Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Busting our electricity bills: Part 3 - Going Solar

Previous posts in this series:        Part 1       Part 2

A few months ago in the midst of yet another rise in electricity costs I began investigating the possibility of going solar. We were already sold on green electricity, but to make it a reality it had to pay for itself, and fast. Our only available budget for electricity was what we were already spending. 

My introduction to life with solar was at an open sustainable house where I left the tour once it reached a critical solar point. The owner of the house could quote all the stats and figures on his batteries, and.... well.... etc etc, I tuned out about here. When he was asked how much his solar system cost, he couldn't say. His fascination was all in the figures. When it comes to living a greener lifestyle, it's all in the earth, the dirt, the green things that pop out of the ground for me. In fact I'd be doing it even if it wasn't a good thing to do for our environment. The tech aspect of a green lifestyle still seems a little at odds with the other aspects of a this way of living (but then here I am at my computer). So it was a plunge in a vast pool, but I did it, I immersed myself in the techy world of solar.  

Opening my local paper and turning on the radio (good old communication technologies!) I found a swathe of solar companies to choose from. A few phone calls and I had two companies booked in to offer onsite quotes. I noted that there were a number of companies that offered online and over the phone quotes, however I would suggest caution with these as those I encountered did not offer a design that takes into account your onsite factors, such as shading from nearby structures, trees etc.  

After review of advertised prices we chose two companies, Solar Newcastle and EcoSmart Solar, both national reputable companies, to quote for us. Solar Newcastle sent out a sales engineer, who determined an appropriate size solar array system for our needs and offered a design option. After noting our vegie patch and chickens the salesman cottoned on that we were likely to want as many panels as possible. I informed him that it had to make economic sense too.  His recommendation was for a 2.5KW split system. Our roof has both north and west facing sides, both options for installing the panels. A split system allows installation of the maximum number of panels that fit on our north facing roof (the angle with maximum solar gain), and the remaining on the west side. This would be a split of 5 and 5 panels. Their quote was $4750.00, which included a discount from a recent promotion.

A 2.5KW system should serve approximately a third of our power needs over the year, based on our consistent usage habits during daylight hours. Our quote was for a back to the grid solar system. This means that when the electricity is produced it is fed into the meter box. This electricity will be fed into the house if any appliances are currently being run. Any remaining will be fed back into the grid, crediting our bill with 7 - 8c per KW hr. Without batteries the electricity will not be stored. Therefore the electricity needs to be consumed in a consistent pattern over the day if we are to maximise the use of our production. Batteries were not an option for us as their costs are currently very high. However the salesman indicated that their costs should lower to a point worth consideration within a few years time. 

EcoSmart Solar sent out one of their tradesmen to offer a design and quote. Being a tradesman, he naturally came with his ladder. He climbed onto the roof and made precise measurements. His design offered an installation of 7 panels on our little bit of north facing roof, two more than Solar Newcastle felt they could install on that section of roof. Panels from different brands, we were informed, differ in physical size. It may be that EcoSmart simply had some smaller panels, or more accurate measurements. 7 north facing panels offer a 1.75KW system that potentially can produce 4 - 6KW hrs per day. The quote was $4439.00.

Mono or Poly? No, this is not a question of what board game to play. These are the two types of silicon used to manufacture solar panels, Mono-crystalline and Poly-crystalline. The panel types go by the same names. Trying to compare the two from my lay persons perspective is like comparing apples with apples. Based on the information Solar Newcastle offered us, their efficiencies are both 15%, both panel types came with 25 year warranties, both were rated to an 80% minimal output after 25 years. I asked the salesman what his preference was. Mono. Mono it is.

Financing solar can be as easy as paying your electricity bill. We didn't have a spare few thousand dollars. Solar Newcastle has partnered with a local community bank Hunter United. Together they offer a two year interest free solar credit card with a yearly fee of just under $100.00. Payment in full is made on the day of installation using the credit card. EcoSmart similarly offered us finance for two years with a 10% deposit additional to the quoted amount. 

Read the next article in this series...

Busting our electricity bills: Part 4 - Sizing Our Solar System 


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