Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Mother's Day surprise

I didn't have a cake on Mother's day, because who needs the calories right? Neither did I get any presents just for being a mum - I actually think being a mum is the present and I get to experience that a lot. But there was something 'afoot' on that particular day, and mainly on top of our roof.  I mentioned recently, David and I had some large financial decisions to make over Easter. On Mother's Day, we saw the realisation of those decisions...


Click to enlarge


It's a 5 kilowatt system, consisting of 20 solar panels. We just had enough room on our roof, with our existing solar hot water system (centre). The installers even had to move the tv antenna, so they could fit them all on the northern side.

Why such a big unit? We run a septic system 24/7 and a water pump for the house too. Plus we don't have a wood burner at the moment, so the house is heated via electricity during winter. Our bills during that time can be in excess of $800 per quarter.


Our anaerobic septic system


Of all the things we weighed to use our money for, solar was the only one which would reduce our expenditures consistently. We originally saved the money to buy a wood heater, but it would only reduce our expenditures during winter. We still intend to get a wood heater once we save the money again, but its a big outlay for such a small window of return.

The fact I'm talking about money when speaking about solar is I don't believe we deserve any credit for being environmentally minded. A grid connected solar system, depends entirely on the electricity network to operate. It does provide free energy from the sun, but this particular system relies entirely on fossil fuels to operate. In terms of sustainability, you really need a "stand-alone" solar system, which means the solar panels are connected to a battery bank, instead of the electricity grid.


Pineapple and sweet potato


Our main environmental challenge is the green we can produce in the landscape. It takes a lot longer to make a return in the garden, than one afternoon with tradespeople on the roof. People who mind their gardens or find ways to eat locally, contribute a greater effort to being environmentally friendly because its a daily commitment and generally uses more elbow grease than fossil fuels.

I've written about solar before, and I wouldn't say my views have changed a great deal. We only purchased panels recently, because the Queensland government decided to remove the generous subsidy they were giving households, putting solar energy back into the grid. That's why I made the appointment to speak to a solar company recently - I wanted to hear what solar would look like without the government subsidy.

Once I saw households would be paid "market value" for the excess energy they produced by their electricity supplier, I felt it was a more realistic system of exchange. I've written about what government subsidies can do to a household budget and the price of goods here and here. I intend to write a third and final post, in my series about Individualism. It was always going to be about solar, because that has been the latest government incentive to get households to change the way they do business.

Our hands aren't completely clean however, as we did receive some subsidy for installing the system, but I will discuss the details of that in my final post about Individualism.

In the meantime, the sun has decided to go into hiding. While I know our panels aren't producing as much power because of it, the garden really needs these gentle days of reprieve from the sun. It triggers so much growth and change that I cannot begrudge it's necessity.



16 comments:

  1. Chris, I have only just found your blog and I am really enjoying it. I am most interested to read about solar panels and we live on a farm and out electricity bills are unbelievable. When I have the time I plan to sit and read all your older posts. Thanks Carol

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  2. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. I would like to visit your blog if you have one. It's true though, when you live on acreage, the cost of utilities can be expensive. There's no town water pressure, so you have to run a water pump. There's no town sewerage, so you have to run your own septic tank. These things aren't mandatory, there are other ways which don't require a lot of electricity, but its getting them passed through Council which is the challenging part.

    Anyway, thanks again for stopping in. :)

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  3. I thought I'd read this post but can't imagine how I missed the bit about solar. Well done! Hope you'll keep us updated on how it's going. I'm interested in the difference between Qld and Vic, solarwise. What FIT are you getting?

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  4. I believe the Feed in Tariff is going to be 8 cents per kilowatt after July.

    We've been watching how the sun travels over our roof, and found a large tree, over 40 metres away is partially blocking the sun at approx 10am. That tree was always ear-marked to go, as its too close to the house and hasn't fully grown yet.

    A few of our neighbours spotted gums are blocking the sun at different times in the day too. These gums are over 30 metres tall, and they're planted on slopes. As the sun changes position in autumn/winter, these trees cast long shadows, which is how they catch our roof. Not ideal, but we'll work with it.

    The highest energy we've generated so far, is nearly 18kwh in a day, and the lowest about 8kwh (overcast). We expect our generation capacity to drop further during winter, as the sun changes position in the sky.

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    1. 18 kWh is pretty good for winter. I'm not getting anything above 5 kWh at the moment (for a 4 kW system). In summer you'll romp home.

      I'm getting 33 cents FIT at the moment. I think it's wrong; even my installer thinks it's wrong, but I'm keeping mum about it. I was expecting 8 cents. The power company don't know what's what.

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    2. I think the old Feed In Tariff for Queensland was 44 cents. If you were signed on during a set period, you got to keep that rate even though the government is now scrapping further subsidies.

      I was glad not to get that rate, but after looking at my electricity suppliers Feed In Tariff, I think it will only be 6 cents per kilowatt, instead of the 8 cents I thought previously. Something is better than nothing.

      We're still waiting to be connected to the grid, believe it or not. We're using the solar generated for our usage during the day, but any excess we produce won't go into the grid until they connect us. There was a mix-up with the installer. He sent the paperwork to the wrong network distributor and it took us a while to figure out what he'd done.

      We're not upset, but it was frustrating making a lot of phone calls to different network distributors, and they kept telling us there wasn't anything on their system. When we called the installer he said he sent the paperwork in and even double-checked with them.

      The distributor who received the paperwork should have contacted the installer to say we weren't in their servicing area, but it just got left in the too hard pile, I guess, lol.

      Never mind, we'll get there in the end. ;)

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  5. This is very exciting and I hope you write more about living with it as well as how it pays off. I agree regarding the subsidies but I recently had a conversation with a solar sales person. Our areas utility company is a co-operative and they wanted to start a solar farm so they were selling panels to customers/shareholders. I was shocked to find out that our home would need upwards of 18 panels according to the salesman-cost to be too far out of our reach. This estimate came in after the salesman told me the larger farms were buying 10,000 dollars worth of panels so our home wouldn't need as much. We came in at nearly 20,000 so there obvious concern and we backed out quickly. To buy anything less would not have paid us back enough to warrant the investment. So we are back to trying to work on an off grid plan once again along with some passive solar as time allows. I still have much more to learn.

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    1. I was surprised to learn we needed 20 panels to cover our winter usage too.

      Funny numbers you got from the salesperson. Maybe the co-operative got a special discount, if there was a government subsidy involved? It may not apply to individual households, but does to business models?

      The trickiest part of stand-alone solar, is finding the deep cycle batteries. I hear the ones from bobcats or small loaders, can do the job and sometimes they're on-sold by businesses wanting to replace their batteries according to their maintenance schedule. Second-hand Marine batteries are suitable too.

      If you know where to find them second hand, and in good condition, it can reduce your outlay costs substantially. The panels themselves are probably the cheapest component - individually. It's having enough batteries and the inverter which can drive up the cost.

      You two are pretty resourceful though, and solar passive is nothing to she shirked at either. I think your masonry heater was an excellent investment in radiant heating over winter. That alone would help your electricity costs. Our window of cold weather to use a wood heater for, would probably only be two months, but for your climate a masonry wood heater is an excellent investment.

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    2. I never thought to look for bobcat batteries for this. Infact these can be pretty easy to find around here. I don't mind going the extra mile to go off grid really. To me, its a longer term solution than being a tie in-if the grid goes for some reason we are going to be fine. The problem in our area is that when winter comes along, the power company raises their rates substantially so even though we do have the masonry heater we end up paying more for lights, freezer, refrigerator and water pump and heater. We are warm with the masonry heater without being at anybodies mercy. Thats a good thing.

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  6. I was surprised to learn we needed 20 panels to cover our winter usage too.

    Funny numbers you got from the salesperson. Maybe the co-operative got a special discount, if there was a government subsidy involved? It may not apply to individual households, but does to business models?

    The trickiest part of stand-alone solar, is finding the deep cycle batteries. I hear the ones from bobcats or small loaders, can do the job and sometimes they're on-sold by businesses wanting to replace their batteries according to their maintenance schedule. Second-hand Marine batteries are suitable too.

    If you know where to find them second hand, and in good condition, it can reduce your outlay costs substantially. The panels themselves are probably the cheapest component - individually. It's having enough batteries and the inverter which can drive up the cost.

    You two are pretty resourceful though, and solar passive is nothing to she shirked at either. I think your masonry heater was an excellent investment in radiant heating over winter. That alone would help your electricity costs. Our window of cold weather to use a wood heater for, would probably only be two months, but for your climate a masonry wood heater is an excellent investment.

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    1. Chris, the salesperson got nasty when I actually brought the topic of the original conversation up-the part about how much farms invested. He got even pissier when I said I'd rather take that money and go off grid. He sent an email with the tip that other off grid folks he knows have lots of complaints and "good luck to you". Very nasty people. I thought it was a scam based on this experience. Farmers always get the better deal out of the government though so that might have been it yet you would think that a salesperson would know better than to announce this to a residential customer. He misled me.

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  7. I managed to post the same reply, twice before. Don't know how that happened. Sorry for the repetition.

    There are limitations and pluses for both systems, but for the salesperson making commissions, they only make income from selling grid systems. Naturally, they will only tell of the evils of stand alone.

    How well a stand alone system works though, is how well the households manage the entire system. Regular households who want to run all their electrical equipment like they're used to from the grid, may not like the limitations placed on them for a stand alone system. But if you're used to having to change around your life for more efficiency, then its not going to be a detraction. It will just be another way to save money and energy.

    I still believe stand alone solar is more environmentally friendly, in that it can reuse second hand (deep cycle) batteries and also power isn't lost to entropy travelling the grid. The household can only use what energy they generate too. Those connected to the grid can double-dip, so to speak, Their energy usage can climb higher as they demand, not really limited as the sun regulates.

    Problem with stand alone systems for most ordinary family households, is *time* is required to network, find resources and tweak the system as needed. Most ordinary households are set to an industrial economy which doesn't allow for much time to use their enginuity, unfortunately.

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  8. Very true about time being a commodity for most households. I feel that in our area, the batteries are easily attainable. Thats half the battle for us. My general idea is to get the water pump and heater onto an off grid system. The rest we can live without or with less of-for example, we can use lanterns in winter but we have lots of light all day and until 9pm some of the year. Then we have the refrigerator which I am trying to get rid of in favor of a much smaller and more energy efficient one. I would like a proper larder to catch the overflow. On and on. I think we would still need to worry about our usage at that point but perhaps we can add on more solar as we go. One issue I am thinking about deeply though is how much sun we actually have whereas we have an abundance of wind. Its a lot to think about.

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  9. The sun is something we've become more aware of too. In summer we get almost too much, but in winter, not quite enough. Some selected trees will have to go in favour of some smaller ones.

    But winter sun would be very minimal in the Northern Hemisphere. I can see why a hybridized system with wind, would be so much better than solar alone. If you're going to get enough batteries to attempt to run as much of your energy needs off them, you'll need a back up system to solar. I've read your batteries should never drop below 80% charge (each) and if solar is unreliable during winter, then wind would ensure your batteries hold their charge.

    I imagine with wind and solar, you probably would never run out of power.

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  10. I think that in actuality we could bypass solar altogether with an adequate wind system. Niether are cheap but wind will take us year round. Winter is when the co-op raises its rates so from a monetary point of view, that is where we want to use less of their service. But we are also hoping to get a wood cookstove this fall which will help reduce our bill a lot-electric oven, and the wood pellet stove we use to heat the addition where the masonry heater doesn't reach-that is where our money will be better spent. Ultimately we will chose wind and wood I think.

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  11. Wind and wood, definitely sounds like the way to go. Use what is in reliable supply for your area. Sun happens to be fairly consistent here, so we use solar panels. Everyone has to decide where their own money is best spent. I'm excited to hear about your plans as they develop in the future.

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