Sunday, October 22, 2006

What I Wanted from the Solar Panels

With the decision made to move away from oil, and with the prime motivation being a form of protection at the home in the event of power outages, naturally I looked into getting solar panels for energy production. Once the up-front cost is made, the power is locally generated, and it should work in the event that the grid goes down in another storm. Originally, the concept was that we'd have solar panels that worked all the time the sun was shining, plus we'd have a battery backup to get us through any power outage.

The thought to install solar had been discussed before. The architect we used to design our renovated house is big into solar power usage, and this was one of the reasons why we used him. Originally, we told him we wanted some passive solar design in the house and wanted it more energy efficient, and this he did rather well. The best part was the sun room we added to the south (and street) facing side of the house, and the next best was the windows recommendation. However, he didn't want to stop there. In one set of drawings, he showed where we could install a solar panel array if we wanted to.

It turns out it wasn't hard to make the house more efficient, for when the builders started the needed demolition in parts of the house, they found that less than a quarter of the walls had been insulated. In fact, what was and wasn't insulated didn't have any particular logic to it as some walls had partial insulation and others had none at all. In retrospect, we should have done even more insulation they we did, for we basically brought the house up the present standards. Unfortunately, when it hit me that we needed to do better than current building code, it was too late to add more. Still, the house with its outer wrapping and insulated walls and ceiling is considerably more comfortable than before, and a once drafty house now feels rather cozy. A test of whether or not the insulation is enough will be made this winter.

Our architect told us about the Connecticut solar rebate program and told me to search for the CT Clean Energy Fund, and I found the proper website that details the residential program here: .

In short, the rebate is $5 per watt of generation capacity up to $25,000 per household, and this amounts to about a 50% rebate. When we installed ours, this was the rebate for all residences, but they've now changed to program to take into account the system performance, and current rebates are probably less for many people.

To get the rebate, one has to use one of the eligible participating installers, and when we looked I seem to recall that there were eight of them (there are more now). Through recommendation, we inquired with three. Two were by email and one of those didn't respond back. The other email gave us a good indication, but they were rather busy and wanted to charge for a site visit, presumably to reduce the number of lookers. That company was located out of state, and while they were definitely professionals, it seemed better to go with one closer to us.

The third qualified installer we contacted, Sunlight Solar (, has a local office, and the sales manager, John Sych, who lives close by. After convincing him I was serious about installing a system, he came to the house and did a site survey. Given the generous state rebate, I was hoping to get a really great system that would max out the rebate, for the economics of it looked pretty good. However, despite being a decent investment, what we got fell short of the desire, and that is the subject of the next post.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Our Solar-Powered House

Here is a picture of our modest 2.5 KW photovoltaic array. More details of its purchase is to come. Just wanted to get the picture in to put into the profile.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Trigger

Why the change? Why do this? I've heard the questions many times from neighbors, family and friends, and the people installing or working on our house, although there seems to be less of that as time goes on, and most of the response has been considerably positive.

The main presumption is that the effort to go green is motivated by environmental concerns. This is probably part of it, for I am a contributor to The Nature Conservancy, but that only puts me in the same camp as our Treasury Secretary. A good part of most environmental organizations seems to be self-promotion, and I've tried to put some money, and not very much of it that is for sure, to effective use. No, the environment isn't the main reason, its just a benefactor.

For the past 10 years, I've been and analyst and trader in energy and energy-related futures. For the bulk of the time, I've concentrated on energy demand and not worried too much about supply, except perhaps for the occasional storm in the Gulf of Mexico. There is generally a presumption that the oil and natural gas will come from somewhere, and the more pressing matters are the matching of supply to demand, not the overall long-term supply.

I've been familiar with the Peak-Oil issue and have been since 2001 when I read Ken Deffeyes' interesting book Hubbert's Peak shortly after it came out. It had been recommended to me by a grain trader who was looking for other opinions on the book, and curiously, the energy traders at the time generally discounted it. My opinion then, and less so now, was that yes, there is an issue, but there is a good chance it will work itself out. I'm still an optimist in this regard and suspect we will get through the upcoming major energy transition, but I'm not at all sure of the timing, and I'm beginning to doubt the smoothness of the transition. So, the global Peak Oil issue isn't the primary motivation either, but, along with the environment, the problem lies in the back of the head and gets a consideration.

The trigger came January, 2006. Mid month, we had a power outage here during a typical nor'easter. As usual, the outage was caused by a tree falling on a power line, and unfortunately, there was more than one tree down during this storm. We were living in a rental home as our main home was undergoing extensive renovation. My wife was out of town on family business, and I woke up to a house that was 50 degrees F and falling. Our youngest, who had just turned one, had a cold, and there was no way we could tough out a prolonged outage. I started a fire in the fireplace, but it wasn't enough to stop the house temperature from dropping, so I packed up the kids and went to a hotel for a day and night. Power was restored about 36 hours after it had been dropped, and we were the luckier ones. According to the receptionist, the hotel went from 25% vacancy to full in the course of a couple of hours, so we were lucky there too.

The outage solidified my thinking that we wanted backup power in our house. We have experienced a power outage typically once a year at our location, and all of them have been local outages; storms knock down the older trees, causing an unending run of power disruptions. The one exception was the August 14, 2003 blackout that left 50 million without power in the North and Eastern USA and parts of Canada.

These outages were getting to me. Their continuing occurrence reveals a flaw in the concept of centralized power generation. That the rate of outages is small is not necessarily relevant if it means you lose your perishable goods and if you are not comfortable with the uncertainty of when power is to be restored, let alone if you face life and death issues. This is not to say the the people working on the grid are incompetent. In fact, the ones I've met are highly professional and very hard workers, but when the large storms come, there is an enormous amount of work for them, and the users must suffer through it if there isn't at least local backup generation.

If 2005 hadn't been such an unusual year for energy, I'm sure I would have gone straight to the diesel generator without blinking, but the other events got me thinking hard about the security of energy supply. Yes, there are issues of long term supply, but the bigger issue of severe short-term disruptions is the primary motivator. What do we do if Al Qaida is successful in disrupting supply? What if Saudi Arabia destabilizes? What about the next Katrina in the gulf? How long until that occurs? Then how about Iran or Chavez in Venezuela? The list continues, and the bottom line is that a major disruption is not out of the question, more so now than at any time since the 1970s.

The conclusion I've come to (and will explore in later posts) is that the only way to secure our energy needs is to move to more local generation, and this almost certainly means solar. It also means moving off of oil and perhaps also natural gas. Going green for me is really an attempt to insure energy security in these uncertain times. It means a reduction of energy sourcing from the regional and global scale, and that is the prime motivator.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


After considerable thought, some hesitation, and a good deal of anxiety, we (my wife and I) decided to "go green." Exactly what this means, and why we have done it are the subject of this blog. The reasons for the change and the choices that have been made will be shown and discussed.

This blog is a bit of a "how-to" and an advocate for change from our present collective course. The existence of the blog is motivated by the amazing amount of interest that has surfaced regarding what we have done. I have found interest from neighbors I didn't even know we had.

The primary driver for me is the issue of energy security for my family and community, the nation, and the world in a political, economic, and natural environment that seems increasingly uncertain. The actions are an attempt, however feable, to act locally, and, thanks to the internet, to broadcast globally. It is hoped that our small actions will help encourage others to action and not just discussion and argumentation.

As a disclaimer from the very start, I must say that the choices we have made or will make are ones that are appropriate for us. They may not be right for everyone, and they may not even be enough if some of the doomsayers are right, but from the research I have done, it seems clear that there are options for everyone, and the present status quo is not a requirement.

Finally, there are many shades of green. What we do will be criticized by some as being more than enough or even frivoluous and by others as not being nearly enough or even being the wrong approach. From the outset, I don't claim to be perfect and have come to accept certain contradictions that seem inevitable in being human. All I can do is point to the direction I am going and argue why I am going that way and politely ask others to join or tell me why a different direction is better. I look forward to a good conversation, and to start it off, let me reiterate: "We are going green."