triple-junction thin-film amorphous silicon cells, they should capture a wider spectrum of light for improved power production in overcast skies. Additionally, these modules perform better under high-temperature conditions. Finally, since these glassless modules are shatter-resistant, flying debris stirred up by hurricane winds will not pose as great a threat. On the flip side, amorphous thin-film modules are about half as efficient as crystalline modules, requiring about twice as much room to produce the same amount of energy.

Phillip wanted both systems to be grid-tied, which enables each residence to sell excess PV-generated power to the utility. It was also important to have enough battery backup to provide power for critical loads for both residences—refrigeration, lights, and one electrical outlet per residence for powering a computer or television—should the grid become unavailable.

PV System Specifics

The original plan called for 42 136-watt modules to be installed on the southeast-facing roof. Only when Jeremie climbed on the roof to begin the installation did he realize that the actual roof dimensions differed from those indicated on Phillip’s design—the ridge-to-eave distance was not 20 but rather 16 feet.

Forced to reconfigure the system design, Phillip and Jeremie decided to install 42 68-watt modules on the house’s southeast-facing roof and 21 136-watt modules on the nearly flat north-facing roof on the shed. That meant returning half of the PVL-136s to the distributor and waiting three months for the PVL-68s to be delivered.

Having never worked with laminates, Jeremie says he faced a steep learning curve. The key challenges, he says, came from applying the modules to the roof—a process that took more than two weeks. First, a toe-board system—fashioned from 2 by 4s and beam clamps—was put in place for fall protection on the sloped roof. The roof had to be cleaned with a solution of trisodium phosphate and laundry detergent, and then wiped down top to bottom with rubbing alcohol. After applying the first couple of laminates, Jeremie found that some of the adhesive had left unsightly black scuffs on the standing seams. Because the 16-inch-wide laminates fit almost perfectly between each standing seam, there was little room for error. To protect the seams, Jeremie ended up covering each with painter’s tape before applying the laminates.

The weather also proved challenging. In hot weather, the adhesive protection would not easily peel off the back of the module. And cold temperatures made the modules stiff and difficult to unroll. Rain shut down the operation for a few days. A moveable tarp was used for rain and heat protection, and the modules were stored in a conditioned space until they were ready to install.

The laminates for the tenant’s system were applied to the southeast-facing portion of the home’s roof, which is pitched at 30°. The main residence’s PV array was applied to the low-pitched (5°) north-facing roof on the shed behind the house. Energy production losses due to non-optimal orientations are estimated at 4% and 12% respectively.

Once all of the modules were in place, the roof’s ridge cap had to be replaced—the original cap would not cover the wiring adequately. Each array was then wired into its own combiner box, maximum power point tracking charge controller, battery bank, and inverter, and operates completely independently. The systems use OutBack inverters and charge controllers mounted within customized MidNite Solar E-Panels. All components were installed between 4 and 10 feet above the ground to protect against floods. For the rental system, two metal boxes were mounted on the tenant’s side of the house—one with the inverter and one with the battery bank. The inverter, battery bank, and the rest of the balance of system hardware for Phillip and Jan’s system were located in their shed.

From start to finish, the project ended up spanning from December 2007 to September 2008. Unexpected setbacks, red tape, and shipment delays contributed to the prolonged timeline. And Phillip says that dealing with the local utility was no picnic. He says it took “days to make my way through Entergy Louisiana’s 54-page packet,” which included a 14-page application and a 40-page contract for net metering.

“There’s no denying that we’re a state loyal to our oil and natural gas roots, so it is far from surprising that the utility did not go out of its way to streamline the process,” Phillip says.

Living with Solar

Phillip continues to work with Entergy Louisiana to clarify the billing/crediting process of the battery-backup, grid-connected PV system. Until the utility works out the kinks with its digital meters, the best gauge of the systems’ performance comes from the solar kWh production totals on the charge controllers.

While it is too soon to know if the actual output of each system will reach the design goals of 250 kWh per month and 273 kWh per month, so far Phillip’s PV array energy production averages 9 kWh per day, and the system installed on the rental property averages 10 kWh per day. This slight difference is due to the rental property system’s better orientation and tilt angle. Because energy measurements were taken on the DC side of each system at the charge controller(s), inverter efficiency has not been accounted for, so actual AC kWh production is slightly lower (estimated to be about 9% lower, using the weighted efficiency of the GTFX3648 inverter).

Even still, Phillip and Jan are quite pleased. Their rebate check is on its way and their home is better equipped to handle an emergency. The icing on the cake is that all three systems held up just fine against the 110 mph winds of Hurricane Gustav last September. And the battery banks provided enough power for both residences to maintain critical loads for the few days that the grid was down. The couple’s tenant, who chose not to evacuate, was even able to operate the lights, television, refrigerator, and computer during the storm.

Even with all three systems up and running, Phillip is still figuring out ways to protect his solar investment—even going so far as trying to buy the neighboring lot to ensure that no one can build a structure or plant a tree that will block his home’s solar access.

It’s an ironic twist for someone who not long ago depended on the oil industry for his livelihood. When Phillip, who holds an MFA from the University of Kentucky, was unable to find work as an art teacher, he ended up working as a draftsman for an oil company for much of his early career—following the footsteps of his father, who was a marsh buggy operator for an oil service company.

“I grew up respecting the oil industry because it put food on our table, and my Cajun background taught me to live off the land—so working for the oil companies never felt wrong,” Phillip says, “But I regret the toll that the oil operations have taken on Louisiana and its environment, and that’s why I am trying to do my part now.”

Access

Home Power associate editor Kelly Davidson recently moved to Takoma Park, Maryland—a nuclear-free zone since 1983.

Freedom Power • www.freedom-power.biz • PV & SHW installation

PV & SHW Systems Components:

Chromagen • www.chromagen.biz • Solar hot water collectors

Deka • www.eastpenn-deka.com • Batteries

Goldline • www.goldlinecontrols.com • Pump controller

MidNite Solar • www.midnitesolar.com • Power panel for inverter, controller & breakers

OutBack Power Systems Inc. • www.outbackpower.com • Inverter, charge controller & combiner

Rheem • www.rheem.com • Storage tank

Taco • www.taco-hvac.com • Circulation pump

Uni-Solar • www.uni-solar.com • PV laminates

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