As long as I've been installing solar, clients ask about what happens when the grid goes out?... I then end up explaining that 'grid-tied' solar generators have to shut-down to be compliant with local code. For this, and a few other reasons, solar won't work when the power is off.
Enphase Energy has finally produced a 'system' (that they have aptly named Ensemble) that solves this problem. The magic here is two-fold. First and foremost, their latest series of micro inverters will form its own grid and these units are incorporated into the battery portion of Ensemble. Secondly, a very fast switch automatically isolates your home and batteries from the grid when the power goes out to allow the system to form a 'micro-grid' and power critical items in your home. It's sleek, functional and allows your solar to keep working when the power's out - I love it!
The government of Ontario cancelled all incentives - existing and proposed- for solar energy in 2018. With an election victory for conservatives in Alberta recently, Albertans are feeling Ontarian's 'start-stop' pain with changes coming for their recently booming solar industry. For those of us who have built businesses supporting the development of a clean energy industry, it reminded me of a quote my first employer in solar had shared with me: "you can always tell who the pioneers are, they're the ones with all the arrows in their backs!" I want to share the following article and leave you with this thought:
2018 seemed to be a 'tipping' year for a lot of the equipment installed in 2009 and 2010. We uncovered a number of wider spread issues, and were involved in some warranty campaigns. There were some excellent learning opportunities as we completely rebuilt over 30 systems for a few very different reasons. We learned some key considerations that need emphasis as we move forward with Solar design and installation in Canada in 2019 and beyond.
The first group of projects required new asphalt shingles on their roofs. When these installations were completed back in 2009 and 2010, the roofs were already a few years old. There were great learning opportunities in each of the cases. With each roof, any leaks, and the worst shingle wear, happened outside the solar array. The shingles under the solar were in the best shape of any location on the roof because of the shelter the solar panels had provided. This has been pitched by solar professionals as a benefit since day-one BUT we can now see multiple cases where this is true, adding some hard evidence.
The removal and replacement was quicker and less costly than customers had anticipated. We typically coordinated directly with the roofing company and the removal was done 1-2 days prior in 1 day and reinstallation done the day after in 1 day. Very little new material was required and many small problems from the initial installation or from wear-and-tear were fixed. The solar array actually benefitted from new hardware (flashing in one case) and being restored to a 'like-new' state - ready for the next decade of Canadian weather.
Birds and rodents are a real problem and can be very expensive tenants under the solar array. From pigeons to squirrels, a solar array is a great new place under which to raise a family. The damage to wiring and the panels themselves can be extensive and costly. A wire-mesh or solid metal rodent guard around the entire perimeter of the array is highly recommended. This can sound expensive but usually equates to a fraction of the cost of the damage one family of squirrels can do.
Our second big lesson was that warranties aren't as important as the companies that back them. Everyone who installed solar got some sort of warranty with their purchase of panels, inverters and racking. Now, as failing product is rearing its ugly head, we go back to these warranties seeking replacement or compensation. Many of the companies are no-where to be found, or have unreasonable requests for testing, shipping etc. that make repair or replacement under warranty impractical. Companies like Canadian Solar and Enphase have stepped up in big ways for our clients in 2018. I chose to centre these two out because of the customer-centred approach both has taken to standing behind their product. Enphase has stood behind their legacy product and even offered at-cost upgrades for those who would chose to take a leap forward with newer technology. They also are providing Hammond Renewable Energy with 'seed-stock' so that we have a full inventory of inverters and cabling to better meet the needs of legacy customers. This is in stark contrast to some panel manufacturers who are long gone, or ask to have customers ship product back to a facility for repair - shipping cost usually out-weighs the cost of a new replacement panel. Inverters that had 5 year warranties are being replaced before their 10th birthday with the customer on the hook for 100% of parts and labour.
Lastly, some systems just weren't designed for Canada's unique blend of wind and snow. We saw bent ground mount arrays and cracked panels where wind, snow and ice weren't properly accounted for. When choosing your equipment or designing the support structure, make sure that engineering is done for your specific region!
With an election victory for the provincial PC's, many are left asking 'what's next for solar in Ontario?'. That is the million dollar question right now for professionals in the industry and those interested in going solar. First off, I think we can all agree that solar is here to stay for the long-haul. This change in government might present immediate political hurdles for green-energy incentives, grants and related programs BUT it will not derail the momentum solar has. There are still many cases where solar makes sense for businesses and home-owners alike. The installed cost of solar continues to drop, on it's way to a level that will completely negate the need for any incentives. At the same time, we will soon see the effects of the Wynne Liberal "Fair Hydro Plan" (https://www.ontario.ca/page/ontarios-fair-hydro-plan), which provided short term price relief in favour of higher electricity costs in the long term. After the initial 4-year relief period, we could be looking at annual increases bringing our rates north of $0.30/kWh of delivered residential electricity by the 10-12 year mark. It will be interesting to see how the Ford PC's handle electricity rates, Hydro One issues and carbon taxes and credits. As Canada's solar energy leader, Ontario needs to continue to lead and not back-step.
Globally, solar is continually reaching new heights in installed capacity and penetration into new markets. Here's hoping the Ford PC's choose to move Ontario forward to stay at the front of the pack.
Back in December, Ontario's Independent Electricity System operator announced that the final 50MW procurement target for Solar PV Micro-FIT contracts had been reached. Unlike other years, meeting this target in 2017 meant the end of the Micro-FIt contract for good in Ontario, marking the end of an exciting era for renewable generation. This should finally make a clear path for residential net-metering and we hope to hear some formal announcement regarding guidelines - likely set to come in the summer of 2018.
What we do know now is that Net-Metering is a viable solution for many Ontario residents and business owners already. In rural areas, where electricity rates are higher, solar already makes sense for many consumers. A quick overview - Net metering allows you to generate electricity when the sun shines, store any excess, unused power as a credit on your bill with the utility and draw from the grid when the sun isn't shining. The grid/utility act as your solar storage bank!
Solar systems are very smart now and can work in conjunction with 'smart-meters' to allow you to get a really clear picture of your power consumption and generation - and the subsequent 'net' amount - in real-time. This allows you to be empowered with great data if there are any conflicts with your billing.
If you'd like to better understand what net-metering might look like on your home, farm or small business, send us your information and we'd be happy to provide you with a free design package.
Image courtesy of US based Energy Sage: https://news.energysage.com/net-metering-the-back-and-forth-of-solar-power-systems/
I was at Lowes recently and saw a Samsung Fridge that was 'smart-home ready' and had a small display on the door. After doing a little research, I discovered that these new appliances have the ability to work with your Energy Management System in your home - and - could technically have a conversation with your solar about ideal timing to cool your iced tea! The 'Energy Management System' market is forecasted to double in the next 4 years as homes continue to add gadgets to just about every facet of operation.
So what is an 'Energy Management System' and how does it work with my fridge anyway?
An EMS is essentially a 'brain' that allows smart devices - those devices that have the capability to report their operating status and to adjust operation to set programming or to 'active' requirements of the home - to interconnect as one 'system' or 'network'.
Many solar inverters are smart-grid ready and can be controlled and monitored by energy management systems. This functionality in your solar inverter is a must to ensure that it can communicate with the rest of your home as your gadgets and appliances get smarter in the very near future.
Here is an example of how an EMS can work in your home: Let's assume you have 'time of use' rates for your electricity and a smart grid ready solar system, set to net-meter, installed at your home. It's 4pm in July and it's 38C outside. Your air-conditioning might actually check with the EMS to determine if it's best to wait until 5pm when rates drop to begin cooling the house -or- see that there is an abundance of solar power to draw from and cool the house during peak rates strictly on solar power. All this is happening while you're at the beach monitoring it on your smart-phone!
Before you install solar or do any upgrades or replacements of your HVAC equipment or major appliances, it's worth at least making sure the equipment you purchase will be able to play nicely with an EMS and other devices down the road.
One of the biggest concerns for homeowners thinking about installing solar is the effect it may have on their roof. Logic would say that putting 85-200 holes in your roof could be risky but let's look at the facts. Roof penetration to connect solar mounting hardware has come a long way in the last decade. In the early days, a bracket was secured to the roof over the shingles and a butyl tape or structural roof sealant was used. This provides a watertight seal on day-one but as the shingles erode around it, the risk of leaks may increase. Alternately, some manufacturers modified a product called a 'roof-hook' that was initially designed for clay tile roofs. This 'hook' fastened up under the shingles and had a flat steel bar that extended out in a partial U-shape to connect to the mounting rails. Things have improved a great deal and most installations now use an engineered roof flashing made from thin aluminum or treated steel. This provides a watertight guard for the necessary lag screws used to connect the mounting hardware to the trusses located under your shingles and plywood. I almost always have one with me for 'show and tell'. Flashing is a traditional roofing method and, from my experience and conversations with roofers, is actually far superior to the shingles themselves. These flashings will outlast any asphalt shingles on the market today. So, a correctly installed solar system should provide 20+ years of leak-free operation.
In a recent removal of solar equipment to allow for replacement of the roof shingles, I was able to get some great photos of how protected the roof is under the shingles. The solar had been installed for about 6 years and the exposed roof was in dire need of replacement. Wherever there were panels, shingles were in markedly better condition. So, if holes in the roof aren't a leak risk and your shingles actually last longer when protected with solar panels, you officially have two more reasons to go solar.
Solar and your roof - happily ever after!
I've had the pleasure of working with some clients who didn't realize how bad things had gotten with their solar projects until they got online monitoring. I say 'had the pleasure' because people don't really realize how much they're missing without monitoring and are usually truly excited to see the level of detail they can get once they're online. I've prepared the following as a basic '101' lesson about your options to monitor your solar PV system.
The inverter(s) that you are using may already have installed capability to monitor. The inverter is the heart of your solar PV system. They convert the DC electricity generated by the solar panels to the AC electricity that is used in the electricity grid to provide our homes and businesses with electrical power. Generally, inverters have the capability to communicate through a 'gateway' of some sort but are quite often not connected to the internet to utilize this capability. If the inverter already has a gateway, either built-in or an external box, you simply need to get an internet connection to them and get them talking to the free, internet based portal provided by most inverter manufacturers.
If a gateway is not installed, they can usually be purchased after the fact for between $300 and $1200. The internet can be brought to the gateway a number of ways. If there is internet already at the site, it can be easily routed to the gateway by cable or wifi or wifi extender. If there is no internet at the site, it can be installed using either 'point-to-point' from a nearby building with internet or using an inexpensive cellular based option (usually with Rogers or Bell).
Depending on whether you are generating on a FIT or MicroFIT contract (Ontario only) or net-metering, the value of adding monitoring can be assessed quickly by doing some basic math.
Customer 'A' has a $0.80/kWh MicroFIT contract. Their system is a 10kW roof mounted system that produces about $8500 per year. If this system as an issue that inhibits production to 75% (a string of solar panels not functioning properly for example), they continue to receive a monthly payment from their LDC but are losing roughly $2125 per year in lost production and may attribute lower bills to variations in weather or not even notice at all. Sometimes these issues can continue for years. Monitoring can likely be added for a fraction of the cost of the loss in this example and will allow Customer 'A' to ensure maximum production for the remaining years of their MicroFIT contract.
Customer 'B' has a FIT project generating $0.54/kWh. Their system is a 250kW system mounted on the flat roof of their manufacturing facility. It generates $150,000 per year. The day after their June payment is settled, a rodent chews through one of the main AC wires and the system stops operating. When the customer receives their July statement, there is $18 of production - roughly a $19,000 loss! The larger the system, the more critical monitoring can be.
Some key benefits of monitoring:
In my opinion, there are very few reasons not to have monitoring on your system. I welcome any feedback or questions!
One of the biggest issues in determining electrical consumption in the home is our lack of information about where power is being used. If you can find the 'worst offenders' on your list of loads, you can strategize how best to conserve. Often overlooked, conservation is one of our greatest tools when trying to create our own energy independence. I recently discovered a great new product that helps home and small business owners play electron detective and find out where their power is going. 'Neurio' has created a hardware/software tandem that allows you to easily and inexpensively get granular data about which appliances and loads are causing the most pain on your electricity bill. Check it out here.
This blog has been inspired by all the great information I uncover during my daily scouring of news outlets, feeds, newsletters, forums and solar resources that doesn't get shared. I'll be adding as much content as my schedule allows and hope to hear from people if there are topics that you are interested in that I can dig deeper on.
To kick things off, Enphase launched a new site to assist home-owners considering solar in making a more informed decision. Check out their new landing page here. For those of you not familiar with Enphase, they are a 'micro-inverter' manufacturer who specializes in really detailed but easy to use monitoring software. In recent years Enphase has branched out into energy storage for your home as well.
Sean Hammond is a professional renewable energy consultant and project manager based in Ontario, Canada.