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Volunteer with GRID Alternatives!

Established in 2001, GRID Alternatives is a nonprofit organization that provides low income communities access to solar energy.  GRID Alternatives was founded by two engineers who are driven to make clean energy accessible to the low-income communities that need solar energy the most.  The people at GRID Alternatives are on a mission “to empower communities in need by providing renewable energy and energy efficiency services, equipment and training.” In addition to helping families produce their own solar energy, GRID Alternatives provides a unique educational experience for its volunteers.  Unemployed and underemployed individuals from the community are encouraged to cultivate a valuable skill-set through volunteer and team leader programs. By working on installations for the Solar Affordable Housing Program, volunteers get hands-on experience and networking opportunities that they couldn’t get anywhere else.  Through GRID’s Team Leader program, volunteers have the opportunity to become certified PV installers with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.   A GRID volunteer can use this real-world experience to get their foot in the door of businesses in the solar industry. The unique environment created by GRID Alternatives draws in people from all walks of life. Environmental activists, students, engineers, and professionals in the solar industry are just some of the people that volunteer with this nonprofit organization.  Everyone comes together to help the community, learn new skills, reduce CO2 emissions, and sweat bullets in the California sun. I recently had the opportunity to go on a volunteer installation with GRID Alternatives.  The mission was to install a 2.3 kW AC system for a low income home in Long Beach, California. The first day of the installation began at 8:30 am on a overcast Tuesday morning.  Shortly after the last volunteers arrived, we introduced ourselves and the project supervisor went over some basic safety precautions. While the ground team was busy prepping and splicing the ProSolar rails, several of us got up on the roof to determine how the array could be configured in compliance with the regulations in the city of Long Beach.  As the morning clouds burned off, we quickly realized that the sun would not spare us.  After taking measurements and marking the lay-out that was established by GRID team leaders, we drilled into the rafters where the ProSolar FastJack Stand-offs would soon be mounted.  Around each hole that was drilled, we cut a few inches of the surrounding roof to make room for the flashing.  After bolting the base of the standoff with caulking and inserting the flashing under the top layer of the roof, we screwed in the ProSolar FastJack Stand-off.  We then sealed a fitted washer over the flashing...

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How Long Will Solar Modules Last?

What is the life expectancy of a solar module?   When customers invest in a solar system, they often wonder how long their modules will continue to provide energy and how much they will yield over time.   Over the years, all solar panels will degrade somewhat, but crystalline silicon panels have a much slower rate of degradation than thin film modules. This means crystalline modules will work better for longer.    It’s common for crystalline modules to come with a warranty for twenty to twenty-five years, guaranteeing that the panels will be effective throughout the duration of the warranty.   For a module to be deemed “effective” by most manufacturers, it must operate at least 80% of its rated peak output.     Given the anticipated loss of efficiency between 0.5% to 1% every year, manufacturers are able adjust their warranties according to the calculation of a module’s expected performance over a period of time.  The module’s peak output will usually decline to about 80% at the end of a the two-decade warranty.  This is why crystalline modules are frequently guaranteed for this time-frame.    A solar module does not suddenly become useless, but instead has an output that steadily declines over a number a decades.  For this reason, a well-maintained, high-quality panel will often outlive its guarantee.  Solar panels can continue to adequately operate for a decade or two after their warranties expire.  There are plenty of solar panels that have been producing energy since the 1980s.  If your system is producing enough energy to meet your needs, there’s no sense in replacing these older panels.    Powerboost Solar Panel Cleaner Solar modules have no moving parts, so they require minimal care to remain functional.  Though other components of a solar system will probably need to be replaced after ten years or so, there are a few things you can do to make sure your solar panels continue to produce energy for a long time.  Be sure to trim surrounding trees that might shade your array.  Regularly remove leaves, snow, or any other debris collected on the modules that might prevent them from receiving maximum exposure to the sun’s light.  You should also clean your panels with some frequency, especially if you live in an area where bird droppings are rampant!  To make this process easier, you can pick up a Solar Panel Cleaning System Kit.   Selecting a high-quality manufacturer will also serve you well long-term.   A dependable manufacturer will be sure to encapsulate the modules’ metal and silicon appropriately, ensuring that you’re not working with faulty equipment from the start.  If your modules aren’t securely encapsulated...

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Central Inverter vs. Microinverters: The Pros and Cons

So you’re installing a photovoltaic (PV) system.  Do you go with microinverters or stick with a central inverter? What does an inverter do? The task of an inverter is to convert the direct current (DC) electricity produced by your solar panels into alternating current (AC), which is needed for the overwhelming majority of electrical devices.  The AC power that isn’t used by your home is back-fed into the utility grid, hence the term “grid-tied.”Click here to learn about the basic components of a PV system. Microinverters Microinverters convert the DC electricity from each panel into usable, grid-quality AC electricity.   They attach behind individual solar panels in the array, allowing each module to operate independently instead of optimizing for the “weakest link.”  Turning the solar panels’ DC electricity into AC at a modular level means there is no single point of failure and you’re maximizing the potential output of your system. Because of this, microinverters are particularly advantageous for systems in locations that have shading or some potential coverage (i.e. dirt, snow, chimneys, etc). Microinverters also use a technology called Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT), which optimizes the electricity output by responding to the varying levels of light every couple of minutes. In addition to maximizing the yield of your system, micoinverters’ easy design, installation, and scalability have made them popular for residential applications.   Besides getting up on a roof and pulling a permitting, adding to your existing system with microinverters  like the Enphase M215 microinverter should be little trouble.   Each microinverter has its own IP address so it can be monitored remotely with web-based software.  Microinverters also allow for module level monitoring and comprehensive analytics, making it possible for you to view how much energy is being produced by each solar panel. The main disadvantage of microinverters is the price tag- they still cost more per Watt than central inverters.  Critics of microinverters have also made note that these sensitive electronics can exposed to elevated temperatures on the roof and there is lack of field data to go along with their 25-year warranty. Enphase Energy currently dominates the microinverter market and has been increasingly popular for residential applications, particularly in California.   Enphase offers a twenty-five year limited warranty on their microinverters. Microinverters are recommended for residential and DIY solar applications, especially if there are shading concerns or there’s a chance of expanding the system in the future. Pros: • Easy design, installation, & scalability • Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) • Optimized for shading • Remote monitoring capability Cons: • Less of field data • More expensive • Relatively new technology Central Inverter Traditionally, central inverters have...

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Monocrystalline or Polycrystalline?
Jun01

Monocrystalline or Polycrystalline?

Most solar modules used today are either polycrystalline or monocrystalline, otherwise known as mono and poly. So what is the difference between poly and mono? For the sake of brevity, the difference between the two is that monocrystalline is composed of a single crystal of silicon, while polycrystalline is composed of many crystals.  Generally speaking, mono solar panels are more efficient but poly solar panels are a better use of your money. Monocrystalline Monocrystalline, which is also called mono or single crystalline, is the older of the two technologies and has been around since 1955.  Monocrystalline is still used to manufacture photovoltaic cells today and is arguably the most efficient material available. A monocrystalline solar cell is composed of a single crystal of silicon, a purity that can be identified by a dark, even coloring.  Extensive filtration is required to purify the silicon so it can be used for monocrystalline solar cells.   A single monocrystalline silicon seed crystal is slowly pulled from the high-heat molten silicon.  As it’s drawn upwards, the silicon cools and solidifies as a single ingot.  This cylindrical ingot is then sliced into thin pieces that are then cut into the cell shapes you see on a monocrystalline solar panel. Monocrystalline solar panel panels will typically have higher efficiency rates (15-20%), converting energy particularly well in low-light and lab conditions.  Mono panels will generally have higher nameplate ratings than poly.  Because monocrystalline solar cells usually have higher efficiency, these solar panels will make good use of limited roof space. The biggest draw-back is cost.  Mono solar panels come at a premium so unless you’re particularly limited on roof space, they’re not the best use of your money. Pros: • High efficiency • Good for limited space • Performs well in low-light conditions Cons: • High Cost • Sensitive to soiling and shade • More silicon is wasted in the manufacturing process Polycrystalline Polycrystalline, which is also called poly or multicrystalline, has been used since 1981.  Until recently, polycrystalline solar panels were easily identified by their solar cells that have a textured look resembling a granite countertop or shattered glass.  Most poly solar panels just have a dark blue color now. Polycrystalline cells are composed of multiple silicon crystals, which is a cheaper way to manufacture solar modules.  Polycrystalline cells are commonly made with a cast of molten silicon.  When these cells are being created, they cool faster, creating smaller crystals.  Just remember that poly means many because it has many crystals.  Because poly solar panels are easier to produce, they’re less expensive – making them the ideal choice for most people.   Though monocrystalline is still...

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LA Solar Incentive Program and Feed-in Tariff Program

For those of you who may not know, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has developed a Solar Incentive Program (SIP) to support solar energy in Los Angeles. This Solar Incentive Program can help you with the cost of installing a new solar system.  The Solar Feed-in Tariff Program, which allows owners of large-scale on-grid solar systems to sell back unused energy, is currently in the works. This Solar Incentive Program was created to help meet the aim of Senate Bill 1, which is essentially an extension of the California Solar Initiative (CSI) and the Energy Commission’s New Solar Homes Partnership (NSHP).  Basically, the goal of this program is to promote solar for LADWP customers to help California reach its energy goals.  By providing a financial incentive to homeowners who install on-grid photovoltaic systems, LADWP hopes to encourage homeowners to invest in solar energy.   LADWP customers who have photovoltaic systems installed can receive a lump sum payment upfront based on the anticipated performance of their new system. To calculate an estimate of the Expected Performance Based Buydown (EPBB), LADWP’s website has an online calculator. This provides an idea of the energy production, annual kWh, CEC-AC rating, Design Factor, CSI rating, and incentive amount.  With this information, LADWP is able to figure out how much money to pay the customer upfront. There are benefits that go beyond this one-time payment.  According to the LADWP website: “Customers who qualify and complete an installation are provided with a ‘net meter’.  When a customer’s solar system produces more energy than they use, the excess energy is calculated as a credit on their bill, and their meter will run backwards.” This means that when an LADWP customer’s solar system is producing excess energy, it goes back into the grid.  The meter runs backwards and LADWP is then able to credit their customers with energy towards their electricity bill.  Conversely, LADWP is presently developing another system to promote the use of solar technology through the Solar Feed-in Tariff Program, also known as the CLEAN LA Program.  Though Solar Incentive Program customers are not qualified for the CLEAN LA Program, this particular program is designed primarily for larger-scale commercial use.  Through this Feed-in Tariff system, customers who produce 30kW and higher, can enter a contract to sell 100% of the energy produced at their facility to LADWP at a fixed rate for up to twenty years. Here’s a brief run-down of how the preliminary stages function: application process: To qualify for this program, applicants must go through a six-week application process.  Applicants provide the base price for the energy, proof of site control, and complete facility and one-line diagrams.  They...

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Free Energy Classes by Southern California Edison

Did you know that every time you pay your electricity bill in California, Edison uses some of that money to provide the public with educational workshops?  These classes are a unique opportunity for everyone to learn how to save money, energy, and the planet. We recently attended a class about plug-in electric vehicle chargers at Southern California Edison in Irwindale, California.  When we first arrived, we sipped on coffee and walked around the interactive lighting display, which has an assortment of lamps for commercial and residential use. Prior to the class itself, we went on the “Smart Energy Experience” tour, which is essentially a tour through a model home designed to demonstrate how Edison plans to help consumers actively monitor their energy consumption in real-time. Our tour guide also explained how energy saving incentive programs can work for Edison customers. The futuristic “smart” electric meters and appliances will make it easier than ever to monitor and successfully reduce energy usage.  Our tour guide talked about the appliances and fixtures that the model home featured. Our tour guide went over all the changes the average household can make to create a more eco-friendly, cost-effective lifestyle. This model home had recycled glass countertops, bamboo floors, and a washer-dryer combo that communicates electronically to pre-set dry cycles. Our tour guide also explained how energy saving incentive programs work. Implementing natural light in the home is a powerful way to save energy. Check out this solar light pipe that utilizes natural light in the home!Edison offers a wide range of introductory and specialized classes that range from from LED lighting, to heating and refrigeration.  Be sure to sign up for a few of these free workshops and learn how you can save energy. Don’t forget to take the “Smart Energy Experience” tour before your class!...

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