Category: "Ranting"

02/19/20

  06:56:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 742 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Safety, Ranting

Watch Out - Shortcut Solar at Work!

I suspect that most of my NABCEP-Certified colleagues have had this happen - you are on your way to a jobsite when you pass a solar installation that is so painfully bad, that it stops you in your tracks and you just have to go and take a closer look at what happens when Shortcut Solar has botched another job. Follow me into a realm where you never want to find yourself, the horrifying reality of Shortcut Solar at work!

Uh-oh - Shortcut Solar at work!

I brake for Shortcut Solar!

Wow, there’s a lot going on there and none of it good.  The panels on the left are facing a variety of trees.  The panels on the right have a significant pitch-up to the south, with a lot of exposure to the wind out of the north.  The cable management there appears to be: let it just hang down.  That middle section is supposed to have 18″ of clearance at the hip given the panels on the adjacent face, but they are actually overlapping the hip!  And how exactly are these attached to the roof?  A closer investigation was in order!

Shortcut solar and wire management

How not to do cable management!

Seriously? Looks like old Shortcut was in a real hurry the day they did this job!  There is a rail there on the high end - surely you could have found some way to use that to get those cables in order - but clearly that wasn’t a priority!

But it was this last image that really got me going.  Checkout this attachment scheme:

Risky attachmentI apologize that the image isn’t too clear, but let’s try and break down what is going on here.  At the base in the foreground you can see what appears to be a 3″ or so piece of unistrut that has been cut to length and painted black.  There is no flashing of any sort visible here.  Instead, the strut has apparently been bolted directly onto the roof.  Perhaps those clever fellows from Shortcut Solar drilled pilot holes and squirted in some sealant?  Or maybe not - I mean why go to all that extra effort?

So that’s your attachment, now for the standoff - I know, how about a threaded piece of 3/8″ steel?  You can attach it at the bottom with a channel nut, and then just drill a hole in your aluminum rail and secure it with a nut above and below!  What could possibly go wrong?

Well let’s start with the wind.  When the Santa Ana winds blow out of the North, they will rock those panels, and that long, skinny bolt will flex with the wind.  It is steel and the rail is aluminum, which means that the steel, over time, will chew into the aluminum.  Enough flex over enough time, and that attachment scheme is going to fail - potentially in a catastrophic manner.

(Wanna see what happens when steel defeats aluminum on a roof in the wind?  Check this out!)

 It should come as no surprise that there is a better way to do this!  Here’s our preferred approach:

A better way to do this!The picture on the right shows one of the strongest possible combination of solar attachment components you could ask for.  The rail and L-foot comes from Everest.  The 3-inch standoff is from Unirac and the flashing is from Oatey.

Under the flashing is a rounded-rectangular base plate that accepts two, 5/16″ x 3 1/2″ lag bolts.  Two lag bolts gives you twice the strength, and hedges against hitting just the side of a rafter, or a possibly rotted/weak spot.  The 3-inch standoff screws down onto the base, and the Oatey flashing goes over it all, insuring that it will not leak.  The L-foot is bolted to the standoff and is in turn bolted into the rail - which was engineered to accept this configuration.  All components are torqued to the manufacturer’s specification, and marked to indicate that the torquing was performed.

Does it take longer to do things that way?  To be sure.  Does that mean it costs more to do it this way?  Of course.  But ask yourself, which of these approaches would you want on your roof?

We take pride in doing things the right way for our clients so that they can sleep well at night, no matter how hard the wind blows!

And we will continue to brake for Shortcut Solar and call out his subpar work whenever we see it so that you, a solar homeowner, will know what to look out for when you choose a solar installer!

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07/17/19

  01:01:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 926 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Ranting, Shortcut Solar

California Solar Consumer Protection Guide Hits the Streets

CPUC Solar Consumer Protection Guide

For the longest time we have been talking about the need for the solar industry to do a better job of policing itself, because the manner in which too many solar companies were doing business was simply unsustainable.  We argued that if we didn’t do a better job, others would step in and do it for us. 

Well guess what, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has just published a 23-page tome titled, California Solar Consumer Protection Guide.  Now that is quite a mouthful, but come September 30th, every contract in California that is entered into for solar with one of the investor-owned utilities (IOUs) – that is, SCE, PG&E, and SDG&E – requires that the first four pages be initialed, the last page signed, and the whole thing uploaded to the IOU’s web portal!  Moreover, homeowners need to be given adequate time (and patience?) to read the entire document and only wet signatures (i.e., no E-sign) are allowed.  Here’s our take…

Who Will this Deter?

First and foremost, the more information consumers have, the less likely they will be taken in by shady contractors.  Ultimately, that is good for both consumers and the legitimate players in the solar industry.  Frankly it’s too bad that the trade associations didn’t create something like this and require their members to disseminate it to potential clients – I’m confident that they would have produced a better guide.

For Run on Sun, this really doesn’t change anything that we will be doing since we have always covered this type of information with our clients.  (You know, we are “tellers, not sellers.")    But it will be really interesting to see how the bad players respond.  My guess is that they will simple forge signatures – if you are willing to deceive your customer, you will have no qualms about deceiving a bunch of regulators.

Meanwhile, for the Non-Shady Solar Installers…

As to the rest of us, while this will mostly be business as usual, there are some disturbing things.

For example, on page 8, where the CPUC is trying to explain the installation process, they have this bullet point under the heading, After You Sign a Contract: “Installer… performs a home site visit to confirm assumptions and check roof, ground, and electric conditions."  Hold the phone.  If the installer doesn’t know the condition of your roof and electrical service when you sign the contract, that contract is invalid! 

Key terms that are left to a later time means that there was no agreement between the parties, no “meeting of the minds,” and hence the contract is not binding.  So why is the CPUC publishing such nonsense?  Because many of the larger solar companies operate this way and they were no doubt insisting that this language be included. 

But no - before you sign a contract, those assumptions have to be nailed down if you are to avoid costly change orders down the road.  (Oh, and why aren’t change orders discussed here?  Sigh.)

Under Step 3: Find a Qualified Solar Provider they suggest going to the Contractors State License Board and the California DGStats website.  But that’s a lousy way to identify a qualified provider.  For one thing, being listed with the CSLB just means you have a license - but lots of companies play all kinds of tricks to have a license number and you wouldn’t want them anywhere near your home.  And the DGStats site is interesting, but it only shows projects installed in the IOUs territory - locally that means SCE.  But installs done in Pasadena or Los Angeles, Burbank, Glendale, Azusa, or Anaheim (for example) will not show up there at all, since the municipal utilities do not report their projects to that site.

Only under the area of narrowing down your list to they suggest checking the website of certified PV installation professionals provided by the North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals (NABCEP) – which is the only resource listed that actually does anything to qualify installers!  (Check out the NABCEP list here.)  Oddly, the directory of companies belonging to the California Solar and Storage association (calssa.org) was not referenced as a resource at all!

 Under Step 5: Learn About Electricity Bill Savings they have this interesting statement: “Before you sign a contract, ask yourself: if the savings end up being lower than the estimated monthly or yearly savings, does getting rooftop solar still make sense to me?"  Wow - how much did the IOUs have to pay to get that language inserted?  How about adding this in rebuttal: “Before you sign a contract, ask yourself: How much would it mean to me to be able to really stick it to my utility?"  Because we have certainly had many a client tell us that all they really want to do is make SCE feel the pain!

Wouldn’t more useful questions to ask before you sign the contract be: How did your installer calculate your potential savings?  What assumptions did they make, for example,about the rate of growth for future electric bills, or the degradation of the output of your PV system?  What software did they use and how does it work?  Or did they just pull a number out of the ether?

Under Step 8: Sign this Guide we get to explain to our new client why they have to initial 4 pages, check three boxes, and then sign the Guide - in addition to the installer’s contract and the interconnection agreement.  (To say nothing of financing documents if they are foolish enough to buy into a Lease/PPA).  Yet more hoops to jump through before Going Solar.

But you know what, folks?  We have only ourselves to blame.

04/03/19

  09:14:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1625 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Ranting, Energy Storage

Enphase IQ8 Update... UPDATED

UPDATE - We got a message back from Enphase about a viable approach to the whole-house connection issue discussed below.  


The end of March found me in San Diego attending the annual NABCEP Continuing Education Conference.  As part of being NABCEP certified, I am required to recertify every three years, and my third recertification occurs this year.  The Conference is a convenient way to earn the credit hours needed as part of the recertification process. 

While much of that is bone dry (such as a full day talking about the most recent changes to the National Electrical Code, made tolerable only by the wit of the presenter, Ryan Mayfield), or surprisingly cool (such as our discovery of Scanifly), nothing was more anticipated than our chance to attend a talk presented by Enphase titled, “Design and Specification of Grid-Agnostic Enphase Ensemble™ based Systems."  (Enphase describes the Ensemble system as being “grid-agnostic” because it is intended to switch seamlessly between grid connected and grid isolated operation.) Here is our take…

The room for this talk, as was the case with a number of talks, was way too small for the number of interested participants.  I arrived early and was rewarded with a seat.  Late arrivals were SRO.  The talk was presented by Peter Lum, with an assist from Field Applications Engineer, Nathan Charles. 

Key Takeaways

For folks looking for just the highlights, here are some (in no particular order):

  1. Initial rollout of the IQ8 in the U.S. will be as part of the Encharge energy storage system
  2. Encharge will come in two basic flavors, a 3.3 kWh, 1.28 kW unit, and a 10 kWh, 3.8 kW - both with a peak surge output of 150% rated power for one second
  3. The 3.3 kWh unit will be 24″ high, 13″ wide, and 12″ deep, weighing 88 lbs, mountable either on the floor or the wall, and it can be mounted outdoors
  4. Cells are LFP, cooling is passive, and comms are - surprise - Zigbee
  5. The 3.3 kWh unit has four IQ8 microinverters inside, that are field replaceable should one fail
  6. The battery cells are not tied to any one microinverter; if a microinverter fails the storage capacity is unaffected, but peak output power is diminished
  7. Warranty will be for 4,000 cycles (100% DoD) or 10 years, whichever comes first
  8. For a microgrid to form, there must be roughly the same amount of IQ8 power as there is IQ6 or IQ7 power in the system
  9. Not compatible with M-series microinverters, “at launch”
  10. No word yet on pricing, anticipated deliveries to begin Q4

A Little More Depth

So those are some highlights, let’s talk about some details. The smarts inside the IQ8 is an Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) with some 5 million gates. As a result, the IQ8 is able to update its control vectors every 20 ns.  Thus, the individual IQ8 provides the primary control over the microgrid, and there is no master/slave relationship.  However, the IQ6 and IQ7 do not have that level of independent control functionality, and so they rely on secondary control, via the Envoy, to stay in sync with the microgrid.

As with its other IQ cousins, the IQ8 is a bi-directional inverter, meaning the same device that can be in an array, converting DC to AC, can be in the battery, converting AC to DC to charge the cells.

Keying off the 2017 NEC (which California will adopt come January), we were introduced to a new acronym: MID - which stands for Microgrid Interconnect Device, and is defined as, “A device that allows a microgrid system to separate from and reconnect to a primary power source.” (705.2)  The Enphase MID is referred to as Enpower, and it essentially has three components: an automatic transfer switch, a neutral forming transformer (recall that the IQ series just uses the two hots, L1 and L2, so the NFT is necessary to power 120 volt loads when off grid), and a control device.  Comms are - you guessed it - Zigbee.

Use Cases

There are two primary use cases for the new Encharge component, Energy Optimization, and Storage with Backup.  Let’s look at each one in turn.

Energy Optimization

Energy optimization, or more to the point, Time-of-Use arbitrage, involves storing energy during the peak production portion of the day (instead of exporting it to the grid) and using it later in the day for local consumption.  This becomes important as utilities - think SCE - switch to TOU rates where energy in the middle of the day is significantly cheaper than energy during the peak TOU period (more and more, something like 4-9 p.m.). 

Our friends over at Energy Toolbase just blogged about, “A Historic Moment for Residential Energy Storage Economics: California’s new Time-of-Use Rates,” noting that for the first time it was possible to model a more economically advantageous system adding storage, than just solar alone.  Which means that the Energy Optimization use case may pencil out on its own - though that is hard to say for sure until we have some actual pricing!

Enphase provided the following illustration (sorry for the lousy images, taken from the side with my phone!). You can click on the image to see a larger version.  

 energy optimization

On the far left is the Encharge 3.3 kWh storage system showing the four IQ8’s.  To the right is an array built on an equal number of IQ7 microinverters - but note well, this is not a microgrid configuration.  Why?   Because it doesn’t have a MID, and per the 2017 NEC, you can’t have a grid-agnostic microgrid without a MID. 

In the middle is the latest version of the IQ combiner box.  (We just installed one of these and frankly, I’m not a big fan.  The wiring for consumption CTs requires you to cross reference an unmarked connection block to the lid for the wiring diagram.  This is going to be error prone, IMHO.  Also the Envoy has been reduced to just a circuit board w/out its own case.  Ok, it’s in a NEMA 4 box so the case is probably not needed, but if you are trying to operate it with the deadfront off (say during testing), you need to watch where you put your fingers!  A false economy here, I’d say.)  

Note the green boxes which denote updated software both in the cloud and in the Envoy.  Also, the Envoy picks up a Zigbee device (to communicate with Encharge) to be attached to one of the two USB ports on the Envoy.  (As we noted before, Zigbee is built into Encharge, though not called out on this slide.

This is super easy to set up as the Encharge just lands on one of the breakers in the IQ combiner.  And while it may - assuming our friends at ET are correct - pencil out, it isn’t what all the buzz has been about, so let’s turn to that use case, shall we?

Storage with Backup

Ever since I made my pilgrimage to Petaluma last summer, the amazing microgrid has been the feature that everyone is eager to see.  The good news is, we are closer!  The bad news is, this isn’t going to be as easy as we had hoped.  So here is the key diagram from last week:
Encharge for backup

There is really only one change from the prior diagram and that is in the upper right hand corner, where the Enphase MID - dubbed the Enpower 200G, has been added.  The switch is rated at 200 A (that is the significance of the 200, G stands for grid), and in theory could be an all home setup.  In a grid outage, the Enpower ATF switches and the microgrid forms - automagically.  Depending on the actual array and storage configuration deployed, will determine how much of the house loads could actually be powered here. 

There is one fly in the ointment in this illustration.  In many parts of the country, the utility meter is mounted outdoors and the distribution panel - the Main Load Center in the slide - is located indoors.  In such a scenario, the Enpower MID could be wired in between those two components with minimal disruption or cost.

Alas, in California, at least in Southern California, that is not how we do things.  99.9% of the services that I have ever looked at consisted of a combination meter and load center “all-in-one".  The rub here is that there is no easy way to physically interconnect the Enpower device between the meter and the load center.  When pressed on that issue, Enphase - accurately, if not helpfully - pointed out that we would have the same problem with any such storage solution and the combo meter/load centers.  True enough, but we have been talking about this product for a long time now, and you would like to think that they would have a clean solution in mind as to how to make this work by now.

UPDATE: I spoke with Enphase Field Applications Engineer Nick Dadikozian about the following possible solution.  Assuming that the utility and the AHJ go along, you could add a separate meter socket and wire the line side to the service, with the load side of the socket connecting to the line side of the Enpower MID, and the load side of the MID to the load side of the meter socket in the combo panel, or if no way to do that, wire to the line side of the combo meter socket and install appropriately rated jumpers in lieu of the relocated meter. 

Of course, another approach is to have a critical loads subpanel, with a breaker on the main panel and the Enpower in between.  That, I suspect, will be the approach most commonly taken.

So there you have it – all that I could absorb from our relatively short session, and some follow-on conversations with Peter over the next couple of days.  (My thanks to him for his patience in dealing with my myriad questions.)

Eager to hear your thoughts on how you will be using this system.

03/13/19

  07:15:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 411 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, SCE, Residential Solar, Ranting, CALSSA

Clean Power Alliance -- NEM Fail!

Back in January we wrote about the pending switch over to Clean Power Alliance (CPA) in portions of SCE’s service territory (Clean Power Alliance is Coming - is that a Good Thing?), noting that given the slightly lower rates, the switch was probably a good deal for most SCE customers.  Alas, it turns out that it wasn’t such a good deal for SCE’s solar customers!  Here’s our take and recommendation…

PLEASE NOTE: THIS APPLIES ONLY  TO SCE CUSTOMERS!
SOLAR CUSTOMERS IN PWP, LADWP AND OTHER MUNICIPAL UTILITIES CAN IGNORE THIS COMPLETELY!

Yesterday our trade association, CALSSA sent out this urgent notice under the headline: ALERT: CPA NEM snafu:

ACTION: For existing residential customers, we suggest you advise them to OPT OUT of the Clean Power Alliance (LA area CCA) by March 31st!

To opt out, they should call Clean Power Alliance at 888-585-3788 immediately.

What is going on here?  It seems that in their zeal to initiate the switchover from SCE, CPA fouled up how they are handling the “true-up” accounting.  As a result, solar customers who switched to CPA—and mind you, if you are in one of the affected cities, the default is for you to be switched to CPA—you will actually receive two true-up bills this year - one from SCE and the other from CPA.  CALSSA is sufficiently concerned that this could have an adverse financial impact that presumably exceeds whatever saving you might realize from the switch to CPA’s lower rates.

According to CPA, customers who OPT OUT by March 31, will only have one true-up bill this year “as if nothing had ever happened.”

For solar system owners who are part of the Solar Rights Alliance, they have already received notice directly regarding this situation.  (Not yet a member of the SRA?  Sign-up here.)

Here’s a list of cities participating in the CPA switch:

Unincorporated area of Los Angeles (e.g., Altadena) and Ventura Counties and the following cities: Agoura Hills, Alhambra, Arcadia, Beverly Hills, Calabasas, Camarillo, Carson, Claremont, Culver City, Downey, Hawaiian Gardens, Hawthorne, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Moorpark, Ojai, Oxnard, Paramount, Redondo Beach, Rolling Hills Estates, Santa Monica, Sierra Madre, Simi Valley, South Pasadena, Temple City, Thousand Oaks, Ventura, West Hollywood and Whittier.

Once things get sorted out, if you want to switch to CPA, you will be able to do so, and we will write about it once we know more.  But for now, the prudent choice appears to be to make that call and opt-out.  If you have any issues in doing so, please let us know.

07/30/18

  08:45:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 500 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, Residential Solar, Ranting

Think Your Solar Investment is Safe? Think Again!

Those of us involved in solar in sunny Southern California generally think that we have it pretty good.  The climate is just about perfect for solar - and by that I mean the political climate, every bit as much as our abundant sunshine.  From the Governor, to the legislature, to the CPUC and the CEC, generally those forces support the growth of not just solar power in general, but distributed, on your own rooftop solar in particular.  But we become complacent at our peril - both to the jobs of those in the industry as well as the investment value of all of those solar installations out there.

A recent story from Columbia, South Carolina brought this peril to mind.  As portions of the state edged closer to the existing 2% cap on net metering installations, the legislature was working on a compromise to lift the cap,  allowing more residents the opportunity to install solar and take advantage of net metering.  The utilities had other ideas - from the Greenville News:

Deep-pocketed power companies outspent the solar industry nearly $3 to $1 as part of an intensive lobbying effort during an S.C. legislative session that included efforts to curb rooftop solar’s expansion in the state.
Electric utilities spent nearly $523,000 from January through May to hire more than three dozen lobbyists to advocate for them at the State House as lawmakers decided what to do about solar incentives.

Yikes.

The result of all that lobbying?  The effort to lift the net metering cap was defeated - and local solar companies are going to be laying off employees (if not closing altogether) while affected residents will either have to forego solar, or find it far less financially viable.

Solar Rights AllianceWe delude ourselves if we think that it can’t happen here.  Utility lobbyists are in Sacramento just as they are in Columbia, and the recent forced change to net metering 2.0 in SCE territory is a reminder that our progress is not guaranteed.

Which brings me to the Solar Rights AllianceWe have written about this important organization before, and will do so in the future.  But I wanted to use this post to show how we are putting our money where our mouth is.  Starting today, we are modifying our solar installation contracts to provide an opt-in checkbox for new clients to be signed up for the Solar Rights Alliance, with Run on Sun making a donation in their name to help support the important work of organizing solar clients statewide.

We are never going to be able to match the money coming from the utilities and their allies.  But what we do have is tens of thousands of happy solar owners all across the state.  If we can organize even a fraction of them, we will be able to speak directly to policy makers and let them know that the value of installed solar power systems must be protected.  That is a fight that we need to take on, and the Solar Rights Alliance (along with our wonderful trade association, CALSSA) is key to winning that fight.

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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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