People complain about high electric bills almost as often as they complain about the price of gas. And for two good reasons. First, utilities consistently raise their electric rates — not only for inflation, but also to increase their profits. So even if you don’t change your habits, your electric bills will generally keep increasing (like my waistline). Depending on where you live, these rate increases can average 3% -7% per year. The second reason is that we are using more and more electricity. Our 21st century lifestyle is much more energy intensive: we have more appliances, electric vehicles, electronic toys and cellphones, use heat pumps for space conditioning and hot water, and rely on more air conditioning as the climate gets hotter.
The average electricity consumption in single family homes in the US is 900 kwh per month. Although the average electricity cost around the country is 13.5 cents per kwh, there is a tremendous cost variation depending on location, climate, and cost of living. For example, in Hawaii, the average electricity cost is 33 cents per kwh. The official data for California indicates that the average cost of electricity is 20 cents per kwh. I question these averages because when I look at PG&E’s current electric rate, the baseline rate tier is 20 cents per kwh. Tier 2 electric rates (up to 400% of baseline electricity or about 400 kwh) is 27 cents a kwh. Tier 3 electric rates, defined as “super users” are 40 cents per kwh. If you require a lot of air conditioning, have a swimming pool, a bunch of networking and home entertainment equipment, or an electric vehicle, congratulations: you are likely a “super user.” Once you are in the super user tier — over about 1300 kwh per month — you are paying 40 cents for every kwh you use.
Obviously, if your home has a sunny exposure, solar makes great sense. But many people do not have that option. So what can you do? The first step is to find out what is causing those high electric bills. Buy or borrow a gadget called a “Kill A Watt Meter” and do some electricity sleuthing around your home. Some of the electricity hogs that I’ve found over the years include a defective AC compressor motor, keeping the temperature too cool in the summer and too hot in the winter (the fan motor in your furnace uses a lot of electricity), pool pumps running more than required, old refrigerators, vampire energy loads, and an abundance of electronic gadgets (including lighting, security, music and networking systems).
For more about the clever and insidious ways that our electricity providers separate us from our hard-earned dollars, tune in to this week’s Energy Show.
When a business or homeowner gets a new rooftop solar installation, the second question they always ask is “how often do I need to clean my solar panels.” We’ll answer that question on this week’s show — taking into account the different effects of rain, dust and electric rates. BTW, the first question people always ask is “how do I read my electric bill;” but that’s a topic for another show.
Rooftop solar panels get dirty primarily from wind-blown dust and pollen. Birds are usually not a problem unless your last name is Hitchcock and you live in Bodega Bay. As panels get dirtier, their output declines. A small amount of soiling — say a light dusty film — may only cause a 5 percent output decline. However, when panels get very dirty — perhaps in an agricultural area or location that does not get regular rainfall — the output decline can be greater than 20 percent. A good heavy rainstorm will usually wash away most of the accumulated soiling.
I use the term “usually” because on panels that are tilted at about 5 degrees or less, the rain may leave a puddle of muddy debris along the lower edge of the panel. When this puddle dries, sometimes a thick layer of dirt accumulates along the lower row of cells (sometimes moss and weeds may even grow in these areas). Depending on the design of the system, this small accumulation of dirt can cause a very significant decrease in output.
So the answer to the question: “how often should I clean my solar panels” really depends on five factors: your location (does it rain regularly or only during certain months), the tilt angle of your panels (steeply tilted panels tend to stay much cleaner than panels that are close to horizontal), the amount of wind blown dust, your electric rate (if your electric rate is high then it is more worthwhile to clean your panels), and the cost to clean your panels.
If you have a large solar array at a low tilt angle in a dry climate with high electricity costs, our basic advice is to clean your panels once a year. Under these circumstances the additional electricity output from clean panels will be much greater than the cleaning costs. On the other hand, if you have a small array in an area that rains regularly, then it may only make sense to clean your panels every five years or so. Here in California it generally does not make a lot of sense to clean your panels in the late fall or winter during the rainy season.
Regardless of your circumstances, please make sure you clean your panels with soapy or treated water to prevent damage from mineral deposits. Contact your solar contractor or maintenance company if you would like your system cleaned professionally. For more about keeping your solar system operating at top efficiency, please Listen Up to this week’s edition of the Energy Show.
Great solar policy is just as important as great solar technology. Obviously we need the technologies for these products — but we also need the policies so that solar products can be cost-effectively installed. And I’m not just talking about incentives…policies related to net metering, interconnection and permitting are just as important.
Getting good solar policy requires effective political lobbying. I hate to let you down, but these great energy policies did not magically spring from the brains of inspired politicians When I look back at the successes our industry has had over the years — net metering, the California Solar Initiative, Solar Tax Credits, state incentives — all of these policies were based on sound analytical research coupled with effective lobbying.
There are a few companies that specialize in the types of analysis that’s required to put together good policies. One of the best is Cross Border Energy, based in Berkeley California. They provide clients with strategic advice, economic analysis and expert testimony on market and regulatory issues in the natural gas and electric industry. It is my pleasure to have Tom Beach, Principal Consultant of Cross Border Energy as our guest on this week’s Energy Show.
Tom has been influential on many of California’s ground breaking energy policies. He has worked on the restructuring of the states gas and electric industries, the addition of new natural gas pipelines and storage capacity, renewable energy development, and a wide range of issues concerning California’s large independent power community. I also had the pleasure of working with Tom on the California Solar Initiative many years ago. To learn more about the energy industry, real world solar economics, and Tom’s perspective on energy regulatory issues, listen up to this week’s Energy Show.
PS – the Kyocera and SMA rooftop solar system I installed for Tom back in 2003 is still working perfectly, with only 0.4% degradation over the last 15 years.
PPS – his monitoring system is intermittent since his 15 year old computer that runs the software is on its last legs.
The electric utility industry is undergoing rapid change. There used to be two types of utilities: investor owned utilities (IOUs, such as Pacific Gas and Electric and ConEd) and municipally owned utilities (MOUs, such as LADWP and Silicon Valley Power). Now there is a third hybrid type, called a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) utility.
IOUs work for their stockholders — striving to maximize their profits by charging the most they can for electricity, maximizing their net assets and minimizing their expenses (often maintenance). MOUs work for their local cities — and try to provide affordable and reliable power in their territory. Not surprisingly, electric rates at IOUs are almost always higher than rates at nearby MOUs. Because IOUs profit by installing their own solar and storage systems and maximizing their own sales of electricity, they do not look favorably on homeowners and businesses installing their own systems. My biggest competitors for almost 20 years have been local IOUs.
CCAs offer the potential for lower electric rates for customers in their territory, without changing completely to a municipally-owned business structure. CCAs buy power from large solar and wind farms, as well as hydroelectric facilities. They then distribute this power over the existing utility lines. The existing utility bills customers and maintains the power lines, while the CCA essentially just charges customers for the energy they use. CCAs offer customers cheaper electricity, and they offer better economics to solar customers.
Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE) is the new CCA serving most of the Silicon Valley area. My guest this week is John Supp, Manager of Accounts Services at SVCE. Please listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we talk about the operations, economics and effects that CCAs will have on both customers and the utility industry in general.
Electric utilities got their start in the U.S. in the 1880s. Thomas Edison began transmitting DC power as he literally illuminated the world. Then George Westinghouse (with help from Nikolai Tesla) deployed a better way of delivering electricity with AC power. Both Edison and Westinghouse went on to build tremendously successful companies, aptly named General Electric and Westinghouse Electric respectively. Although dominant in the 20th century, both companies have struggled in the 21st century.
Without a doubt utilities strive to deliver reliable and affordable power all over the world. But new technologies — particularly wind, solar and battery storage — are making the conventional utility business model obsolete. Customers are able to purchase and maintain their own power plants for less money than it costs a utility to centrally generate power and transmit it to every building. There is no doubt in my mind that over the next 20 years we will transition to a network of microgrids supported by some type of intelligent power distribution system.
What we knew and (some of us) loved about conventional utilities is changing. And utilities are fighting back — hard — to maintain their power supply monopoly. So here are Ten Electric Utility Company Myths — some of which were based on fact, and some were simply PR spin.
1. Myth: Utility profits are decoupled from selling electricity
2. Myth: Solar shifts costs to disadvantage ratepayers
3. Myth: Utilities support energy efficiency, we offer rebates
4. Myth: Utilities like EVs. They get to sell a lot more electricity
5. Myth: Utilities like Solar and Battery Storage
6. Myth: Utilities are a public monopoly working for ratepayers
7. Myth: Solar reduces electricity costs
8. Myth: Safety is a utility’s #1 concern
9. Myth: public utilities are the only way to provide reliable and affordable electricity
10. Myth: Solar will disrupt the grid at high penetration levels
Listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we go into detail on each of these myths — and explain their implications on ratepayers and competing power industries.
This week we’re talking about battery storage system safety. But first, a brief digression. As a contractor, the biggest safety concern that I have for all rooftop solar and battery systems is not necessarily with the solar panels or the batteries, but with fall protection. It’s an OSHA regulation that all workers must be secured with roof anchors and proper harnesses when working on rooftops. So make sure your solar contractor installs roof anchors during your installation so the people working on your roof are safe. Back to battery safety…
Look around: there are batteries everywhere. 120 years ago we started with batteries in our cars and flashlights. Now just about every portable device we have requires batteries: cars, laptops, phones, entertainment systems, toothbrushes and wacky Internet Of Things devices. Fortunately, with the proliferation of electric vehicles, the prices for large-scale battery storage systems have declined substantially. We’re now at the point at which in many locations it is cost-effective to install a home or business battery system to avoid high peak electricity costs — and get the added benefit of backup power if your utility is unreliable.
Batteries pack a lot of energy in a small package — but not as much as conventional fuels. The energy density of a standard alkaline battery is 0.14 kwh/kg, and the energy density of a lithium ion battery is 0.5 kwh/kg. Compared to explosive gasoline (13 kwh/kg) and uranium (23 million kwh/kg), stationary batteries used in buildings are extremely safe. Moreover, circuitry required by safety agencies (UL, National Electrical Code) makes it almost impossible for these batteries to burn or explode — even if they are damaged or misused.
Nevertheless, the solar and battery storage industry takes safety issues related to battery storage systems seriously. Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show to learn about the built-in safety provisions in residential and commercial battery storage systems — as well as the fire safety, transportation and worker training required for their safe installation.
The economics of energy have changed drastically over the past dozen years. We have new affordable energy generation technologies (wind and solar), new energy efficiency products (LED lighting and heat pumps), a revolution in transportation (EVs) and affordable energy storage (thanks to cheaper lithium ion batteries). The combination of these new technologies has turned our conventional attitudes towards energy on their heads. Here are Ten Energy Saving Myths – designed to get you thinking about your personal and business consumption of energy. So here they are, in no particular order:
- Rooftop solar is expensive
- Electric cars are cheaper than gas cars
- Buying new energy saving appliances saves money
- Utility companies are the most reliable source of energy
- Solar for no-money down is a good investment
- LED Bulbs are expensive
- Electric utility companies like energy efficiency, as well as wind and solar
- Clean coal
- Nuclear power is the best base load power source
- The U.S. is using more energy than ever before
Listen Up to this week’s Energy show to see how these energy saving myths fit into your life style.
Home energy efficiency has steadily improved over the millenia. Luckily we no longer have to sleep on the ground in a smoke-filled cave – cold, wet and hungry (unless we want to go camping…that’s the way my wife looks at it). Buildings, appliances and HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) systems have improved incredibly — even over the last 25 years.
On this week’s show we’ll look at energy efficient buildings from two perspectives. First, the energy efficiency (EE) measures you should consider in a brand new home. Second, the EE measures you can add to your existing home. In both cases we’ll be considering EE actions that are cost effective — not over the top. So I won’t be suggesting quadruple glazed windows, 12” thick insulated walls and a windmill. There are much better EE options that you can implement quickly without breaking the bank.
We’ll also discuss how much of the conventional EE wisdom simply no longer applies. For example, costs for building shell improvements (windows, insulation, etc.) have not declined much – paybacks are still 10+ years. On the other hand, costs for new technologies such as LED lighting and rooftop solar have declined dramatically — with the surprising result that it is often cheaper to generate your own energy than reduce your consumption with aggressive EE measures (I’ve made some enemies pointing out this fact). So tune into this week’s Energy Show for the best and most cost effective ways to reduce your home’s energy costs.