Tuesday, March 19, 2013

1.21 Gigawatts!

Well, I've finally gone solar. We decided to have Vivint Solar install the panels and get us setup to save some money. If you haven't heard of them, give them a call. At first I was a bit skeptical of their pitch and wanted nothing to do with a bunch of greenie meanies and their version of solar power. But Vivint Solar is far from that. Yes, it is a solar sales pitch, but with a surprisingly good twist. In the government approved version of solar power, you buy your solar panels from a government approved solar shop, they install the array, and the solar power is "free." Well, it's free as soon as your energy savings finishes paying off the price of the panels and installation; that could take years. You do get to write off the solar installation and all of the attendant paraphernalia on your taxes. As long as you keep the receipts and other paperwork the government will demand.

However, with Vivint it is quite different. The government doesn't get involved. You are not buying anything, except buying into a long-term contract to buy the solar power from Vivint. Let me explain. Vivint sells you no hardware because they are a power company, just like Pacific Gas and Electric. When you buy power from PG&E you don't own the hardware. PG&E just transports the power from their generating stations to your house. Vivint does the same thing but they've just moved the generating station from some distant power plant to the solar array on the roof of your house. What you do is to agree to buy the power from Vivint over a 20 year term for the set rate of 15 cents per kilowatt hour. In CA that is a serious bargain. PG&E has a rate tier depending on how much electricity you use. It starts at 13 cents per kilowatt hour and tops out at 35 cents per kilowatt hour — for now; those will likely rise in the future. The 15 cents per kWh from Vivint is good for the life of the contract. Vivint still owns the array and all the attendant accessories installed on or in your house. If there is a problem with any hardware, Vivint will replace it for free. If you need to have a new roof installed, Vivint will remove, store, and replace the array for a $500 charge. If you sell your house, the contract transfers to the new owners. Simple and easy.

The photo to the right is a piece of equipment called the Envoy. It is connected to your home network (this is also a requirement) so Vivint can monitor their solar array. If you click on the photo, you will see that the array on my house is currently producing a good 1.21 kilowatts (not gigawatts!) of electricity. It has produced 180 kilowatt hours of electricity over it's life and there are 27 panels in the array. I have smudged out the IP address of the device which is just above the electrical information. If you want to see what the Envoy is doing, just enter its IP address into the browser on your computer. You will be taken to the Envoy's home screen. The administration link requires a password, so don't even bother trying to access it.

The Envoy is placed as close as possible to the main electrical panel in your house. The reason for this is because the Envoy is connected to your network via IP over power. The photo to the left shows this connection. A second IP over power unit is placed near your home router and a short ethernet cable is connected from the unit to the router. If any part of the array, the Envoy, or the IP over power units stops working, Vivint will call you to setup a time to replace the faulty gear. Remember, the hardware belongs to them; you are just paying them for the power it produces. A second requirement is that the electrical bill must be paid electronically through automatic bill payment. This is quite a risk that Vivint is taking and they want to ensure that the bill is paid on time. You are notified of the due bill and given roughly two weeks before the money is removed electronically from your bank account.

Naturally, the amount of electricity produced does vary with the amount of sun. The curve tends to start off slow in the morning but climbs to over 1 kilowatt by around 9 AM. By noon to 2 PM the amount of electricity is usually in the 3.5 kilowatt range. On a bright and sunny day just a few days ago, the total was 4.29 kilowatts at 2 PM! Not too bad for a solar array that has 27 panels with 15 on the east facing roof and 12 on the west facing roof. I don't have any real south facing roof space to speak of. I'm not sure how much electricity I use per hour but I'd be willing to bet it's not anywhere near 4.29 kilowatts.

The only "catch" to getting power from Vivint is that they are only allowed to provide no more than 80% of your electricity. In California, PG&E still has a type of monopoly and they want to be sure they get some money. Besides, when the array is not producing, you will still need power. The way this is setup is that when the array is producing, you use electricity from Vivint. Any excess is put into the grid and you are credited for that which you don't use. As the power from the array drops (obviously at night) you draw power from PG&E. California has also mandated that PG&E provide a specific amount of energy from solar. So this meets that state enforced requirement.

The nice part about this is that the government has minimal involvement. There are no tax credits or write-offs or receipts to hold onto until income tax season. This is done completely by private enterprise. Vivint has many investors that are in this for the long term. As more and more people have Vivint supply the majority of their electrical needs, they make money by making a profit, which in turn provides jobs. Instead of having the government intrude into your life so they can give you back some of the money they took from you in the first place, using solar power from Vivint starts your savings immediately because there is no cost to you up front and no waiting for the government to decide if you've filled out all of the tax forms properly. This may not be for everyone, but it's worth listening to the talk. It was for us. Many thanks to our sales representative, Max.