Monday, June 6, 2016

Yet More Solar Repairs

Solar Panels have turned out to have regular problems and be far from trouble free. Starting in the second year of ownership I have had an ongoing series of failures of micro inverters, panels or wiring. For two and a half years I struggled to resolve the continual failures of random panels or micro inverters. I ended up having the entire solar photo voltaic system rewired the winter before last. That seemed to solve the problems I had been having for more than a year. However, this spring when I finally had the shingles on the roof that were damaged by the solar repair work replaced, I started once more to have solar panel problems. At the moment I have two panels that are not reporting. I called my solar panel repair guy, the subcontractor of the original installer and he came out to look at the situation.

My relationship with my solar panels is a turbulent one because problems with the system are so hard to identify and address; and there have been problem after problem. The original installation was problematic, the electrical wiring was not correctly done, many of the components used in the installation turned out to be rated for interior use and the system was not set up correctly. Ultimately, I had the system rewired using rain tight fittings, replaced conduit with prefabricated fittings and proper grounding. When they were finally done and the system turned back on I had all 32 solar panels producing and reporting. Just in time for the sunny spring last year.

All seemed well until this spring when I had to have some roof repairs done to repair the damage all that climbing on the roof caused in addition to the damage from the harsh winter. When the roof work was finished, suddenly I had one panel not reporting. The roofer came back and checked the plugs. Two days later the panel was once more reporting, but shortly after that the panel seemed to fail again along with a second panel. I called the solar repair company. They got back to me a couple of weeks later.

After climbing on the roof and examining the system, the repairman showed me pictures of what he believed to be the latest set of problems. Half of the racking system that holds the solar panels on the roof had lifted up slightly. It was probably all the snow last winter. In addition, there was at least one Enphase inverter that had failed. The repair people assumed that the second inverter had also failed, despite having a green light.

So the newest proposal is to Replace & Repair the solar panel racking for ½ of the system, 16 panels, for  $ 3,742. The scope of work is:
  • 16 PV panels & inverters will be dismounted to be tested & cleaned
  • All L-Feet & associated flashing will be removed & roof penetrations sealed
  • New IronRidge Flashing Feet will be installed on an off-set location from original feet locations
  • New IronRidge Mid Clamps will be installed to secure PV Panels into new Rails
  • All mounting rails will be replaced with IronRidge XR-10 series rails
  • In addition, the 2 malfunctioning Enphase Micro Inverters will be replaced.

The charge for the materials for the work are 60% of the expense - $2,242 (Items: $1,892 + S&H:$350)
  • IronRidge XR-10 Series Rails
  • IronRidge L-Feet with Flashing
  • IronRidge 2.0” Mid Clamps
  • Electrical Grounding Hardware
  • Roof Sealants
  • Roof Shingle Flashing

The solar photo voltaic array turns out to need regular maintenance and repairs, and is subject to damage from snow, rain, wind and roofers. There is no certification or license for solar panel installers or repair companies that I can check.  The solar company is working under a valid class A contractor’s license, and have all the proper insurance. Since this is the repairs to the racking system and the lift of the system could be seen in the pictures that they took, it is a safety issue; the solar panels could fall off of the roof and injure someone. This should be addressed as soon as possible. We will move ahead with the repair. Though, I look ahead and see a continual series of repairs. I need to understand at least in my own mind, how I would determine the point I give up. It comes down to money and time.

Though troublesome, my solar panels still make financial sense. The market cost of solar panels and installation has been falling for years, but so have the financial incentives. When I signed the contract to purchase my roof mounted solar system in 2009 (though it was not installed until May 2010) the cost per kilowatt for the Sharp panels I bought was about $6,700 plus permits and installation. These days that cost is about $1,800 and may be even lower. 

However, back in 2009 I was able to obtain a state rebate of $12,000 which is no longer available in Virginia. I also used the 30% federal tax credit which was recently extended and is still available. The net cost of the solar system in 2010 after rebates and tax credits was $32,578. In addition, today there is a property tax exemption in Prince William County (and most counties in Virginia). The exemption is based on the Energy Efficient Buildings Tax Exemption (Code of VA §58.1-3221.2) which allows any county, city, or town to exempt or partially exempt energy efficient buildings from local property taxes. In Prince William County the amount of the exemption is based on the installed cost of solar array and I applied for the exemption and was approved recently. My property assessment will be reduced for five years by the cost of my solar array. Based on the county property tax rate for this year that translates to a savings of $656.82 each year for the next 5 years.

The largest portion of my return is from something called a SREC, a solar renewable energy credit. A SREC is a credit for each megawatt hours of electricity that is produced, but used elsewhere. SRECs have value only because some states have solar set asides from their Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, which require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power. There are no RPS solar requirements in Virginia, thus no value to SRECs in Virginia today beyond the $10-$15 that a RPS credit is worth.

However, my SRECs have value. When I installed my solar array, my system was eligible to sell SRECs in Pennsylvania and Washington DC and I registered my Virginia based solar photovoltaic array in both markets. The Pennsylvania market has collapsed, but the District of Columbia passed a law in 2011 which made the SRECs quite valuable for a number of years. The law prevents out-of-state systems from registering after January 31st 2011 is registered mine well before that. DC is currently the only under-supplied SREC market in the nation, because of the lack of large commercial solar farms and large industrial installations. Washington DC is a city with limited non-governmental buildings and no available private land beyond the reservoirs and Blue Plains waste water treatment plant.

The dollar value of the solar power I generate from my solar panels is worth less than I have sold my SRECs for over the past five years. However, there is no guarantee that my SRECs will be worth anything next year and as more solar power is registered in DC and the penalty price of failing to meet the solar carve out falls the value of my SRECs will decrease. My SRECs potentially have some value until 2025. Once my system no longer has the solar incentives available to it, I will have to reevaluate how worthwhile the system is to maintain going forward, but for now, this just extends the payback time for the system.

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