Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Misadventures with my Solar Photovoltaic Project

The renewable energy rebate in Virginia was limited by the $15 million in stimulus funds that the Commonwealth of Virginia allocated to the program. I signed up for the renewable energy rebates two days before the cut-off, I did not complete my due diligence and select my contractor, sign the contract and make a good faith deposit until after Christmas having been delayed by the mid-December snow. As the winter snow storms hammered northern Virginia over the winter my selected contractor struggled to prepare the engineering work and drawings necessary to obtain the permits. Weather delays and the usual contractor delays (always at least a week later than the salesman promised) interfered with obtaining the completed engineering work and the permits.

I was surprised that the detailed drawings and engineering work resulted in only a single electrical permit, but the contractor told me that the county had said only the electrical permit was necessary and the building code was not specific to solar panels. I was later to find out that the contractor had been misinformed or misunderstood the county building department clerk. Nonetheless, a permit was granted. Ultimately, when the error was discovered, Prince William County fast tracked the issuing of the solar building and electrical permits to help me meet the renewable energy rebate deadline. From the date of acceptance of the reservation for renewable energy rebates you have 180 days to actually install the system and meet all the requirement of the program to obtain your rebate. Signing up only guarantees that there is still money available for your project not that you will receive the rebate. Since the engineering and design work were properly done back during the winter, it took less than two days to get the permits. Chad Roop, Construction Inspection Supervisor was incredibly helpful throughout the process and the contractor, while having performance problems was honorable and kept at it until the installation passed inspection.

Solar Photo Voltaic panels are one of the least cost-effective ways of reducing your use of non-renewable resources. The only way these systems get installed are by all of us subsidizing the cost. This is accomplished by tax credits, state rebates, and renewable energy credits. Virginia had never before had renewable energy rebates. Maryland, our neighbor to the north had regularly funded a program that had a waiting list, so there was a predictable number of solar projects each year or two and an opportunity for local companies to develop experience. In Virginia, very little solar had been installed before this year; the small companies that were developing the expertise in solar systems saw their opportunity to grab a temporary business bonanza.

Despite assurances that they could handle the amount of work they booked, the company I had chosen to use had probably taken on a few more jobs than they could do, supervision was spread too thin and they hired additional people with inadequate training and experience to do the installation. What should have been a one week to ten day (depending on weather) installation began on April 19th and finally passed final inspection from the county on May 19th. In between I had the contractor who finished my basement back to repair the wall damage (twice) and the solar contractor was visibly showing stress.

The contractor was a well established roofing contractor and wanted to do a good job. I believe his foreman and the roof installation crew are capable of the work. The installation started with the first problem, notification of interconnect was given to the wrong power company. Fortunately, NOVEC, my power cooperative, had a solar meter installed within 24 hours of being properly notified. They were amazingly responsive in both the installation and in sending me the signed paperwork for my rebate supporting documentation. I would like to point out that the roof installation of the panels passed inspection on the first try and in the torrential rains of the past few weeks my roof has not leaked and the panels stayed put. The roof installation crew wore roofing shoes and safety harnesses and was careful moving the solar panels. For the most part the panel installation went smoothly other than setting my garden mulch on fire on the second day by flicking still lit cigarette buts off the roof. After I put out the fire and yelled at them, the installation crew agreed not to smoke on my property, though I have picked up numerous cigarette buts from the road. (It is a private road and cigarette filters are environmentally persistent, so I pick them up along with any other trash I find.)

The other individuals who worked on my house reportedly no longer work for the company. Four separate electrical inspections were performed by the building department until the system passed and in between, the system was entirely rewired, the contractor’s watch is a permanent resident in my wall, and my stove has been reconnected. Yes, they cut my stove out trying to move the circuit breaker, punched three large unnecessary holes in my walls, and used interior wiring where water proof wire was specified by their design. In addition, on the first attempt, four out of six wires were not connected to anything. The electrical inspector was tough on the contractor by the end, but they had not demonstrated any competence in the area and I feel that Charlie Jackson, the Chief Electrical Inspector, was looking out for my best interests and ensuring that the system was installed according to the approved drawings and code. Mr. Jackson showed unlimited patience with the contractor, and his thoroughness in the inspection is what ultimately ensured that the system was safely installed. I felt well protected and served by my county government.

The contractor was out here today to finish up details. The Enphase Micro-converter system is supposed to broadcast to the internet the power production. That is not working here. Reportedly, the system is working at all the other installations. The contractor thinks that it is a failure of the EMU, after spending the afternoon here. The contractor has agreed that until I’ve verified that the system is working and producing energy that is being applied to my power usage account and all the details are taken care of, I will not be making the final payment for the system.

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