Dan Redmond lives in a 1925 bungalow home with his wife Margaret and two boys, Alec, 6, and Aidan, 3, in Arlington, Virginia. For the past few years, he has had one mission: to change the way his household uses and produces energy. He writes here about how they did it—and what they learned.
It was about two years ago when my son, Alec, and I opened a solar power experiment kit that I bought for $10 from a local hobby shop. Since he loves his International Space Station replica, complete with blue solar-electric “arrays,” I figured his curious mind might like to see solar power up close. We found a sunny spot in the backyard and laid out all the pieces: a small photovoltaic module, wiring, and a tiny DC motor with plastic fan blades. After a few seconds in the sun, the tiny fan started to whirl. “This,” I explained, “is how the International Space Station generates its electricity.” Alec was in awe, looking up at the sun and then down at the fan. All it took was one look at my son’s face to get me serious about solar energy.
In the months that followed our experiment, I began to research “alternative” energy projects in the United States. A quick browse at our local bookstore turned up Home Power magazine, which I consumed in one sitting. Then came hours in front of the computer, perusing various Web sites. I came across one site—Renewable Energy Access—that completely changed my outlook on energy. It suggested that energy use and production could be “quiet”—without pollution, noise, smoke, war, or waste. Quiet energy: It almost sounded too good to be true.
Although I had my doubts, I also realized that the world had shifted from burning wood to coal and oil, all in the last 100 years. Why not renewable energy in my lifetime? The more I learned, the more I embraced the idea of quiet energy—and the more I started to believe in its feasibility for our country. Besides the much-talked-about environmental and political advantages, I liked the fact that the growing RE industry could bring new jobs to the United States, especially to our hurting manufacturing sector. Parts of the country that have lost jobs to outsourcing and foreign competition could again flourish with production facilities for renewable energy equipment.
I was surprised to learn that renewable energy programs are working more successfully in other countries. Germany and Japan, for example, are prioritizing solar economies. Because they have limited or no domestic sources of coal and oil, and must depend heavily on foreign nations for fossil fuels, their governments have supported aggressive incentive programs that have fostered new business and development in solar and wind energy.
Once I understood the feasibility of using renewable energy and realized that it was more than a large-scale experiment, I became a true believer in the power of the sun. My family and I attended a number of RE festivals and events, including the Washington, D.C., Tour of Solar Homes & Buildings in 2005 and 2006. We visited more than a dozen RE-powered homes on those tours, where I marveled at how homeowners were using new approaches to satisfy their everyday energy needs.
Among my favorite events in D.C. was the 2005 Solar Decathlon (see “High Design, High Performance” in HP123)—a competition in which custom-designed solar homes are erected on the National Mall and judged on their energy performance. Even during a rainy, gloomy week in October, the project homes powered a gamut of appliances, heating and cooling systems, and even electric cars—with only the power of the sun.
Seeing solar in action convinced Margaret and me to go for it. Using the online directory, www.findsolar.com, I reviewed the qualifications of installers in my area. Then, at the 2006 Washington, D.C., Green Festival, I made a point of visiting the booths for the area’s largest solar energy companies—all based in Maryland, where incentives are available.
Going into the project, we knew that our home’s orientation, which offered no south-facing roof space, wasn’t ideal. The east-facing rear roof is shaded by tall, dense oak trees. We considered placing a pole-mounted array in the backyard, but didn’t want to lose any space for the kids to play or for our garden. Besides, I wanted our PV system to be visible to the community. That left our west-facing front roof, which had an unshaded solar window—from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
We chose our solar-electric installers differently than some might, selecting the components we wanted first and then finding a dealer who could source and install them. Knowing that our system would need to be installed on the street-facing side of our home, aesthetics were important to me. I found modules made by SunPower that are completely black, including the frames and mounting system. As it happened, these modules were also the most efficient on the market at the time, reducing the area needed for the installation on our small roof. SunPower directed me to their local authorized dealer, Standard Solar Inc. of Gaithersburg, Maryland.
I toyed with the idea of doing the installation myself, but I decided to leave the technical work to the pros. Though it cost a little bit more, hiring professional installers is one more way that people can help the industry prosper. Once we gave them the green light last March, it took four weeks to receive the components and then three days to install the system at the house. By the end of April, the system was operational.
The finished product: A 2.6 KW grid-tied solar-electric system with twelve 215 W SunPower modules on the roof and a SunPower 3.3 KW batteryless inverter in the basement. We rarely lose power from the grid, so backup electricity was not a priority. It was more important for me to spend our money on modules that generate electricity rather than on batteries to store it.
One of the system’s coolest features is a remote monitor in our living room that enables us to view the PV system’s performance. The monitor tells us how many kilowatts are being produced at that moment, as well as to-date total KWH production (1,715 KWH), financial savings ($240 as of January), and carbon offset in pounds (2,100 pounds).
Because we positioned the modules on the west-facing front roof, the system works predominantly in the afternoon. Had we been able to face the modules south, we could have gained at least 10% in system output. Even still, the system has exceeded our expectations. As of early January, the system had generated more than 1,700 KWH of electricity since its installation in April 2007. The system was most productive last spring, producing 10 KWH on sunny days. However, the dark days of winter take their toll on performance, when we get only about 3 KWH per day.
Any excess electricity that our system produces and we don’t use is sent back to the grid. Our KWH meter records this savings much like a deposit into the bank. When the sun is not shining, our household draws electricity from the grid—similar to withdrawing some savings from the bank. At the end of the month, the difference is calculated between the electricity we generate and the total electricity we actually use. That amount makes up our electrical bill. Any net excess is credited to our next month’s bill.
In retrospect, I didn’t need to do as much research as I did. For me, learning was part of the process. Knowing what I know now, I am confident that I could have simply picked up the phone, written a check, and had a great system installed—because just as you don’t have to know how a car works to drive one, you don’t have to be an electrical engineer to use solar electricity in your home.
Besides producing pollution-free electricity on site, the system is virtually maintenance free. During pollen season and occasional dusty periods from nearby construction, I used a garden hose to rinse off the modules—since modules are most efficient when they’re clean. Otherwise, system operation is effortless. It starts generating electricity automatically as soon as sunlight hits the PV array and goes off-line at dusk. It’s that easy. And that quiet.
Dan Redmond (www.danredmond.com) grew up near the coal mines of West Virginia and understands firsthand the effects of the United States’ “cheap” electricity. Eventually, he hopes to add a solar hot water system to the house and replace the family car with a plug-in electric vehicle.
Standard Solar Inc. • 888-474-3843 • www.standardsolar.com • Installer
PV System Components:
SunPower • www.sunpowercorp.com • PV modules & inverter