Don’t Install Solar…Until You’ve Read This

I had a cracking couple of days at Narnu farm, 1hr south of Adelaide, a coupla weeks ago.

We go there with the kids who love it. It’s a hobby farm where the kids can feed the animals and go horse riding and all that good stuff.

As soon as you drive in, you can’t help but notice their 2kW Solar System made up of about 30 60W Kaneka Solar Panels on the roof of the office building.

So is this blog post going to be singing the owners’ praises for getting solar and doing their bit for the planet?

Short answer: no.

Being the grumpy old contrarian that I am, I’ve got 2 big problems with this particular install.

Here’s the first error with this install:

This photo of the solar system (see the panels on the roof on mounting frames) was taken at 10:30 in the morning. Can you spot the problem?

Solar panel shading

The tree on the right is casting a bloody huge shadow across almost all the panels! Ouch!

That’s bad. However my real problem with the install is this:

They have made zero attempt at energy efficiency before or after installing solar.

It is about five times cheaper to perform energy efficiency than it is to install solar to save the same amount of electricity.

So, although solar is a wonderful thing, you should always do everything you can to maximise the energy efficiency of your home or business first.

Here are some examples of really bad energy wastage that could have been addressed with minimal time or investment:

1) They are still using incandescent bulbs! Check out the photo – I haven’t seen these old things in years.

an energy shocker

I counted about 16 of these energy guzzling devices of satan. Let’s do some really simple sums:

Assume each one is on for 4 hours per night (a conservative assumption – I saw lots of them left on all day).

The amount of energy they will consume in 1 year is: 60W x 4 hours x 365 = 87.6kwh per year per bulb = 1401.6kwh per year total.

A CFL bulb will use about one tenth of the electricity of the incandescents, so they are wasting about 1250kWh per year, for the sake of spending about $60 on new bulbs.

That energy that is being wasted is probably close to the amount of electricity generated by 1kW of solar panels – half of their solar system!

Next: Check out the fridges…

They have at least 6 of these antiques.

A modern fridge of a similar size can be had for about $500 and will use a quarter of the electricity!

So for about $3,000 they could be saving about 3000kWh per year. That combined with the bulbs should easily give them energy savings greater than the output of their entire solar system (which probably cost them about $20,000 when they bought it).

Other shockers which should have been replaced are the antique window rattler Air Conditioners and the electric storage hot water systems. The latter is especially crazy for accommodation that is most likely empty for many weeks a year, because you get hot water whether the place if fully occupied or not.

The moral of the story is: Yes – solar is fantastic. But before you get that solar system at least do the most basic energy efficiency measures: i.e. bulbs, appliances, hot water, draft sealing, window shading… Otherwise you are getting a much bigger system than you really need.

A good solar installer will talk you through all this before selling you a system.

Grid Connection of your solar system: should you organise it yourself?

Short Answer: no

If you are buying a solar system for your home, I would strongly recommend using a firm that will organise the new meter, grid connection (including new meter calibration) for you.

Trust me: you really don’t want to try and deal with the electricity companies’ bureaucracy yourselves, leave it to the solar supplier who has done it a thousand times before.

Here’s a story that Gary emailed me yesterday. Basically, even though he paid for the solar supplier to organise the install for him, he ended up organising the final part himself! The moral of the story is: Get in writing a date by which you will be connected to the grid with a fully functioning import export meter correctly configured for billing.

“My wife was a contracts manager for a commonwealth department managing a large staff base with a 26 million annual budget. I have been a businessman, purchasing manager and finally a business analyst with the department of defence.

We foolishly thought we were ideally setup from a competency point of view to analyse the whole solar market.

We needed all this background experience and more, including professional experiences to achieve a successful outcome with solar home generation.

Some additional comments to your questionnaire:

We were very happy with Solar Charge the company that installed our system.

They were not the cheapest, but we believe they were the best as regards quality of components, customer service and qualified careful installing

But in many ways the acquisition process, selection of a competent cost effective solar company is the easiest part of the whole exercise.

The most difficult parts are-

When we bundled initially with a energy retailer provider, that was a pleasant exercise, 17.9 cents net per KW hour for electricity and a similar outcome for our gas needs.

But as soon as we went to solar all previously contractually agreed bets were off and our electricity charge from the grid from [all retailers seem to be a similar cost] our charge jumps to 29.9  per KW hour from 7 am until 11 pm weekdays. our off peak charge is only 11 cents per KW hour 11 pm until 7 am in the morning.

[note from Finn: this doesn’t have to be the case see here to find a retailer that won’t increase your tariff for getting solar]

So from 17.9 cents per KW hour after discounts jumping to 28 after discounts.

but in someway it gets even harder-

To get our so called smart meter recalibrated to recognise and meter our solar generation was a nightmare from an admin point of view.

I initially was told by our retailer provider that it would take 26 working days to process our paperwork through to our distributor who is responsible for reconfiguring our smart meter.

Solar Charge told us it would cost $136 dollars which they included in their quote.

Our retailer provider told us it would cost $196 and if we wanted to speed the connect up we could pay an additional $50 to get the truck to visit our suburb out of turn so to speak.

When I got rather firm [not abusive at any stage] with the retailer with finally a senior customer service person she said her company’s performance to date was poor and she would husband our paperwork [which Solar Charge had submitted in a timely manner] as quickly as was reasonable.

Which was the case exactly in fact.

The retailer got our paperwork to the distributor in 3 working days, very reasonable.

The large distributor did the reconfiguring in 3 working days [also reasonable] from their workshops and here is the good news, at no cost.

Because these smart meters in my suburb can be reconfigured from their workshops via a computer download.

No visiting truck is required we were told.

[We need to see this in actual reality if true in future bills, I have made a record of conversation regarding who I have spoken to and the undertakings given to me].

Solar Charge has without any hesitation agreed to refund our $136 but after a few weeks period that allows for any unexpected bill arrival from the distributor [they don’t totally believe this is ttrue yet].

*Our solar installation was finalised on the 5 November and our so called smart meter was recalibrated on the 23 November.

All that is reasonable, but it would certainly not have happened without an enormous persistent personal involvement from ourselves.

Speaking to a neighbour living on her own, it took her 9 months [for some months she did not entirely understand the whole process] to get her system connected to the grid from a metering  of her solar power point of view.”

Avoid this experience by getting in writing the absolute latest date at which you will have your system connected to the grid and properly metered.

Which Electricity Company pays the most for your solar electricity?

Update: Feb 27 2015: Please note the date on this blog post is October 2010 – so the information is out of date.

The best way to find good electricity tariff deals for solar owners in 2015 is the surprisingly good government website:

Go to that website, click on the red ‘residential’ button, enter your postcode, check the ‘offers available to solar owners’ box and follow the prompts.

A company offering very good Feed In rates ($0.12 in some areas) is “Click Energy”.



Those nice folk at the Alternative Energy Association have just released a really useful survey.

They paid someone to go round every electricity company in Australia to find out which company will give you the best deal if you have a solar energy system on your home.

My advice: read the survey for each state and switch to the company that:

a) pays the most


b) has the most solar friendly terms.

For example some companies may offer a great rate per kWh, but only give you it as a credit on your bill. Others may make you fill out a zillion forms before you actually receive it.

The one thing that people can get stung on is if their electricity company forces you onto a higher “peak” rate for your electricity once your panels are installed. The survey asks about this – so read the answers carefully before deciding to switch!

The good news is that there are electricity companies out there that will give you a good rate but not force you onto a higher rate for the electricity that you do buy. You can have your cake and eat it Hooray!

The links to the survey for each state are here

Here are the questions they asked of each electricity company:

  • What is your Premium feed‐in tariff rate offered (c/kWh) ?
  • Is any excess credit paid out at the end of 12 months?
  • Is this an automatic process, or is the customer required to apply to have this paid out?
  • Is there a time limit within which the customer must apply?
  • Is the customer paid the entire value of any outstanding credit or is there a minimum credit balance a customer must exceed before being eligible to be paid?
  • Is there any fee levied for being paid out any excess credit?
  • What happens to any remaining credit not paid out?
  • Does the customer retain ownership of all outstanding Renewable Energy Certificates, GreenPower Rights and/or any other present or future environmental rights created by their system?
  • Is the premium feed‐in tariff linked to any specific retail offer(s), or is the customer free to choose from all of the retail offers and tariffs they would be eligible for if they weren’t receiving the premium feed‐in tariff?
  • By entering into a contract for your premium feed‐in tariff, are the retail service charges affected / adjusted in anyway?
  • Is the customer able to retain any existing dedicated off‐peak supply meters when converting to solar PV, small wind or any other form of micro‐ generation?
  • Is the customer eligible for dedicated off‐peak hot water / heating supply tariffs once accessing your premium feed‐in tariff?
  • Is the customer still eligible to purchase GreenPower for their electricity consumption?
  • Are all classes of customers (e.g. residential, business) eligible to receive your Premium Feed‐in Tariff offer, providing they are a qualifying customer under the relevant feed‐in tariff legislation?

Solar Installer Reviews now live

Because you asked for it – we’ve done it.

Over the last 4 years we’ve collected over 11,000 (and growing) reviews – mostly good, but a few bad and or ugly – of solar installers all over Australia, whether they are clients of ours or not.

My experience over the last few years is that most installers are honest, hardworking and passionate about doing the right thing by the customer and the environment. But there are always a few bad eggs in any fast growing industry. Now those guys have nowhere to hide. You gotta love this internet thingy!

You can now see these solar installer reviews online – just click the solar installer menu above, then use the search box when you get to the “solar installers” page.

If there are any installers you *really* want to see reviews for that aren’t there – let me know.

And if you would like any features adding to the review pages – let me know through the comments…

How to build a giant Solar Powered Oven

Does your house feell like a forced fan convection oven in summer?

Here’s how to build a highly efficient, giant solar powered oven.

Eight steps to making sure your oven gets as hot as possible in summer: powered by nothing other than the sun!

1. Erect a wooden frame about the size of an average house.

2. Build bricks around the outside of the frame. Bricks have a good thermal mass, which means that as the sun shines on them in the day, the bricks will store the heat and radiate it back into the oven long after the sun has gone down.

3. Fix a very low thermal mass material (like plasterboard) to the inside of the timber frame so that if any cool air gets in the oven (heaven forbid), the coolness won’t be stored in the inner walls.

4. Put lots of glass in the walls (avoid double glazing at all costs), especially the north facing one. Make sure these windows have minimal awnings.

5. Put black colorbond (ideally) or dark tiles on the top of the timber frame to maximize the heat absorbed by the ‘roof’ of the oven.

6. Add a fan that blows air down from the top of the oven. This way, as the hot air inside the oven rises, you can blow it back down to floor level to makes sure that anything on ground level gets suitably cooked through. To keep things simple, we’ll refer to this ventilation system as the ‘Ducted Air System’

7. If you are worried about cool air getting into the Ducted Air System, then simply add an insulated ceiling to create a roof space.  Ensure all the ducted air system’s pipes are kept inside this ferociously hot roofspace.  This will  minimize the chance of any air in the pipes actually getting cold.

8. If the meat in the oven needs a little more grilling, then add dozens of high powered halogen heaters liberally recessed into the ceiling. As well as producing enormous amounts of heat these little halogen bulbs will produce a small amount of light as an added bonus.

If your house was built like this and resembles an oven in summer,  the two most cost effective things you can probably do are:

a)   Fit mains or solar powered fans into the roof to remove the hot air from the roofspace. These will remove 7-10 times as much air as a passive ‘whirlybird’.

b)   Fit external awnings on all N, E and W facing windows.

If you do those and your cooling bills don’t halve, I’ll eat my cancer-council approved wide brimmed hat.

Do you trust your electricity supplier?

Before you invest in solar power, be sure that you know exactly what your local electricity company will pay you for any exported energy.  The good utilities will pay you the Feed In Tariff rate (if your state has one) PLUS the standard rate per kwh. The meanie ones will just pay you the FIT rate.

[Read more…]

New Ways To Finance Residential Solar Power Systems

How can Massachusetts residents afford solar power? The same way they get cable television. Though a long term lease on solar panels Massachusetts residents can now have solar panels atop their homes for a fraction of the cost of buying them outright.

Plus they begin to reap the savings on their electric bills immediately.
The state of Massachusetts wants to go green. Yet unlike California and Arizona the vast areas of sun drenched land is not available for giant solar parks. In an effort to convince residents to place solar panels on their rooftops Massachusetts has a state subsidy program, Commonwealth Solar.

[Read more…]

Don’t Get Fleeced by the Solar Cowboys

In the 1970’s some Australian companies started to research solar energy for use in the home but unfortunately the technology just wasn’t there.  At about the same time in China they were also researching solar energy and managed to produce some electricity producing solar panels.

A few Australian companies, believing in the future of solar energy, persisted in their research.  Eventually one of the most successful was bought out by the Chinese, and is now the biggest producer of panels in China! How short sighted could Australian investors be?

Now with the dramatically revived interest in solar energy and the Government’s renewable energy plan offering grants and rebates many companies are jumping on the bandwagon to proclaim loudly “Green is Good”. Some of these companies are fleecing customers for the best part of $20,000 for a 1kw Grid Tie system, simply because the poor consumer can’t find another solar installer who has the time or resources to give him a competive quote!

[Read more…]