Welcome to the
Run on Sun Monthly Newsletter

In this Issue:

February, 2012

Volume: 3 Issue: 2

Think Solar is a DIY Project? Think Again!

The Web is littered with sites proclaiming the benefits of solar as a Do-It-Yourself project and we have previously written about the perils of trying to do solar yourself. But the recent windstorm in Pasadena provided dramatic proof that some things in life should be left to the pros - and solar is one of them.

Take this installation for example - in a lovely part of Pasadena, the previous homeowner designed and installed this system which had a number of significant problems from the get-go. Here is the view of the site from the north looking south:

array with shade

The panels that are mounted on the garage go all the way to the ridge, exposing them to higher wind forces. There are enormous trees to the west and south-east that will provide significant amounts of shade. The panels on the main roof (that mostly shaded shiny spot in front of the palm tree) are even worse as they are directly facing the tree to the south. Indeed, from this view from the south, the panels on the main roof are completely invisible:

array from south - main house panels completely hidden

The array on the garage is pitched at 18° whereas the array on the main roof is completely flat. Both arrays feed the same inverter which had only one MPPT channel - meaning that this system was never able to function at maximum efficiency. Not a good design.

Now factor in the force of once-in-a-decade winds and life takes a definite turn for the worse. The new homeowner called us to come out and assess the damage. Here's how the array on the garage appeared when we arrived:

array damage

It doesn't look any better in the other direction:

more array damage

What happened here?

This array was attached to the roof using angle-iron from the local hardware store and simple wood screws, not lag bolts, to keep that hardware in place. Here's a close-up showing this home brew attachment "system":

homemade solar attachment system massive fail

Those simple wood screws are a poor substitute for proper lag bolts but the previous homeowner didn't even give his system a fighting chance as he ignored the rafters altogether (even though they were clearly visible) and simply screwed his gear into the plywood under the shingles. The result was as predictable as it was unfortunate:

odd solar attachment scheme fails

Moral of the story? The cost of adding solar professionally continues to drop, whereas the cost of doing it wrong is as steep as it ever was.

It was only good luck that prevented these panels from flying into the neighbor's back yard. If the wind had come during the day when the panels were generating power (instead of the middle of the night) the possibility of arcing and fire could have made things much worse.

There is a happy ending to this tale. The present homeowner received a settlement from his insurance company and was able to hire a group of true professionals - that would be us, the folks from Run on Sun - to repair their system and Make it Right!

You can see how it all turned out by reading our post: Making it Right - Solar Pros vs DIY.

“Moral of the story? The cost of adding solar professionally continues to drop, whereas the cost of doing it wrong is as steep as it ever was…”

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LADWP Solar Incentive Program Data Update

Back in October, we wrote about some early trends from LADWP's restart of their Solar Incentive Program and we thought it would be worthwhile to see how things have fared in the months since. LADWP had some flaws in the dataset issued in December so we decided to wait until the next revision which came out last week. (You can access the dataset here.) As before, when reporting on project costs/Watt, we used the reported cost and the CSI AC Watts as we believe that is a more reasonable reflection of the value of the projects being proposed.

Prediction Update

In our previous post, we predicted that the Residential rebate program would drop from Step 5 (paid at $2.20/Watt) down to Step 6 (paid at $1.62/Watt) on or about November 26, 2011. The last confirmed rebate reservation to be paid under Step 5 was #1120 and it was submitted on December 12 and confirmed on December 30. So our November 26 prediction was not too far off, and a complete application that was submitted by then should have received a Step 5 rebate.

We also previously predicted that the residential sector would run out of rebate funds around April 3 of this year. How has that prediction held up?

The chart below summarizes requested rebate amounts by week starting with the program restart on September 1, 2011 up through last week. Also shown is the cumulative amount requested and a linear trendline.

As of the last day in the data, the total rebate amounts requested was $11.2 million out of the available $20 million. It is also apparent from the graph that there has been a significant decline in the requested amounts following week 15 (starting December 8, 2011). Our revised prediction is that the residential sector will run out of money around May 7, 2012.

Residential sector daily rebate reservation requests vs cumulative with trendline

Who's Hot?

A program of this size provides some interesting insights into which manufacturers have the "go-to products" in terms of number of projects and total Watts. Here is the data from the Residential sector:

chart of top solar panels in LADWP dataset

Yingli leads the way thanks to their heavy use by SolarCity which accounted for 144 of the 188 projects using the Chinese panel. Kyocera was a strong second, again benefiting from their use by SolarCity in 137 of their 155 projects. Verengo Solar drove the demand for Suntech panels, accounting for 75 of their 99 projects. Canadian Solar is the true democratic player in this field, its 80 projects were distributed amongst 31 different installers!

Not surprisingly, different panels demand different prices, but the results are not as clear as they might be due in part to how SolarCity includes its accounting/financing costs into its reported costs. As a result, both Yingli and Kyocera are substantially higher on average in the data than one would otherwise expect. For example, Yingli comes in at $8.91/Watt on average whereas Suntech is a mere $6.17/Watt - with both of these being top-tier Chinese panels.

The two manufacturers renowned for their high-efficiency, high-cost products - SunPower and Sanyo - came in at $7.60/Watt and $8.07/Watt respectively. No one in the industry believes that Yingli panels outperform those produced by SunPower and Sanyo.

Similarly, it is interesting to see what the distribution looks like in the realm of inverters.

No surprise that SMA leads the way; after all, SMA is the largest manufacturer of solar inverters in the world. Their popularity is driven not only by major players like SolarCity (65 projects with SMA) and Verengo (89), but collectively by 55 different installers. Contrast that with Fronius, which achieved its #2 ranking almost entirely thanks to SolarCity which accounted for 206 of the 231 projects (89.2%).

Coming in at a respectable third place was Enphase Energy with its 74 projects being distributed amongst 31 different installers - clearly the most broadly distributed installer base in the list. None of the Enphase installs were performed by SolarCity or Verengo. Given the sheer volume of installs done by those two companies, surely some of those sites would have benefited from microinverters but the leasing giants were not making that technology available to their customers.

Inverters used in LADWP data

Finally, potential clients often ask about the difference in cost between a string inverter system, such as one using SMA inverters, and a microinverter system, such as one using Enphase. The average installed cost for the 334 SMA projects was $7.15/W. The average installed cost for the 74 Enphase projects was $7.32/W. That is a negligible difference and given that the two largest players in the data - SolarCity and Verengo - had none of the Enphase projects, we would expect the SMA projects to have a volume pricing advantage from those two companies alone. Bottom line: in the real world, there is very little cost difference between these two technologies.

Outlier Update - A.S.E.S. Electrical - Still Out There!

One of the more disturbing things that we uncovered in our previous analysis was the degree to which some companies were apparently overcharging their customers. In particular, we singled out A.S.E.S Electrical Group (aka American Solar Energy Solutions) for being particularly egregious in this regard. So, after an additional three months of data, how have things changed?

Once again, we restricted the data to only residential projects where the system owner is also listed as residential - a total of 846 projects. Our previous size filter was 20kW; for this expanded data set we increased the size filter to 45kW, meaning that only companies with at least 45kW of projects in the data would be included. As a result, the chart below accounts for 560 out of the 846 projects described in the data.

Sadly, our results are as disappointing as last time - check it out:

reported system cost, $/csi ac watts - residential sector

What is going on here? While the average system price declined from $8.91/Watt back in September to $8.24 over the entire dataset, the disparity between the most cost-effective performers and the least is as great as it ever was! Indeed, our repeat failure as the biggest gouger of solar consumers in Los Angeles is once again, A.S.E.S. but now their cost is more than three times the cost of the lowest price company, Ronco Solar.

Indeed, while A.S.E.S. did lower their cost somewhat, they apparently did it by replacing the Schuco brand solar panels that they were using before with third-tier Chinese panels from Sopray Energy. (In contrast, Ronco consistently uses Canadian Solar panels, a top-tier Chinese solar panel.)

Certainly caveat emptor applies when purchasing a solar power system, but at some point it seems like the utility should step in and warn its customers about predatory practices. So how about it, LADWP, isn't it time to give your customers a heads-up about what is going on?

Put another way, if you are considering going solar and your installer proposes a system that is more than $8.24/Watt - and indeed, that is a very high number for installations today - we have one word of advice: RUN!

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Heather Andrews - PVAddict - RIP

On February 8, a friend of mine, and a friend of the solar industry, died.

Heather Andrews

Heather Andrews was a fierce advocate for solar power - so much so that her Twitter handle was PVAddict. That is how I met her - on Twitter and via subsequent TweetUps at solar conferences. She was a frequent commenter on our blog and on our Facebook page, but more than anything else, she simply loved the idea of installing solar and doing it the right way.

Indeed, Heather was a stickler for doing it the right way - she was a proud member of IBEW and she taught classes on how to properly install solar power systems. Whenever anyone had a question about how something should be done, Heather was happy to chime in with her insights - always in a positive and supportive way. Unlike some who want to lord their knowledge over those still struggling to figure things out, Heather was happiest helping others. She exemplified the very best in our industry - smart, dedicated, and a joy to be around.

She fought her illness these past few months with the same courage and tenacity that she brought to the solar industry. Sadly, this was one obstacle that she could not ultimately overcome with her love and optimism. Still, she remained positive through all of her pain and difficulties as demonstrated by one of her last tweets:

Promise that when things settle a bit I'll get back into the full swing of the Twitterverse and openly show my adoration for #solar...

It is now up to the rest of us to carry forward her "adoration for solar" and to help fulfill the destiny in which she believed: a world powered by clean, renewable energy - installed the right way!

Not surprisingly, Heather had signed up to be an organ and tissue donor and so, even in her death, she managed to seize a chance to do something positive at this time of loss. (You, too, can sign up to be an organ and tissue donor - just check out the Donate Life website.)

I love you Heather and I will try my best to be true to your vision.
Rest in peace.

“Heather was a frequent commenter on our blog and on our Facebook page, but more than anything else, she simply loved the idea of installing solar and doing it the right way…”

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