Solar Energy on the Homestead; Update #1

by Ryan Walker
Solar Energy on the Homestead; Update #1

As part of our homestead we have installed a 7500 watt on-grid/off grid solar system. It consists of a solar array of thirty 250 watt panels, a 770 AH battery bank, a grid tie inverter and a few other bits and bobs. You can read more about it here. The idea of this system was twofold: to produce power and sell it to the grid, and to establish comprehensive offgrid capabilities.

It’s been installed and partially working for months now, but it was only a month ago or so that we ironed out the last glitch (which was tripping a breaker, which would shut down our energy generation for hours.) That final glitch was significantly impacting our energy generation.

We just received our power bill for the last month. It’s a significant bill because it is the first one that reflects a full months worth of properly working solar power generation. In the last 30 days, we:

Consumed 710 kwh of power.

Produced 705 kwh of power.

I was pleased with these numbers as the last month has been unseasonably cloudy & miserable, so this is a fairly “worst case” example of what our energy generation/consumption looks like for this time period. Normal weather would have certainly put us into a credit position. Utilization/generation numbers that are this close tell me that we’ve got right-sized systems in place, and that our efforts to reduce our utilization (and install highly efficient appliances) is paying off.

In terms of dollars saved, and how the power company handles solar power, I am far less impressed. The New Brunswick Power approach to handling clients who generate their own power is hostile and one-sided, at best.

At our home, we have two power meters. One of them measures how much we draw (buy from NB Power), and the other measures how much we generate (sell to NB Power). At the end of every month, the two numbers are compared, and the difference determines how much I pay, or have credited to my account. And here is the first problem with how NB Power manages energy purchasing: they refuse to treat the energy I generate as as “equivalent to cash.” The best you can do is to have a credit on account, to be applied towards your energy use. What does this mean? It means that there are ZERO commercial opportunities for small solar generators to earn an income. NB Power will never cut a cheque for the power you supply to them. I guess cash is reserved for only the large energy providers!

A credit on account is not so bad, right? It means you can basically pay zero power costs, right?

No. Near as I can tell, about the best one can do in New Brunswick is to have to pay about $40.00 a month to NB Power, or $500 per year. Why? Well, another policy of theirs is to limit the scope of your energy credits! The only thing it can be applied towards are energy charges. So not only does NB Power refuse to pay actual cash for the energy you generate, they prevent you from using your energy credits to pay certain parts of your monthly bill. The notable one is the monthly service fee, which is about $25. Energy credits cannot be used to pay this fee.

On top of this, NB Power charges HST on all power they sell to me, disregarding what I produce for them. So if I buy 1000 kwh from them and sell 1000 kwh to them, I still pay the HST on the full 1000 kwh, even though I’ve effectively bought zero energy from them, as I have produced as much as I have consumed. You would think they would do the HST calculation on the NET amount, which would be zero, or near to it. But no. This is not how they do it. As to why? And as to what happens to the HST I should theoretically be charging them for the power I produce? Who knows. Who in the hell knows.

The last little dig that NB Power gets in is to limit the lifespan of your credits. Come March of every year, they wipe your credits out! I am sure this makes some aspect of year end accounting wonderfully simple for them, but basically NB Power is arbitrarily destroying energy credits, once per year. They are throwing the money of New Brunwicker’s in the dirt. It is an insulting policy, the sort you only tend to see from organizations who have captive markets, who service people who have no real recourse.

I have had extended discussions with high level management at NB Power regarding their policies. Although there was some sporting exchange of ideas, I never did get any good rationale for much of it. The general NB Power position can be summarized as follows:

“Tough noogies, little guy.”

This part of the project has been rather disappointing. New Brunswicker’s who are making investments in solar and in renewable energy are getting the raw end of the deal from NB Power, and by extension, from the Government of New Brunswick. There is little incentive from either of these organizations to invest in residential or small scale solar. In fact, there are disincentives.

All that aside, I am still very pleased that we did the solar project as we do ultimately realize many benefits from it. When we get away from the interconnect agreement, things look a lot better.

  • Small power outages do not affect us at all and go unnoticed
  • Extended power outages should not impact us significantly
  • Perfect power feed off of the batteries: no longer blowing any light bulbs (none, since installation)
  • Monthly power bills are much lower
  • Exposure to power rate increases is reduced
  • Option to disconnect from the grid entirely, generate our own power

Summarily, solar is working for us. It’s not without pitfalls but provides a level of independence and power cost protection that I expect to serve us well into the future.

If you found this interesting you might also like: Solar Update #3: Monitoring Systems & Reducing Consumption and Household Budgets: Analyzing Expenses, Cost Per Day Budgeting.

 

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4 comments

WMH Cheryl June 17, 2016 - 12:13 pm

I feel your pain. California started with a similar program but we didn’t lose our credits yearly. Over time enough people complained and politicians got involved to change state law and require power companies to pay customers at least annually for the excess power they produce. But power is often paid back at a lower rate than billed, plus there are the taxes and fees no matter what, etc. I think it helped that there are a lot of different power companies in CA so even though they have a monopoly in their geographic area, the entire state is not “ruled” by one company. I am not familiar with Canadian areas or politics but maybe pressure by solar producers can get laws or policies changed? Good luck!
Did you go with two separate inverters (one grid tie and the other for grid down situations)? Or do you have a hybrid inverter that can still function in a grid down situation? Many people in California don’t realize that when the grid goes down their generic solar system won’t work.

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Charlotte Walker June 17, 2016 - 8:15 pm

Unfair govt backed monopolies are par for the course in Canada. Trying to change that politically is in my mind futile. We’re doing our own thing and have as little to do as possible with the govt/utilities.

Regarding your solar question, we’ve got two Outback Power GVFX 3648, set up as a dual inverter system. It automatically handles everything, as far as charging batteries and selling to the grid. About the only thing we need to do is change the orientation of the panels a few times a year, and keep the batteries topped up.

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Paul July 17, 2016 - 2:37 pm

I am trying to go completely off grid (power & water) could you please tell me or send a link as to how you got started, costs & planning? I would greatly appreciate it. Thank-you.
Paul

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Charlotte Walker July 24, 2016 - 1:15 pm

Hi Paul, we started the process by calculating our energy needs. We kept track of our monthly kWh used on our energy bill and then we took it further. We figured out what each of our appliances used (you can get a devise that does a quick reading) It is a matter of deciding if there are things you can cut out entirely. Our electric heater for example is the biggest energy hog. We have an outdoor wood furnace that is far more efficient. Hanging our washing on the line instead of the dryer etc. We played with the numbers and then obtained quotes for an appropriately sized system.

Basically you need to find out what is available, what it costs and then assess if you can afford that system or if you need to make lifestyle changes so that you can run with a smaller more affordable system. Don’t forget to look into extras like electrical requirements and other contracting such as installing the piles for the posts. Not all solar suppliers include this. There are also solar programs, rebates, incentives and tax breaks depending on where you live. It can make the investment easier to handle.

I would start with looking at your needs and pricing out systems accordingly. Also look at possible incentives in your area. This was a big project that consumed quite a bit of our time to accomplish, coordinating contractors and inspections etc. It all takes time. The supplier we used here in New Brunswick “Fundy Solar” lives off grid and truly understands the products that they sell and install which was incredibly valuable. Do your homework on suppliers/installers!

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