Category: "Commercial Solar"

04/23/20

  06:41:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 725 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Ranting, Non-profit solar

While You Were Sleeping: Will FERC Preempt States' Ability to Regulate Solar?

For the most part, the regulation of the solar industry - particularly the residential and commercial solar industry - is a function of state regulators.  In California, both the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (CEC) have been the major players in shaping the policies that govern solar installations, including policies like Net Energy Metering (NEM) which determines the economic value of going solar.  But now, a petition from the other side of the country could change all of that, and force states to turn control over the solar industry to federal regulators.  Here’s our take…

FERC logo

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is ”an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil.” Well, wait a second, what does rooftop solar have to do with the “interstate transmission of electricity"?  At first blush, certainly nothing - the excess power from your home solar might go to power your neighbor’s house, but it certainly isn’t crossing state lines. (As a recovering lawyer I could go into a lengthy discussion of the Constitution’s Commerce clause and how that has been broadly interpreted to cover an amazing array of things that seem local, but are actually interstate commerce - but I will spare you that discussion!)  

The hook here is in the greater detail of what the FERC does: “Regulates the transmission and wholesale sales of electricity in interstate commerce."  Under NEM rules, excess energy put out onto the utility’s grid by a “behind-the-meter” solar system, i.e., all grid-tied residential and commercial PV systems,  is then resold by the utility to its other customers.  A petition to the FERC filed by the New England Ratepayers Association is asking FERC to find that those sales are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the FERC.  From the petition:

The law is incontrovertible. The [Federal Power Act] draws a bright line between state and federal jurisdiction over energy sales. Sales of energy at wholesale are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of this Commission. Sales of energy at retail are subject to the jurisdiction of the states. The sales at issue in this Petition are wholesale sales because the energy is being sold to the utility for resale to the utility’s retail load…  and therefore the Commission is required to exercise its rate jurisdiction over them. [Emphasis added.]

Wow!  Now that is interesting - energy exported to the grid, for which the PV owner is paid retail rates (or closer there to), and which the customer down the wire pays full retail rates, is somehow transmogrified into a wholesale energy sale!

But what is the point of all this?  Simple - if these are wholesale energy sales, then FERC has sole regulatory control, and pro-solar policies such as NEM would be replaced by, at best, compensation for excess energy exported at the wholesale rate.  Never mind that SCE is charging you anywhere from 19¢ to 40¢, you are only going to be compensated at the 2-6¢ rate!

Much of the “logic” behind the petition argument will be familiar to readers of this blog: rooftop solar is economically inefficient, NEM distorts wholesale energy markets, and imposes unfair burdens on ratepayers without solar.  Nevermind that all of these points have been debunked before (their expert calls those debunking efforts “irrelevant"), what is important to note is that while many of us are locked out and hunkered down during this crisis, are opponents are not.  They are hard at work, hiring top-dollar DC lawyers to press the case while the rest of us are just trying to get through the month.

Make no mistake about it - if this petition is successful, it will be the end of NEM as we know it, and not just in New England, but nationwide!

This is where organizations like CALSSA(for solar installers here in CA) and the Solar Rights Alliance (for solar system owners) are so critical.  If you are a solar installer, or run a solar company and you are not a CALSSA member, shame on you.  Join!  If you have a solar installation on your roof and you don’t belong to the Solar Rights Alliance - wake up!  Join!

NERA’s petition was filed on April 14th and under the fast track rules that NERA requested (and paid a $30,000 filing fee to secure), comments are due by mid-May.   We will update you when we learn more about its progress.  Watch this space.

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02/29/20

  03:14:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1167 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Ranting

Run on Sun Enters the Drone Era!

Just about a year ago, we really started thinking seriously about what drone technology might add to our solar installation company. The folks over at Scanifly – with their ability to take drone images and convert it into a 3-D model of a potential solar site, without needing to climb onto a roof, was really appealing. And that got us thinking of other ways a drone might be helpful - as with finished project photography, or inspecting existing systems. All of that seemed possible, but certainly there were obstacles in the path.

Well now, a year later, those obstacles have been surmounted, and Run on Sun has officially enter the Drone Era!  Here’s how we did it…

Research

We started by doing some homework.  Lots of it.  Watching videos to see what it would take to make this happen.  The list was fairly long: what drone to purchase (there are a lot of drones out there!), how do you learn to fly one (safely!), what does it take to do this legally?  And on and on.

Choosing a drone…

Drones come in all shapes and sizes - to say nothing of costs.  Last year LG sent out a professional crew to photograph one of our installations (you can see one of those photos here), and they used a $20,000 drone for the task.  Clearly that was going to be too rich for our blood!  A number of years ago, my good buddy Josh - who is always on the bleeding edge of fun tools - had let us use his drone for shooting some video of our reservoir project. Josh did all the real flying, but I did get to take the controls and found it pretty straightforward to fly.  So we had some exposure to some of the different drones out there.

Our Mavic Air, aka Oscar

Our Mavic Air, FAA # FA3NMEK4RF - aka Oscar!

In looking around, it seemed like DJI was the market leader in the types of drones that we might consider.  Ultimately, we settled on the DJI Mavic Air (in Flame Red, thank you very much!), and we purchased the “More Fly Combo” which included two extra batteries, spare props, prop guards and a carrying case.  We also shelled out for a hardshell carrying case, a landing pad, and some neutral density filters.  Total outlay was just over $1,000, and for that we bring you our Mavic Air (nicknamed Oscar by Victoria who insists that it is the only robot she loves), FAA #FA3NMEK4RF. Which brings us to the next point - flying legally!

Making it Legal

Choosing a drone was fairly easy.  Figuring out how to fly it legally, that was more challenging.  Way back in the day, I was a private pilot, but I found that I either had the time, but no money, or the money, but no time.  And living in the greater LA area meant dealing with the most complicated airspace in the country, if not the world!  So I quit flying when my daughter was born and haven’t flown since.

But, that did give me a leg up in learning how to fly legally, since I was generally familiar with the rules and regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  One of the first things you learn is that any drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds must be registered.  Our Mavic Air weighs in at just over 15 ounces, so registration was a must.  Turns out that is super easy, and can be done online for a nominal fee.  We had our local label maker create registration labels so our Mavic Air is legal everytime it flies!

Of course, getting me licensed was another matter!  I found a number of great resources online, including this great video created by Tony Northrup! Tony’s video is an hour and forty-three minutes long and I watched it multiple times.  He is clear, funny, and amazingly helpful.  I also found an online study guide (currently unavailable as they update it) here.

The test consists of 60 multiple choice questions and you need a 70% to pass.  While a significant number of the questions are really just common sense - like is the FAA going to ever suggest that having a drink of alcohol will improve your visual acuity??? - there are a number of questions that require you to parse a weather report that looks like this: KIAD 180005Z 19008KT 10SM TS SCT060CB BKN090 BKN200 31/21 A3002 RMK AO2 TSB04 FRQ LTGICCCCG SW TS SW MOV NE T03060211 (seriously!), or puzzle through a sectional chart that is one of the densest data presentations ever invented. (Don’t believe me?  You can download it here, but be patient, it will take a while!)

Suffice it to say, I took my test prep seriously, and the result was rewarding: 100%! 

Now all I needed was to start flying!

Flying for (fun) and Profit!

So now that I was a fully licensed drone pilot, it was time to start putting those skills to use.  Here are some recent drone shots and a description of their application.  (In each case, clicking on the image will give you a full-scale picture.

Completed residential solar installation   

Finished Project Photography

One of the really cool uses for the drone is to give homeowners a view of their new system that you just cannot get any other way!

This image shows a just completed tilt-up system on a flat - and very bright white roof!

Garage roof   

Residential Site Evaluation Photography

Another great reason to use the drone is to take imagery that our friends at Scanifly can turn into a 3-D model - all without actually going on the roof!  This is a 25 degree pitch garage roof - not really something you want to walk on if you don’t have to!  Guess what, thanks to the drone, everyone stayed on the ground and we got a great model to use for our proposal!

Array inspection   

Inspection Photography

The other day, one of our clients reported that a neighbor’s tree had fallen on his carport, where our solar system was installed five years ago.  When we came out, the array was completely buried under the tree.  We advised the client to get the tree removed and we would return to survey the array for damage.

Once again, we were able to examine the array closely for signs of damage, without ever breaking out a ladder!

Commercial building   

Commercial Site Evaluation Photography

One of our most anticipated uses if for modeling larger commercial roofs.  Using Scanifly, we can get shading readings for any area on the roof, letting us have very accurate production models, thereby allowing us to provide our commercial and non-profit clients with better proposals than ever before.  And when you try to distinguish yourself by the quality of the information that you can provide, this is a great leap forward!

We really think that the drone brings us a new level of safety and competence.  So when you call us for that site evaluation, don’t be surprised if we never break out the ladder, but instead let Oscar - the newest member of the Run on Sun team - do the hard work for us!

10/23/19

  08:50:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 464 words  
Categories: Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Safety, Non-profit solar

The Solar Fire that Wasn't!

Solar fire!

Fire damage at a Walmart store.

We recently wrote about a spate of fires that occurred at Walmart stores due to problems with solar power systems on their roofs.  The damage, in some cases, was extensive and overall, painted a pretty bleak picture of commercial solar.  But it doesn’t have to be that way - read on to learn about the solar fire that wasn’t!

One of the problems with the systems that were installed at Walmart is that they were tied to string inverters.  That means that multiple solar panels are wired together into a series string.  When solar panels are wired together that way, the voltage in that string adds with each additional panel.  So if you have twenty panels wired together, and each panel produces 40 volts, the total voltage for the string is 800 volts!  (Indeed, commercial systems can be as high as 1000 volts!)  If there is a gap - say from a loose wire, or a damaged panel - you can get an electric arc that can easily start a fire.

Yikes!

But the other day we were doing a maintenance check on a small commercial system that we installed a few years ago.  While we were installing a software update we did a visual inspection of the array and came across this - a totally shattered panel!

Shattered panel

Totally shattered panel - but no fire here!

So what happened here?  Turns out that the company that owns the system had a mishap, and a brass valve fell on the panel from about 100′ in the air - yep, that will do it!

But more importantly was what didn’t happen - there was no fire.  This was during the middle of the day, and the system was operating at full capacity, yet despite being entirely shattered by the blow, there was no fire because this was not part of a high voltage string.  Rather, this was part of an Enphase microinverter system, so the total DC voltage was only 40 volts.  At that low a voltage there is no arc, and with no arc, there is no fire!

We have heard people say that string inverters are the way to go with commercial systems because they are so much cheaper.  To which we reply - really?  How much does it cost to repair the damage from a fire like those that Walmart has experienced?  Moreover, with a string inverter system, finding faults before they become a hazard is much harder than it is with an Enphase microinverter system.  The Enphase monitoring tells you where the problem is so you can fix it with minimal impact on your operations.

Bottom line: beware of false economies.  Spending a little more to have a safer system is just smart business.  That’s one of the many reasons that we are exclusively an Enphase shop - simply safer solar!

08/28/19

  10:29:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 174 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Non-profit solar

Say Hello to Jenni O'Neil

Jenni O'Neil

We are excited to introduce the latest member of the Run on Sun team, our new Office Manager and Social Media Guru, Jenni O’Neil.

Jenni joins the Run on Sun team with ten years of customer service experience, four of which were spent as a social media coordinator for a Strategic Solutions company. In her early work experience, Jenni spent time on Capitol Hill working for a Representative from the great state of South Carolina. 

A woman of many skills, Jenni’s work experience encompasses many areas with a focus in politics, social-media marketing, sales and management - all of which will be put to use here!

In her spare time, Jenni is a singer-songwriter who composes music and enjoys singing both Jazz and Blues.  She also enjoys the written-word, and when not working on music, is pen-deep in the historical-fiction novel she is writing.

We are looking forward to Jenni spicing up our social media content, particularly on Twitter!  Expect things there to be far more lively going forward!

Please join us in welcoming Jenni aboard!

08/26/19

  01:14:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 414 words  
Categories: Commercial Solar, Safety, Shortcut Solar

FIRE! Walmart Sues SolarCity/Tesla Over Rash of Solar Fires

On August 20th, Walmart sued Tesla Inc, alleging “widespread negligence” in the installation and maintenance of systems on something like 240 Walmart stores across the country, resulting in 7 fires!  Is this a uniquely SolarCity/Tesla problem?  Are rooftop solar installations invariably unsafe?  Or is there a design difference that can make systems safer, particularly for residential solar clients?  Here’s our take…

Fire at Walmart store allegedly caused by Tesla solar installation

Fire damage at Walmart store allegedly caused by Tesla solar installation.

The 114-page complaint is a pretty damning set of accusations, saying that the installations were rushed, that faulty materials were used during the installation, and that the maintenance provided by Tesla did not meet “Prudent Industry Practices."  For example, after one Tesla maintenance team left a Walmart site, a DC combiner box, which could involve DC voltages of as much as 1,000 volts, was found left with the cover off!

Other problems involved multiple solar modules with “hot spots” possibly caused by micro-fractures of the cells, as well as mismatching cabling connectors (connecting MC4 connectors to Amphenol connectors) such that excessive resistance in the connections could occur, resulting in overheating, and potentially fires.

While the lawsuit is specific to SolarCity, and its now parent, Tesla, the types of conditions described are going to be potentially present in any string inverter system - which all of these were.  Since you are dealing with strings of solar panels, you are dealing with higher string operating voltages, with more power running through those strings.  If you use mismatched connectors, or stand on solar modules (one of the best pictures in the complaint shows the foot of a Tesla maintenance inspector standing on a solar module!) you can have the potential for fires.

A Safer Way…

DC arcing at 240 volts

DC arc at 240 volts.
Video by John Ward
6:20 into the video.

Which leads us to yet another reason to prefer the Enphase microinverter approach - no high DC voltages involved!  When a DC circuit opens under load, it is possible to get significant arcing, like you see at the left - ouch! 

But since each solar module plugs directly into the Enphase microinverter, there is no additive effect leading to those crazy high DC voltages.  Open a DC circuit with a voltage of 40 volts or so and guess what? No arcing!

While human error is never going to be eliminated in the solar industry – those are human beings doing the work after all – the Enphase microinverter system is inherently safer.  And if you are going to put solar on your home, school or business, isn’t safer what you want?

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
Run on Sun also offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities, and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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