Solar panels three years later

Solar panels

Forty solar panels. Three years. $0.396 per kWh.

Grand total so far? $12,614.13.

It’s been three years since we turned on our solar panels. As I’ve done for the last two years, I’m looking back at how much income we have generated. Here’s the summary from our first year and from last year.

As a reminder, we’re part of Ontario’s microFIT program. Under this program, we installed solar panels, and then the power that we generate goes back into the provincial grid. We have a 20-year contract where the province pays us $0.396/kWh. You can read about the whole saga of Going Solar here.

The grand total that we made on our solar panels last year was $4,519.09–close to the previous year’s $4,473.91 but up just a little.

Here’s the comparison over the last three years.

Solar panel income over the last three years

After a dismal January–seriously, in the whole month we had less than 50 hours of sunlight–things started to brighten up. We even had a few days of double digit income in February, which is a very good day in the winter.

Solar panel array

Beyond looking at the income we generate on its own, the other check I like to do every year is comparing the income we’ve generated to what we’ve spent on hydro. This year, we came out ahead by $828.06.

It is such a nice feeling to know that our electrical bills are essentially covered.

The solar panels were a big investment three years ago. We’re still looking at about 6 more years before we’ve generated as much revenue as we put out for the panels and the install. However, we’re a third of the way in both time and money, so we’re right on track.

Also, our motivation in going solar is not solely financial. As nice as the money is, it’s equally as nice to feel like we’re making smart choices for the environment, for the future and for our little corner of the world.

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Solar panels two years later

Two years ago we flipped the switch on our solar panels. It’s hard to believe we’ve had them that long. They’re still a bit of a novelty for us, and we check often to see how much power we’re generating.

Solar panel array

Last year, I took a look back at our first year, remembering some of the highs and lows, and calculating how much we’d made and how long it would be until we’d made as much money as we invested in the panels.

I’ve been waiting to do the same thing again and see what progress we’ve made.

Last year, my calculations were only based on part of the year. While the panels were live as of the end of April, we didn’t receive our first cheque from the hydro company until July. This year is the first time we have a full 12 months of payments.

Just in case you’re new to our solar saga or don’t remember all the details, we’re part of Ontario’s microFIT program. Under this program, we install solar panels, and then the power that we generate goes back into the provincial grid. The province pays us $0.396/kWh. You can read about the whole saga of Going Solar here.

But now onto this year’s report.

The grand total that we made on the solar panels last year was $4,473.91–up just a bit more than $850 over the year before.

So what does this look like? Something like this. The golden yellow is this year and bright yellow is last year.

Bar graph of income from solar panels

We had a better fall and winter this year compared to last year. Everybody knows it was a much milder winter, but it was also sunnier.

I was often amazed when Matt told me at the end of the day how much we’d made. When the sun’s in the southern hemisphere, it sometimes doesn’t matter how bright it gets during the day. The angle of the sun is just so bad that there’s no way our panels produce at their max. But even in the depths of winter we had days where we were making double digits, which was a huge win.

The other huge win this year was finally getting our HST refund. This is the 13% sales tax we pay in Ontario on pretty much everything–including the labour and materials to install our panels. Because we run the solar almost like our own small business, we’re able to claim a portion of the tax–in the amount of more than $4,000.

Our other big numbers were finally setting a new daily record when we finally broke the $28 mark and making $831 more than we spent on electricity for the whole year.

Because it was such a mild winter, we didn’t have any issues with snow on the panels like we did last year. Even the ice storm wasn’t a big deal.

In fact, now that we have them, we really don’t have to do anything–except count the deposits to our bank account.

Solar panels

Last year, I estimated that it would take about 9 years and 4 months before our income equaled the investment we made in the panels. When the panels were first installed, I thought 8 1/2 years was a realistic estimate. Using this year’s numbers, the payback period would be just over 9 years.

This is definitely a long term investment, but the money is only part of the equation for me. I really feel alternative energies like solar are something we need more in the world. And I feel like I have a personal responsibility to support these alternatives as I can.

At the farm, we rely on our own well for water and our septic for sewage, we have geothermal for heat and air conditioning, and we generate power for the grid through these solar panels. Plus we’re preserving 129 acres, doing our best to be responsible stewards of our own little chunk of the earth.

Back up power for an electric sump pump

Since the first rainfall two weeks ago, we’ve now had rain steadily for nearly two weeks. Often, it’s not gentle rain. Deluges and thunder storms have been the name of the game.

Our sump pump kicks in often, especially with a heavy rain.

Sump pump pit

The big worry is that thunder storms bring both rain and power outages. Without power, our sump pump doesn’t run. We’ve not lost power yet, but it’s Matt’s biggest worry.

Does anyone know if there’s a battery back up system you can add to a sump pump?

There are benefits to having a generator, and we may go that route someday. For now, I’d love to hear if anyone knows about sump pump solutions.

Wonky wiring and a pair of pendant lights

At some point today, an electrical inspector will knock on my door. (Hopefully. It’s one of those “sometime between 8 and 5 things”). It’s been awhile since our electrician was here, but I’ve been putting off the inspection because my day job was requiring me to be in the office. I finally got a break at work and am working at home today, so the inspection can happen. I also finally got my fingers in gear to tell you about this update.

Matt and I had upgraded from the boob light in the kitchen to a school-house pendant some time ago. The fixture wasn’t in the right spot, though. It was off centre with the island and a single pendant didn’t look quite right.

Single school-house pendant over the kitchen island

I had ordered a second pendant back when we installed the first one (February 2014), but I didn’t want to tackle adding it on my own.

When we had the electrician here to move the light switch in the master bedroom, I had him relocate the existing kitchen light and add the second.

The wiring in this house is wonky. When the electrician took down the first pendant, I remembered exactly how wonky. There was no box to house the wiring. Instead, the fixture was attached to a couple of plates that were screwed to the drywall, and the wires–which wasn’t the right type either–just stuck out from a hole in the ceiling.

How not to wire a light

Obviously, it wasn’t right, but Matt and I had installed our new light anyways, knowing that we’d hire a professional to fix it soon. Well, soon turned out to be more than a year, but better late than never, right?

I was surprised when the electrician hypothesized that there was another light somewhere else in the ceiling. A close look at the drywall showed us a patch that I had never noticed. When he climbed up into the attic, he discovered the light (disconnected, thank goodness). This one had a junction box. It also still had the socket lamp holder attached to it. The light had just been turned so it pointed into the attic and not through the ceiling. What were they thinking???

Light fixture in the attic

The electrician drilled two new holes, inserted two new boxes and ran the new wires–and did all of it properly.

Wiring pendant lights over the island

I was happy to have a professional electrician fixing all of the mistakes. I was also happy that he was the one crawling around in the attic, not me. I like my DIY, but I’ve learned where to draw the line. Things that are beyond my skills or just plain unpleasant (and this hit both of them) are a clear time to call in professional help.

If you’re in the Guelph, Hamilton or tri-city area, I highly recommend Agentis Electric.

Electrician going into the attic

I did patch the hole in the ceiling on my own though (but I haven’t painted it yet). And here’s the finished product: pair of pendants, properly positioned–and properly wired–over the island.

School house pendant lights over the kitchen island

How do you decide when to bring in professional help? What’s the wiring like at your house? Do you have any light fixtures lying around just waiting to be installed? How do you handle lighting in your kitchen?

Solar one year later

A year ago, we flipped the switch on our solar panels and started generating electricity. I thought it might be neat to take a look back at the past year and see how our little generating station worked out.

If you want to catch up, here are all of the previous posts about Going Solar.

Just a reminder, we’re part of Ontario’s microFIT program. Under this program, we install solar panels, and then the power that we generate goes back into the provincial grid. The province pays us $0.396/kWh.

Over the past year (10 months actually, since our first payment didn’t arrive until July), we made $3,621.13. Each month the hydro company pays us for the electricity we generated two months before.

Graph showing income from solar panelsJust for comparison, we spent $2,604.35 on electricity for the same time period (including the wee bit of power it takes to run the panels). That’s a profit of just over $1,000. Yay to coming out ahead!

Our inverters tell us roughly how much we make each day. So far, our record is just over $29. Matt so badly wants to break $30.

Solar panel inverter screen

When the panels were first installed, I estimated it would take 8 1/2 years before our income equaled the investment we made in the panels. Using the numbers from the past 10 months, it looks like the payback period is about 9 years and 4 months. I’m optimistic that spring is going to be a good generating time for us, though, so I think the 8 1/2 is still achievable.

The winter was pretty dismal. There were lots of days where the income was in the single digits. The sun being in the wrong hemisphere was the biggest problem, but then there was the snow. Snow on the panels drove Matt crazy. After a couple of big storms, he climbed up on the barn roof with a broom and very gently cleared the panels.

Clearing snow off solar panels

The solar array is pretty big though, and Matt’s arms are only so long. There was one hard-packed drift that he just couldn’t reach. This thing was his nemesis.

Snow on solar panels

Eventually, with some yoga-like contortions and gentle shovel work from Matt, combined with the help of–what else?–the sun, the drift slid down the panels and off the roof in big icy sheets.

Ice sheets sliding off solar panels

Once we hit February, we started having lots of sunny days. As the sun returns to the northern hemisphere, our output has been climbing every day. Even cloudy days result in double digits.

Beyond the snow, we’ve had no issues at all. The inverters and the panels all are chugging along, the money is trickling in, and we’re doing our part to generate some clean power. We’re really happy with our decision to install the solar panels.

One Room Challenge Week 5 – Professional help

We’re heading into the homestretch on the One Room Challenge.

One Room Challenge

Next week is the big reveal of my master bedroom makeover. Here’s where we’ve come so far:

The One Room Challenge is largely about DIY. It’s not a requirement, but most of the other bloggers participating are painting, sewing, carpentering all on their own like I am.

However, last week it was time for some professional help.

One of the quirky elements of this room is that the light switch was behind the door. When we used this room as a guest room, people would always walk in and reach for the light switch. I’d have to explain that no, it’s not where you’d expect it to be. You have to reach around behind the door.

Light switches behind the door

Apparently, I didn’t mind making things inconvenient for our guests, but now that we’re the ones living in the room, I wanted the light switch where it should be.

Matt and I discussed doing this ourselves, but the electrical in this house is a bit wonky. Plus, relocating the switch would involve lots of time in the attic–and lots of time with the insulation in the attic. Not fun. We also had some other minor electrical work on our to-do list, so we decided to bundle it all together and call in a professional.

When he first saw the bedroom, our professional questioned whether there was space for a switch. There’s a very narrow wall between the door and the edge of the closet. We had no way of knowing how the studs were configured. He got out his stud finder, picked a spot, and I held my breath as he punched through the drywall.

There was a narrow cavity. It was nearly the width we needed for the box, but just a bit too narrow.

Cutting drywall for a new light switch

Fortunately, it was close enough that a quick trim with the sawzall allowed the box to fit and didn’t compromise the stud.

Tracing the wire from the junction box in the ceiling to the switch turned out to be another bit of fun. There’s a join in the wiring somewhere, but the electrician wasn’t sure where. It looks like there’s a junction box in the closet of the bedroom next door, so that’s my guess. When we do our big whole house reno, we will definitely devote a portion of the budget to fixing all of the wiring.

Our electrician couldn’t get rid of the original switch behind the door. It’s a crowded box that appears to be feeding some other areas of the house. But a blank cover on the missing switch is something I can live with.

Blank plate covering a light switch

I’m just happy that I no longer have to live with the switch behind the door… although I still reach for it when I go into the room. This new switch, on the right side of the door, with a dimmer (can I have a hooray for dimmer switches?) is so wonderful.

Bedroom light switch with a dimmer

The bedroom is coming together. All of the cosmetic updates are looking really good. However, this little functional improvement is equally awesome.

Thanks to our awesome electrician. And thanks to all of you for following along so far. Only one week to go!

To check out the other ORC participants, be sure to visit Calling it Home.

The cost of country living

You’ll have to excuse me today. I have a bit of a rant.

I said last week that I am most looking forward to getting to the payback stage of our solar panels. Friday night, we came home to an envelope from the hydro company. Inside was not a payment, but a bill.

The panels use a little bit of power to operate. Once our account is fully set up, this amount will be deducted from the total we generate. The payment side, though, isn’t set up yet. The billing side is. Funny how that works, eh?

Delays in getting our payments are not my complaint.

Country living is not simple, and it’s not cheap. One of my biggest surprises in moving to the farm was how much electricity costs.

Well, it’s not so much electricity. The rates are the rates. What changes depending on where you live is the delivery rate. In the country, where the population is less dense and there are fewer houses, delivery (the cost to get electricity from the generating station, through the lines and up to my house) is more than half my regular bill. Ouch.

I’m willing to suck it up and pay for the privilege of living where I do. However, this latest bill for our solar is completely out of whack. Look at the numbers.

Hydro bill

We used 1 kWh of electricity. One. Delivery was $5.40. Five freaking dollars and 40 freaking cents. Oh, and let’s throw 70 cents of tax on there just for fun. The total bill of $6.10 does not include a charge for using any actual electricity. It’s all just delivery and tax. Ridiculous.

Ask Matt and he’ll tell you that I’m a little bit bitter about the delivery charge. I’ve hated it for pretty much every hydro bill during the last two and a half years. I cannot wait until the hydro company finally starts paying us for the electricity we’re generating.

Going solar – Show me the money

It’s time for the final post in our solar panel saga. As we all know, going green costs green. Today, I’m going into the numbers (in a slightly artistic fashion).

Read on to find out how much our solar panels cost, how many kilowatts they produce and all of the other details for our solar system.

Solar panels cost and output

Obviously, our solar array and its associated dollars and cents are specific to the Ontario microFIT program. I expect some of our numbers will translate, though, for others who are setting up their own systems.

The last outstanding part of our solar project is to receive our first payment from the hydro company. I have to say I’m looking forward to moving on to the payback stage of this project.

Going solar – I’ve got the power

This week, I’m sharing all of the details on our solar panel project. For the first post, click here.

When we last left off, we finally had an approved application, and we’d made it through a wicked winter. But we were running out of time to complete our panels by the end of our contract.

Preparation

The first step to get ready for the install was an engineering assessment. We had to make sure that the barn was strong enough to hold the weight of the solar panels. Even though the barn is (at best guess) more than a hundred years old, it’s rock solid, so there was no concern there.

The second step was the building permit. Again, there were a couple wrinkles in the application paperwork, but our contractor was able to straighten them out

Installation

The actual solar install finally started at the end of March. First step was the inverters. These “convert the DC (Direct Current) power from your panels to AC (Alternating Current) before feeding it back into the hydro grid.” Our contractor’s web site calls the inverters “the brains” of the system.

Solar panel inverters

Then came the panels. Solar panels work best if they face south. The sun is strongest and hits them most directly from this direction. Fortunately, the back roof of the barn faces exactly south. Given the long delay in our application process, we had lots of time to observe the barn, calculate sun and shadow patterns and determine the optimum position for our panels. We have a long row of very tall pines along the west side of the barn. They’re so tall that in the late afternoon they cast a shadow on the upper barn roof, so we decided to install the panels on the lower lean-to roof as far away from the pines as possible.

Solar panel install on the barn roof

Three rows of racks went up on the lean-to, and then came the panels. We have a total of 40 panels, the maximum we’re allowed under the microFIT program. Panel install took about three days.

Connection

After the last panel was installed, it took another two weeks before the snow had melted enough for the trench to be dug between the barn and the hydro pole. Remember we’re feeding all of the power we generate back into the grid, so connecting into the hydro pole was essential.

Of course, it wasn’t simply a matter of waiting for the snow and frost to melt so that the trench could be dug. The trench was more than 300 feet long. Over that distance, we needed a special heavy-duty type of wire, so that we didn’t lose power. Pulling the wire through the trench was another bit of fun. When the trench was dug, the excavator laid a conduit in the bottom. It looks a bit like weeping tile.

Trenching for solar panels

There’s a rope running through the pipe. The trench is back-filled and the conduit is completely buried. To get the wire from the panels to the pole, our contractor had to pull it using the rope in the conduit–a heavy, 3-person job.

April 23 was connection day. Inspections had to happen. Power had to be shut off. Wires had to be hooked up. And everything had to be turned back on again. There were two or three different groups involved, along with our contractor. This was another instance where I was very glad for professional help. I would not have wanted to coordinate everyone.

But it turned out all of the scheduling didn’t matter.

Meter connection for solar panels

Connection was a no-go. The hydro inspector wanted to see the wire and conduit laying in the trench, but the trench was back-filled. The excavator had installed a T with a small section of conduit that looked down to the bottom of the trench and the wire, but that wasn’t enough. A section of the trench had to be dug out down to the wire so that the inspector could see it. Fortunately, the trench was re-excavated April 23, and by April 24 we were connected.

April 25, our contractor came out and walked us through all of the equipment and how it worked. He flipped the breakers and we were live.

In the infamous words of Snap, I’ve got the power!

Going solar – If at first you don’t suceed…

This post has been a long time coming. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write this, but it’s finally here. Everything you wanted to know (and more) about our solar system.

… I mean, our solar panel system… the one on the barn… not the one in the sky.

Solar panel array

In fact, now that I’ve started writing, I have so much to say that I’m breaking it up into several posts. In today’s post, we start at the very beginning.

How solar works in Ontario

The provincial government operates a program through the Ontario Power Authority to encourage people to install solar panels. The program is called microFIT. It’s micro because it gives people “the opportunity to develop a small or “micro” renewable electricity generation project (10 kilowatts or less in size) on their property.”

Under this program, we enter into a 20-year contract with the government. We produce and deliver electricity to the province’s grid, and we’re paid a guaranteed rate per kilowatt for the term of our contract.

So we’re not “off the grid.” All of the power we generate goes directly back to the grid. We still buy the electricity that powers our house from the grid. This might seem weird to people. I’ll go into the numbers more later this week, but here’s the basic explanation: the government is paying us $0.396 cents per kW for what we generate. We’re paying the government $0.075 cents per kW (off-peak) for what we consume.

Hydro rates in Ontario

Our solar contractor

Once we made the decision that we wanted to go solar, we started meeting with contractors. Given how the microFIT program works in Ontario, lots of companies are full-service when it comes to solar installs. They take care of all of the applications to the government, they install the system, they monitor your system, they fill out all the paperwork along the way, they arrange for all of the inspections, they even help you apply for financing if you need it.

We found companies to contact through road side signs (there are lots of solar installations in our area). The company that we chose is called Hayter. Hayter had great service, had been around for a long time, offered a decent price, and the people we met with were very knowledgeable and down to earth.

Hayter solar

Application process

This was not a quick project. We met with Hayter for the first time in July 2013, liked them and decided to go with them. They submitted our application to the government. Our application was rejected about three times due to minor clerical errors. The microFIT forms are very complicated and missing even the smallest check box causes your whole application to be thrown out. We were very glad to have an experienced company working with us and taking care of all of the paperwork. I cannot imagine having to figure that out on my own.

Finally, our application went through. But that wasn’t the end of the bad news. In September, the government suspended the program. They were going to re-evaluate the rate that they paid per kW. When the microFIT program first started, the government paid about $0.80 per kW. When we applied, the rate was $0.55. The suspension meant that our application was dead, again. After re-evaluation in September, the new rate was $0.396. The decrease was very disappointing for us, but we decided to proceed anyways. We’d still be earning more for what we generated than we were spending on buying electricity from the grid.

We resubmitted our application. By mid-October, we got the good news that we were in. October 31, we made our first payment to our contractor, and they paid all of the fees with the government. And then came five months of nothing. Our solar company had said that they could work through the winter and complete our install before spring. However, the winter of 2013-14 wasn’t a normal winter. Between polar vortexes, ice storms and snow, nothing could happen.

Weathered picket fence in winter snow

Under the terms of our agreement with the government, we had six months to complete our install. That gave us until April 30. As spring slowly rolled around, we anxiously waited for work to begin.

Ooooh. Such a cliff hanger ending. Tune in next time to find out if installation begins and whether we meet the deadline.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them in upcoming posts.