What I did for my Earth Day Vacation

Earth Day 2018Another way our lifestyle has been altered by getting plug-in cars (on top of downsizing our home, adding solar panels, getting electric lawn equipment, changing careers, etc…) is that we wanted to start growing our own produce. Bonnie and I have been concerned about pesticides and commercial farming for some time. Bonnie has dabbled in vegetable gardening, but with limited area to garden, she never grew very much.

I decided I’d like to change that, so I started looking for raised garden bed kits. I found an ad for a nice looking raised bed, made of cedar planks.adI knew I wanted to avoid stained or chemically treated wood, since those chemicals could leach into the soil and contaminate the food we were growing to avoid contamination. The kit came in various sizes and I immediately was drawn to the largest size offered: 12′ X 2′. clamped jigHowever, at $349, I wondered how much it would cost to build one from scratch. As it turned out, I could build TWO raised beds, each 50% larger (12′ X 3′) for about the same price. The side walls would be made of 2″ X 8″ planks, but I needed a way to join two of the planks to create a 16″ raised bed. Then I discovered Kreg Tools, on TV! Specifically, I found the Kreg Jig R3. Although the Kreg website showed to tool being used to create screw holes to join boards at a 90 degree angle to one another, I realized I could also use it to create a 2″ X 16″ plank from two 2″ X 8″ planks. Now I knew I could build the gardens myself!

productionI laid the planks out in the garage and began drilling holes and joining boards into larger planks. The Kreg Jig worked great! Each garden required five 12′ long 2″ X 8″ boards, two for each long side and one, cut into four three foot sections for the two end walls. I realized the holes created by the Kreg jig should alternate from inside the box to outside the box, so as to make the walls as strong as possible. It also occurred to me that the holes, once drilled, should go upward so they would not collect rainwater. (I thought about this project a lot, before starting work on it.)

The two end caps would be attached by screws going straight through them, into the side walls. I did not try to use the Kreg Jig for these holes. Here’s the first box I built: This was as far as I got the first Sunday, one week before Earth Day.1st box

 

 

whackedThe following Wednesday was my day off, so I decided to build the second box, while Bonnie was at work. I also had my first design change. I decided to use my line trimmer to eliminate the grass, under the gardens, and attach black garden barrier cloth to the underside of each box, to prevent grass or weeds rising through the garden. (I know with 14″ of soil above the grass, it would have probably just died under all that dirt, but sometimes I can’t help myself.)

I trimmed an area around the base of the first box, to guide the removal of the existing grass and flipped it over, to add the barrier cloth to it as well. I then placed it where the second box would be located and used it as a trimming guide for the second box turf removal. barrier clothI then flipped it back to its original location and placed the second box. Both the aisles between the first box and the back fence, as well as between the two boxes was a few inches larger than my lawnmower’s width, so I can keep the grass mowed in those narrow pathways. I also made a design change to the second box. Since Bonnie wasn’t going to be around to help me move it into position, I decided to add triangular braces, in the corners, so that the box wouldn’t flex at the corners, as I dragged it from the front yard, into position in the back yard.

Here they are in their final position at the end of Wednesday. You can barely see one of the corner braces on the left box in the far corner, at the bottom of the box.2 bedsearthNext up was the earth for my Earth Day project. With guidance, we decided on a mixture of two cubic yards of topsoil, one yard compost and 1/2 yard of expanded shale (to absorb excess moisture, letting it back out as the soil becomes dry). We looked around for soil providers and selected one we had driven past often, Alpine Materials. They were very helpful and suggested the mix of soils. They delivered it the same Thursday I ordered it and dumped it on my driveway. Then, the work became grueling. Thankfully, Bonnie’s mom Ellie, helped level the dirt in the beds, so I could concentrate on being a pack mule.

filled beds

It took me from the time I got home from work, until sunset, to load the dirt into a wheelbarrow and dump it into the gardens. I had splinters in my hands, from the rough cedar boards and was totally spent at the end of this task. However, standing back and admiring my finished (I thought) work was quite satisfying.

Saturday, while I was at work, Bonnie started buying plants for her gardens. Lots of types of tomatoes, including my favorite: beefsteak were purchased.

On Earth Day Sunday, as we started our morning, Bonnie mentioned trellis-training her tomatoes to get more production out of each plant. I was in the mood to design, so I started putting together a trellis plan for one of the beds. (We decided against trellises for both beds, as the southernmost bed’s trellis would eventually cast shade on the northernmost bed.Trellis plansAs you can see, I really get into designing stuff. So I spent Earth Day morning designing and building the parts list (or bill of materials for you engineering types). Then it was off to Home Depot to get what we needed and back home to build the trellis! Here are some shots of the finished project and a happy Bonnie:happy farmereileenwith veggies

Next up: fresh veggies!!!

Solar panels: 1st year’s results

Solar Volt

***NERD ALERT!!!***

I’ve been waiting a year for this: The analysis to see if solar panels were a good idea or not. If you don’t care about the technical details of the math/spreadsheet, just jump ahead to the “RESULTS” section below.

Oddly, it was during the Winter Solstice that our solar panels were turned on, odd because that’s the shortest day of daylight all year long. I’ve been waiting for a year to see where we are, in energy generation, in order to understand if this was a good investment for us. To make it easier for me to analyze our results, I downloaded solar panel data from January 1, 2017 through December 31, 2017. What follows is what I found.

Here’s how our generation went, over the previous year:Solar Generation 2017As expected, there was more energy generated during the Summer than the Winter. It’s pretty simple to understand: The sun is up longer each day, during the Summer (in the Northern Hemisphere), due to the Earth’s axis tilt, in relation to the plane of its orbit around the sun. This was expected and the vendor’s projections showed this was going to happen. The vendor we went with, estimated we’d generate 15,810 kwh per year.

Our average annual usage, over the three years we’ve lived at this residence, is 23,766 kWh per year. In 2017, we used 25,001.974 kWh, or about 5% more than an average year.

Our actual energy generation was 13,408.39 kWh, a 2,401 kWh shortfall, or about a 15% shortfall, from the estimated production our vendor expected. We used 17,477.092 kWh from the grid and sold 5,883.508 kWh back to our electricity provider, Green Mountain Energy. This resulted in a net usage, from the grid, of 11,593.584 kWh. We selected Green Mountain Energy, as our electricity provider, because they buy our surplus generation at the same price that they charge for electricity they sell to us. This seemed to make it easier to do a year-end analysis. They upped our rate from 8.6¢ per kWh to 11.5¢ per kWh for their “Solar Buy Back” plan. Should we have stayed with the lower rate and given them our surplus production for free? There was no way for me to estimate this. Also, they didn’t mention this when we signed up. The salesperson, although we mentioned our new solar panels several times on the phone call and asked about solar buy-back, failed to put us on the correct plan. We were under the impression we were getting the electricity at 8.6¢ per kWh. Two months into the contract, I called to ask why I wasn’t seeing any solar buy-back on our bill. That’s when they realized we were on the wrong plan. I was not pleased to hear this.

Part of the solar panel installation included having a new meter installed. The “smart meter” allowed for electricity to be tracked as it flowed from the grid into our home and from our home to the grid (when the solar panels were producing more electricity than our home was using). Both my electricity provider and I could access this data in a CVS file format, perfect for importing into a spreadsheet for analysis.

At the end of the first year, I downloaded the CVS file and it was GIGANTIC. The original spreadsheet, covering the entire year in 15 minute segments was over 70,000 rows long. generation (solar panel surplus) and consumption (from the grid) were on separate rows. For the purposes of analysis, I combined the two rows for each 15 minute snapshot into a single row, reducing the number of rows to only 35,041 rows. Only?!?!?

My first question was whether the electric company had cheated me by knowing that most people won’t check to see if they actually bought as much surplus as the panels created. The electric company’s website allowed me to see my daily use of their electricity as monthly bar graphs, but did not let me download it as a spreadsheet. I had to click on each day’s bar, in the graph, to see the usage. I then manually entered that day’s value into a new column I added to my spreadsheet. To compare with the 15 minute intervals, I had to add all the increments for a day (96 rows for most days) so that I had comparable numbers. I then added a new column to add those results. I added a test equation for each day to see if what the electric company said we used matched what the smart meter said we used. I also added a column for each day to total up the surplus electricity we generated (if any) for all the 15 minute segments of the day, in order to see what we were selling back to the grid.

After all that work, I found that Green Mountain is a trustworthy company. But there was an issue. The work was so laborious, that I tried copying the equations from one day to the next. Once I had a month’s worth of equations, I tried copying and pasting a month at a time. I felt I must have messed up somewhere because the equations were supposed to end up on the row of the last 15 minute segment for each day, but it didn’t work that way. What had I done wrong???

I fixed the error when it first occurred and then tried copying and painting a month at a time again. When I had completed the year, I noticed the error had occurred a second time! As I scrolled through the data, I found one day where four rows seemed to be repeated, (but the usage values were different) and I found another day where an entire hour was missing. On March 12th, it jumped from 2:00AM to 3:00AM and on November 5th, the hour from 1:00AM to 2:00AM was duplicated. What the hell???

D’oh!!! It was due to Daylight Savings Time starting and ending!

Once I had the spreadsheet completed, I could finally start to evaluate electric provider pricing plans to determine (based on real world data) which pricing plan was most beneficial to us. Here’s what I found. Green Mountain’s Solar Buy Back, even though at a higher kWh rate, saved us about $21 per month, over the lower rate that did not buy back surplus energy.

My next stop was Texas’ Power To Choose website. In Texas, electricity providers are, by law, broken up into three groups: power generation, power delivery and power retailing. In my case Green Mountain Energy was my electricity retailer. Oncor is the company that maintains the power lines and is paid by the kWh to transfer electricity from the generation plant to my home (this charge is added to my electric bill from the retailer). Green Mountain, in turn buys electricity from the power generation plants. This split of the industry has increased competition and helped keep costs lower than in other areas of the country, but also makes it difficult for EV charging networks, because they cannot sell electricity, by the kWh, to the end user. They have to charge by the time your EV is plugged in. This means slower charging EVs are penalized. They may get the same amount of electricity, but pay more because they are connected longer to get it.

I knew of companies, like TXU, that offered time-of-use plans, giving the consumer a lower price at night (when grid demand is lower) than during the day (when demand is higher). This called for a new section of the spreadsheet, where I could differentiate between night kWh and day kWh. I checked the TXU website and found that the customer can pick one of three start times for the night rate. The duration of the night pricing would be the same, eight hours. At night, TXU’s electricity is free but, during the day, their price per kWh is higher than companies that don’t differentiate between day and night rates. The new section of the website would allow me to analyze this to compare electric rates. Unfortunately, the free nights plan does not buy my excess solar generation, so that had to be taken into consideration as well. As I read about the TXU plan, after adding the new section to the spreadsheet, I realized their electricity is 90% from non-renewable sources, so that plan would not work for us. It was the lowest priced plan I evaluated with the spreadsheet, besting our Green Mountain plan by about $32 per month on average.

I continued to search for electricity providers on the Power To Choose site, looking for companies that offered time-of-use plans that sourced their energy from renewable sources. There was only one: a company named “Volt.” Imagine that! Volt designates twelve full hours at night rate, but it’s 9:00PM to 8:59AM. The consumer cannot pick the start time. Their night energy is not free, but is at a lower rate than daytime. So, once again, it was time to add functionality to the spreadsheet. This proved to be higher than our Green Mountain buy-back plan by about $$5 per month. This meant that, without the ability to predict production or day/night balance, we had selected the best plan that also provided 100% renewable energy, when provided by the grid.

Adding this spreadsheet capability gave me more insight into my electricity usage as well as the ability to compare these providers to one another effectively.

RESULTS

As I mentioned before, solar panels generate more energy in the Summer than Winter, because the sun is visible much longer then. Here’s the breakdown of our energy usage from the grid and from the panels, by month:Solar vs Grid by MonthIt is also important to have your panels facing south. The front of our house faces south, but as you can see in the first picture in this post, the roof does not slant down toward the front of our house. This means each bank of panels only produces near full capacity for about half of each day.

As you can see from the chart above, both total usage and solar generation were highest in the Summer. Our heating system uses natural gas, so our electric usage drops precipitously in the Winter. Here’s the numbers:Energy Results TableSolar vs Grid pieThe far right column shows the percentage of solar versus grid energy used. The peak for solar percentage was 72.5% in April, when mild temperatures and sunny days kept energy demand low and production of the panels high. The worst performance was 35.5% solar in December, when skies were often cloudy and colder temperatures meant our electric mileage of our Volts was low, so electric demand for charging was greater. How these two sources would compete, month by month was a mystery to me, until I had the data in hand. Of course, this was after I’d had the panels for an entire year, so this insight came too late to help inform our decision on whether to add the panels or not. Another bit of data gleaned: I could see exactly how the two sources of power ranked. 54% of the electricity we used came from the solar panels and 46% from the grid (by kWh).

Day vs Night pieThe day/night section I added to the spreadsheet allowed me to easily see when we use electricity and it was a real eye-opener. Unlike most people, in Texas, our energy usage is biased to nighttime use. We have up to three Chevy Volts charging at night and those can account for over half of our total usage, on some days. This makes the time-of-use plans look very interesting. It also means we should possibly be evaluating battery storage, in the event we select a plan that doesn’t offer surplus energy buy-back.

So finally I had come to the moment of truth: Was it a good idea to go solar or not? To get to the answer, I created yet another table that analyzed the financial side of this. There were basically a few things to compare:

  • The actual cost over the last year, compared to energy purchases without panels,
  • Comparing time-of-use plans to energy purchases without panels,
  • Comparing time-of-use plans to plans with or without solar surplus buy back.

Here’s that table:Financial ResultsHere’s what you’re seeing in the table above:

The first three rows are are the price to buy electricity, the price the electric company pays for surplus energy generated by the solar panels (which can be zero for some companies) and the price I’d be paying if I did not have the solar panels.

The next four rows (blue & yellow background) are the day and night prices for a company that offers time-of-use pricing and the start and end times for the night pricing. Those companies typically do not have a buy-back of surplus energy.

The next four rows are how the year actually went in kWh usage as well as the costs associated.

The next two rows (blue & yellow background) are the costs involved with time-of-use providers.

The “Cost For Solar Panels” row is the monthly payment for our solar panels, after applying the 30% Federal Income Tax Credit. This payment has to be taken into account, as a cost of energy used, if I’m being completely honest with myself (and you).

The next line is interesting. In Texas, adding solar panels to a home, on average, increases the value of the property by $15,000 but the state does not tax that additional property value. This tax savings has to be considered as a reduction to my costs and therefore an energy savings. The $15,000 increased value, in my opinion cannot be considered, since it won’t be realized, until we sell our home and move away.

GME std plan vs. solar buy backAs can be seen in the partial table above, we are paying $76.05 more for electricity, per month, than we did without the solar panels. For all the comparisons below, I am using the non-solar panel plan from Green Mountain, so everything, including our last year’s results, are being compared to the same benchmark. The tax savings amount to $35 per month, reducing this deficit to $41.05 per month. The cost of the solar panels, after tax credit, was $23,436, which we financed over their 20 year warranty period.

Next, I compared The free nights from TXU. There are three possible start times, 8PM, 9PM or 10PM. All have 9 hours of free energy. All three plans would cost us more than Green Mountain’s current non-solar rate by $104.56, $113.44 and $121.72, respectively. Since the buy-back plan is only $76.05 over the non-solar plan and because TXU’s plan is only 10% renewable energy, this is a non-starter for us. (see below)

8PM start:

TXU Free Nights 8PM

9PM start:TXU Free Nights 9PM

10PM start:TXU Free Nights 10PMNext up is Volt’s reduced price nights plan, which uses 100% renewable energy. Even this plan is more expensive than Green Mountain’s solar buy-back, by about $6 per month.Volt plan

Are you starting to see why I love my spreadsheet? 😉 With this tool, I will be able to realistically compare plans, based on our actual usage scenario. These plans used to be completely opaque to me.

Part of the expected payback is the expected rise in the cost of electricity. Only time will tell if that comes to pass. When we first selected Green Mountain Energy as a 100% renewable energy provider, about 15 years ago, we paid a premium for their product. In time, it became competitive and I feel the early adopters, like us, helped Texas become the number one state in wind-generated electricity. Once again, I’m on the bleeding edge, and am proud to be so.

P.S. I am now very interested in battery backup technology for my solar panels…once they become more affordable. I’m also considering adding more panels when they come down more in price.

Book review: Dark Money

Dark MoneyWant to get really depressed? Have I got a book for you!

Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money,” is a thoroughly researched, very detailed account of how small, tactical changes to laws have changed politics in our country. At a time when Americans are deeply disgusted with politics, it’s an interesting and important book.

I realize both sides of the political spectrum are using dark money to manipulate the masses and to frame today’s political discourse, but this book really explains how it has been done. It describes how our democracy has been stolen from us, with our approval. It explains how we, as a people have become so polarized, but more importantly, who (at least in the case of conservatives) is behind it and why.

The names involved include a who’s who of current political events, like Charles and David Koch, The DeVos family, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Mitch McConnell, as well as other names familiar to you.

My interest is in the current climate change debate and how we went from a point where the majority of Americans believed the scientific consensus to the current point of constant debate. Make no mistake, the same firms that confused the public about whether or not tobacco was harmful were involved in creating the confusion about global climate change. In fact, their slogan was “Doubt is our product.” And who pays these firms for their work? Why those who have been fined millions upon millions of dollars for damage to the environment and see rules preventing them from doing this as infringements on their freedom. Those who, to make an extra $7 million, reopened a gas pipeline they knew to “leak like swiss cheese,” killing two teenagers, when it exploded, resulting in a $298 million dollar civil judgement against them. Those whose employees, when they reported dumping of MERCURY onto the ground near rivers, were terminated for reporting the crime to management or the authorities. One instance of mercury dumping poisoned the fish for fifty miles downstream and made it into people who unknowingly ate those fish.

Did you know your politicians created a law allowing the very wealthy to place their children’s inheritances into trusts, where if the funds remained untouched for twenty years and the interest earned was donated to non-profit organizations, became a tax free inheritance? That doesn’t sound so bad, until it is uncovered that those same rich people created their own non-profit organizations which then distributed the interest earned to political campaigns, via donations to other non-profits, which removed their fingerprints from the funds. Some of the schemes were described by the officials trying to investigate them as “Russian nested dolls.”

It is one thing to confuse smokers into believing that the product they’re using isn’t killing them. That affects the users of tobacco and their families, but leaves the rest of us unscathed.

It is quite another thing to confuse the public into believing in “clean coal” or that global climate change is a “job killer” or is an evil plot by liberals to redistribute wealth from “doers” to “takers.” In this latter case, we all lose if we kill the planet.

Again, I believe both sides are doing this and the media is complicit, focusing on false “outrages” to keep the people of America distracted.

When will we wake up?

Will it be too late?

Where are the true statesmen/women?

Huge tracts o’land!

***NEWS FLASH!***

Texas is big. I know, you’ve heard that somewhere before. But here’s the deal: To understand the scale of today’s post, you have to understand the scale of Texas. Driving from Texarkana, in the northeast to El Paso, in the west, takes 11-1/2 hours and covers a distance of 814 miles. A trip from Texline, near the northwest corner of the panhandle to Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas is a 13 hour drive, spanning about 900 miles.

Texas

Click on image for a larger view.

Here’s a map of the trip I took last weekend:

Lubbock to DFW mapThe city, at the left terminus of the route, is Lubbock, Texas. The large metropolitan area on the far right side is the Dallas / Fort Worth metroplex (DFW). The time it takes to drive from DFW to Lubbock is approximately five hours and is a journey of 335 miles (each way). My wife and I drove, from DFW to Lubbock and back again, this past weekend, to take our daughter Zoe, to college.

Buzz in heaven

Buzz in heaven

Notice the red curve, on each of the above maps? That is the subject of today’s post. The red curve is the drive from Justiceburg at the north end of the red road to Sweetwater at the south end. It’s about an hour’s drive, running 67 miles, give or take.

That area of North Texas is primarily farm land and rocky, dry wilderness that looks like this:

Wide Open Spaces

It is interesting, if somewhat monotonous scenery. Something I enjoy doing, on road trips through Texas, is to stop and read historical markers. Normally, Bonnie (my wife) hates this, but this time she obliged my “hobby.”

PostGenerally, Texans are fascinated by their state’s varied history: The Alamo, the battle of San Jacinto, Bonnie & Clyde, NASA, Judge Roy Bean, Spindletop and more. Now that Bonnie (my wife, not the Bonnie of bank robbing fame) and I are empty-nesters, we can take a more leisurely approach to road trips. The first stop for us was just north of Post, Texas. The town was named after C.W. Post, of whom, you may have heard (see historical marker, to the left). Yes, the maker of Post Toasties liked to explode dynamite from kites to try to produce rain with the goal of ending droughts!

Texas history has had lots of colorful characters.Post, Texas Picnic Area

Shortly after resuming our drive, we spotted something amazing on the horizon: a wind farm. Actually, it was the northern tip of a gigantic wind farm. It wasn’t my first sight of one though. Back in February 2013, I stopped to check out a wind farm, in Indiana, while on my way to the Chicago Auto Show. I thought it was an amazing sight, with over 55 wind turbines!

Escarpment panorama

You’ll want to click on this image.

This time was different.

The northern edge of this wind farm was perched, on the edge of an escarpment. This is a desirable location, due to the wind swooping up, over the escarpment, which concentrates the wind energy. The area we were driving through had lots of these long, steep cliffs, making it a good area to harvest wind energy. It also had been a good area in which to drill for oil and gas. Old & New EnergyWe saw many, many jack pumps, rocking slowly, up and down. What was different this time, compared to the wind farm I saw in 2013, was its size and the number of wind turbines. We saw wind turbines constantly, for at least 60 miles. They numbered in the thousands! The stretch of highway, marked in red in the maps above, show how far we traveled with wind turbines within sight. No photograph could do justice to the vista that stretched out before us. We were in awe!Volt WindFarm 75

In the photo above, at much higher resolution, I was able to count 75 wind turbines. I got curious about the extent of this collection of this wind farm, so I looked at satellite imagery, once I got home.

Wind turbines from above

Click for MUCH larger image

In the image above, you can easily spot the wind turbines, due to the shadows they cast. Much of the land around the turbines is farmland. For each turbine, there is a small gravel drive and pad, surrounding it. Beyond that, farmers are growing crops. This has to be a financial boon to the farmers with no negatives, like possible crop contamination. Here’s a closer view:Satellite zoomed

In satellite imagery, of this area of Texas, one can observe both the wind turbines as well as jack pump sites. Many Texans seem to like the image of the old, oil and gas jack pump, but I have to admit loving the beauty, grace and spectacle of the gigantic wind turbines.

Times change.Old & New

Weighty matters

Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles is an abstract idea. We all know gases are very, very light. Hydrogen and helium are lighter than oxygen or nitrogen, but to most of us, they are just “air.” A column of air, as thick as the entire atmosphere, generates a pressure of about 14.7 pounds per square inch. But what’s it weigh? We don’t seem to notice it, bearing down on us, so we all think of it as being almost weightless.

Let’s quantify it a bit, to make it more ‘real.’

weight of co2 emissionsThe EPA has the equation shown above, posted on their website, to illustrate the weight of carbon dioxide generated by a theoretical average car that gets 21.6 miles per gallon (gasoline, not diesel, which generates even more CO2) by driving 11,400 miles.

4.7 metric tons. hmmmm…

One metric ton is 1.10231 US tons. (Don’t you love that we’re the only ones not using the metric system?) So, 4.7 metric tons is 5.18 US tons, or 10,360 pounds (5.18 X 2,000). How do we make that more real, in discussing air pollution? Well, what else out there weighs 5.18 tons?

Let’s use something we may be more familiar with than tons. The 2017 Chevy Suburban SUV has a curb weight of 5,704 pounds, or 2.85 tons. If an average car generates 5.18 tons of CO2 in a year that means the weight of the CO2 generated by this theoretical average car, driving an average number of miles is approximately 1.82 Chevy Suburbans!

Think about that, for a moment. Let it sink in.

For every single year that this average car is on the road, it puts out almost 2 Chevy Suburbans’ weight in CO2. Man, that’s heavy.

Enjoy your Sunday.scales of injustice

Solar Panel Generation: 150 day report

Solar Volt

My 2017 Chevy Volt (The Silver Surfer) being charged by the sun! This shows only one of the four groupings of panels on The Duck (what I call our house).

If you would like to contact our solar panel provider, click here to email them.

It has been 150 days, since our solar panel system went on line. We started generating electricity from solar energy, on December 21st. The 150 days ended on today. Our solar panels generated a total of 5,387 kWh or, in other words, almost 5.4 megawatts. These 150 days are not the most conducive to energy production, since they began with December 21st, exactly on the Winter Solstice of 2016. As you may know, the Winter Solstice is known as “the shortest day of the year.” It’s really the day with the shortest period of sunlight. You may also think that means the day of the least solar energy generation. That, it is not, as overcast longer days can result in lower energy generation. With this in mind, if we just divide the total amount of energy generated so far, by 150 days and multiply by 365 days (to get an estimate of annual production), we would arrive at a figure of 13.11 mWh per year. Since these 150 days are not average, over the year, we can expect our total annual production to be more than that. Our solar panel provider estimated that our annual production would be close to 16 mWh. I am not sure it will get that high, but if we average both these figures, a compromise estimate of 14.55 mWh is produced. More on this later…

Our highest single day of energy generation so far, was May 4th. On that day, our solar panels generated 60.41 kWh, which is just slightly more than the Chevy Bolt EV‘s battery capacity. The least energy generated in a single day, so far, was 4.4 kWh on December 23rd. Another low production day was March 5th, when 5.66 kWh were generated. As you can see, daily production can vary greatly, as is illustrated in the upper chart below.150 day solar energy production chartsAs you start to look at larger blocks of time, the pattern smoothes out. In the lower chart, by looking at weekly system output, you can see the trend toward higher energy generation. Weeks 21, 51 & 53, were obviously not a full seven days.

To see the pattern a little better, we can look at it by calendar month (below). The current month only shows the first 19 days, resulting in 1,090 kWh. Using the daily average generated in the month, I expect May’s result to be the highest on the chart at approximately 1,778 kWh, a total so high, as to be off this chart.Monthly kWh

How was last month’s bill affected by the solar panels? I’m glad you asked! We used 1,676 kWh total. Our average usage for this month, over the last 3 years has been 1,492 kWh, but this month has been warmer than usual. Of this amount, 433 kWh came from our electricity provider, Green Mountain Energy and 1,243 kWh came from the solar panels. We generated 74% of the electricity we used. Our Green Mountain Energy bill was $20.57. The payment on the solar panel system is $154.54. So, our total electric cost was $175.11 last month. If we didn’t have the solar panels, our bill would have been $133.96, so we overpaid by $41.15 last month. (this will vary, so more on that later)

Green Mountain Energy, currently 😉 charges us 11.6¢ per kWh, the “solar rate” we got, when we switched providers. They buy any overproduction at the same, retail rate in monthly (billing cycle blocks). Before we got on the “Solar Buy-Back Plan,” our rate was 8.5¢ per kWh. This means they are actually buying back at somewhat less than retail, since the rate was lower when we were on a normal energy rate plane. However, when I created a spreadsheet, to check the financial soundness of getting solar panels, we still came out ahead, when compared to a company that charged the lower rate but bought back overage at wholesale, instead of retail. It’s jumping through math like this that discourages people from getting solar panels, because they just can’t tell if it makes economic sense or not.

As you may know, I love making spreadsheets and performing analyses, so…yay!

Our solar panels (38 in all) cost $33,480, including permits and installation. The federal government’s tax incentive for solar panels is 30%, or in our case $10,044, leaving us with a cost of $23,436 in out-of-pocket expenses. One really cool feature of our solar financing plan, is that the first payment is due one year after the panels are installed and operational. This gives the buyer time to realize the tax credit and pay it into the loan, resulting is a monthly payment, based on the system price, after the tax credit is applied. We financed the panels over 20 years, resulting in a monthly payment of $154.54.

So, the big question is: Are we paying more for electricity + solar panels per month that we were for electricity alone? We still don’t know definitively, and won’t until we’ve analyzed a full year of data. However we can now start to make an educated guess.

If the solar panel company is correct, and our solar panel system generates 16 mWh of electricity over the full year (and that is still a distinct possibility), the total cost we’ll pay per month for electricity + solar panels, would be 13¢ less, than just buying electricity from our provider at the higher rate they’re charging now. However, if we compare the total amount we were paying on the previous plan, we could pay as much as $61 per month more, on average, than we were, which is about a 36% increase. We expected to pay more, during the first few years and reap the benefit of lower overall cost, as energy prices go up, over time. Again, only time will tell. The rate we’re paying now per kWh is approximately the same as the U.S. national average rate per kWh.

Here’s what we feel we are getting for this:

  • We generate ZERO pollution, for the energy we use during the day, because we generate it from the sun. Even though Green Mountain Energy provides “100% renewable energy,” during times of low winds or low solar generation, Green Mountain Energy has to buy energy from non-renewable sources, to keep the lights on, which do generate pollution. To make the claim that they’re 100% renewable, Green Mountain will purchase energy from other renewable energy companies, to offset the dirty energy they had to purchase during these shortages.
  • If we add a battery backup to the system, these benefits would continue after sunset, when the batteries would continue to provide electricity, after sunset, or during a blackout or brownout.
  • THIS IS PROBABLY THE BIGGEST FACTOR: On average, in Texas, solar panels add $15K of value to the home, when it comes time to sell. Once this is taken into account, the solar panels really only cost us $8,436, that $61 per month is eliminated. Our system is larger than the average residential system installed in Texas, so the actual cost may be even lower than that! This means that we’re really at break even now, with additional savings as energy prices rise, over time.

In late December, I will have a full year’s worth of data and will revisit this, but at this point I think we made a very good financial (and ecological) decision.

If you would like to contact our solar panel provider, click here to email them.

If you’re going to sling BS, don’t try it with a Texan!

I was lying in bed this morning, as it is my day off, when I heard the email ping of my iPhone.

In case you aren’t a long-time reader of this blog, I changed careers to become a salesperson, at the largest Chevrolet dealer in the world, because of my love for the Chevy Volt.

The email had been sent by my manager (and the guy who went out on a limb to hire me), Hank Gaylor. Hank had received an email from his father, after his father had seen a story claiming it took $18 to fill a Volt’s battery from empty. Here’s what Hank’s dad saw: (my added comments in red)

As a “joke”, my Chev dealer gave me a Volt as a loaner while my full-size pick-up was getting some attention.  He thought it was funny to give his energy company CEO (emphasis added) this thing here on Vancouver Island!  I live 30 kilometers outside of Victoria near Sidney.

The battery was dead – later he admitted they almost never charged it.  While the car was “OK”, on gasoline, it was pretty anemic.  So for the extra money, even taking into account Chev rebates and Provincial incentives, you get an under-powered, heavy car that felt “too small” for its actual size (battery has to go somewhere). “Underpowered”? PLEASE! I regularly out-accelerate 5-series BMW’s and pickups don’t stand a chance, against my Volt

Now the kicker: at a neighborhood barbecue, I was talking to a Neighbor, a BC Hydro executive.  I asked him how that renewable thing was doing.  He laughed, then got serious.  If you really intend to adopt electric vehicles, he pointed out, you had to face certain realities.  For example, a home charging system for a Tesla requires 75 amp service. I don’t know about Telsa’s charging requirements, but we have two 240V chargers, at our home. Each is on it’s own 30 amp circuit. Our A/C unit is on a 45 amp circuit. Perhaps Canada just recently started experimenting with electric service in their homes…

The average house is equipped with 100 amp service. So in Canada, I could have A/C, an electric oven and a few lights/electric outlets in use at the same time???  On our small street (approximately 25 homes), the electrical infrastructure would be unable to carry more than 3 houses with a single Tesla, each. Do Canadians have to take turns, with their neighbors, for cooking? watching TV?  For even half the homes to have electric vehicles, the system would be wildly over-loaded.

This is the elephant in the room with electric vehicles … Our residential infrastructure cannot bear the load. We have ample delivery in the U.S. of A., but it still needs updating. Smart grid is being deployed here.  So as our genius elected officials ram this nonsense down our collective throats, not only are we being forced to buy the damn things and replace our reliable, cheap generating systems with expensive, new windmills and solar cells, but we will also have to renovate our entire delivery system!  This latter “investment” will not be revealed until we’re so far down this dead end road that it will be presented with an oops and a shrug. Oddly enough, there is no fuel cost to renewable energy plants, but you keep paying for coal, natural gas, uranium, etc FOREVER!

If you want to argue with a green person over cars that are Eco-friendly, just read the below:

Note: However, if you ARE the green person, read it anyway.  Enlightening. This is a parody, right? Did they get it from The Onion??? (The Onion is a news parody site.)

Eric test drove the Chevy Volt at the invitation of General Motors…and he writes…For four days in a row, the fully charged battery lasted only 25 miles before the Volt switched to the reserve gasoline engine. He must have been driving through two feet of snow, UPHILL THE WHOLE WAY, on flat tires, towing a boat. 😉

Eric calculated the car got 30 mpg including the 25 miles it ran on the battery. “Eric is an “energy company CEO???” I won’t be calling him if I find a math error in my bill!  So, the range including the 9 gallon gas tank and the 16 kWh battery is approximately 270 miles. Actual Volt range is 370 miles (1st generation Volt 2011-2015) and 440 miles  (2nd generation Volt 2016+)

It will take you 4 1/2 hours to drive 270 miles at 60 mph.  Then add 10 hours to charge the battery and you have a total trip time of 14.5 hours. Why not charge the Volt while you sleep, the night before you leave and charge again, while you sleep, after your arrival? Also, why not use a 240V fast charger (I have two, myself) and reduce charge time to 4 hours?  In a typical road trip your average speed (including charging time) would be 20 mph. If you used the slowest charger possible and charged during your drive, instead of taking my advice above. Then again, on long road trips, I treat my Volt like any other car, just running on gasoline and only charging at the hotels.

According to General Motors, the Volt battery holds 16 kWh of electricity.  It takes a full 10 hours to charge a drained battery. The cost for the electricity to charge the Volt is never mentioned so I looked up what I pay for electricity.  I pay approximately (it varies with amount used and the seasons) $1.16 per kWh. If that’s really what Canadians pay for electricity, my average monthly electric bill there (1,980 kWh per month) would be $2,297. Yes, PER MONTH! 16 kWh x $1.16 per kWh = $18.56 to charge the battery. For these calculations, and to address both generations of the Chevy Volt so far, see my comments below.

$18.56 per charge divided by 25 miles = $0.74 per mile to operate the Volt using the battery.  Compare this to a similar size car with a gasoline engine that gets only 32 mpg.  $3.19 per gallon divided by 32 mpg = $0.10 per mile.

My Volt Display

My Volt’s actual display. Today

Volt status 17May2017

My Volt’s status 17 May 2017

The gasoline powered car costs about $15,000 while the Volt costs $46,000 No, MSRP is $34K (LT) to $39,500K (loaded Premier, no navigation, no $1K pearl paint). After you deduct the $7,500 Federal Income Tax Credit for a Volt purchase, it has dropped to $26,500 to $32,000. The Chevy Cruze Hatchback is close in size and functionality to the Volt, since the Volt & Cruze started on the same platform. It is also good for this example, as it gets 32 MPG average, as this Canadian uses as his example.

A Chevy Cruze Hatchback (LT, with remote start) lists for $24K ($2,500 less than an LT Volt). A Chevy Cruze Hatchback (Premier, without sunroof or navigation) lists for $27,500K ($4,500 less than the Volt (Premier, without sunroof or navigation). ……..So the American Government wants proud and loyal Americans not to do the math, but simply pay 3 times as much for a car No, it’s 10% more for the LT and 16% more for the Premier, that costs more than 7 times as much to run, and takes 3 times longer to drive across the country….. Again, if treated like a gas car, your travel time is exactly the same as any other gas car. Oil changes on a Volt, typically are done every 1-1/2 to 2 years, depending on gas engine usage. Try that on a gasoline-powered car! There’s a savings there, but wait! There’s more!

The Cruze gets 32 MPG (average) and has a range of 397 (city) to 520 miles (highway). The Volt has a 440 mile range (full battery and gas tank) and gets 42 MPG (on gasoline) and 82 MPG (on electricity, see below). Using my real world experience, over the 16,978 miles I’ve driven so far, I have bought about 18 gallons to go 706 miles (see image above) for an average of 39.2 MPG on gasoline. On electricity, I’ve driven 16,272 miles. Yes, I can charge for free at work and at many locations in the DFW area, but for the sake of argument, let’s say I paid for all the electricity I’ve put in my Volt, my cost of electricity for driving 16,272 miles is less than $400. That works out to a dollar equivalent of 96.8 MPG (dollar equivalent at current gas price) on electricity! ($400 ÷ $2.38 = 168 gallons. 16,272 miles ÷ 168 gallons = 96.8 MPG equivalent). Those same miles in a Cruze would have required 530.5 gallons of gas, at a cost of $1,263! Over the time I’ve owned my Volt, I have saved at least $820. That’s over 439 days of ownership. Over just one year that would be $682 saved per year. At that rate, break even on ownership is 6.6 years. Once you include the reduced frequency of oil changes in a Volt, break even is about 6 years, or the finance term used by most Americans, when purchasing a new car. The Volt is a far better car than the Cruze (which I like very much) and at 6 years, they cost about the same. After that point though, I save $682 per year by owning the Volt, as mentioned above.

**DISCLAIMER** In actuality, I only pay for about half of the electricity my Volt uses, since I charge for free, like many Volt drivers, at my job or when I find a free charging station. By the way, how many times have you found a free gasoline station? 😉  At 1/2 the electricity paid for, I’m really spending about $202 per year, in fuel (gasoline & electricity) and saving about $848 per year, or $71 per month. With half my electricity being free, I get the dollar equivalent of 166 MPG. Break even for me will be at 5.3 years.

The error, in the math provided by the Canadian above, is in the cost of electricity and how much it takes to fill the battery. Here’s how it really works:

NO ONE pays $1.16 per kWh. Average, in the U.S. is $0.11, or 11 CENTS per kWh. This should be shown as $0.11. Many Texans pay less than 9 cents per kWh. I’ll bet the person in the story meant to say 11.6 CENTS per kWh (or heaven help Canada!).

The 1st gen Volt battery had 16 KWh of storage, but you were never allowed to use all of it. Lithium Ion batteries should never be completely drained or filled. The 1st gen Volt allowed only 10.8 kWh to be used. Some electricity is lost in the transfer and the Volt runs fans (and sometimes A/C) to keep the battery in a good temperature range while charging. I averaged 12.8 kWh to fill the battery from “empty,” in our 2012 Volts, accounting for fans and transfer loss. Filling the battery 12.8 kWh X 11.6 CENTS ($0.116) = $1.48 per full charge, not $18.56 as this guy states above.

Once filled, the 1st gen battery, on average, would go 38 miles on a charge, NOT 25. $1.48 ÷ 38 miles = 3.9 CENTS ($0.039) per mile. Currently (pun intended), with gas in the U.S. averaging $2.38 per gallon (last month’s average), that’s the dollar equivalent of 61 MPG. ($2.38 ÷ $0.039)

HOWEVER: if you pay 8.6 cents per kWh, like I do, it only cost $1.10 for a full charge of a 1st gen Volt. $1.10 ÷ 38 miles = 2.9 CENTS ($0.029) per mile, which is the equivalent of 82 MPG. If gasoline prices rise, the Volt’s MPGe (dollar equivalent just gets better and better).

I personally have gotten as much as 52.7 miles on a single charge in my 1st generation Volt (2012, see image), but that’s not average. However, on that day, I got the dollar equivalent of 115 MPG.50 Mile ClubThe 2nd generation Volt goes an average of 53 miles per charge, with a lighter battery with only 2/3 as many battery cells. However, it stores 18.4 kWh, of which 16 kWh is useable add 2 kWh, for cooling during charging, and you get 18 kWh per 53 miles. Using the math outlined above, it gets the average dollar equivalent of 60.4 MPG (11.6 CENTS per kWh) or 81.4 MPG (at 8.6 CENTS per kWh, like I pay).

Not only does the Volt get fantastic gas mileage, it is very fast off the line. It is so silent, GM installs low speed noise makers (or pedestrians would get run over in parking lots). It generates ZERO pollution while doing so. If you get your electricity from renewable sources, like I do (wind generated from Green Mountain Energy and solar panels on our house), even the creation of the electricity you use generates ZERO pollution!

We have 3 Volts, in our household. If the example you presented were correct, it would have bankrupted us! THIS KIND OF B.S. HAS BEEN PRESENTED BY CONSERVATIVE MEDIA AND OIL COMPANIES, SINCE THE VOLT CAME OUT. I BATTLE IT EVERY DAY. I can’t blame them. They’re just trying to survive. I just hope people stop falling for this bullshit. (Texas term. NOT cussing!)

Obama drives Volt

Why, on Earth, would conservative media hate the Volt so much???