My two cents about solar panels on the White House

I found the report about the White House solar panels interesting.  In theory, I think solar panels are a fine idea.  In practice, here in the land of PG&E, I do not.  You see, we have solar panels.  It cost us roughly $15,000 to install them.  Before we even purchased them, it was obvious that the only way for us to recoup that expense within say, a ten year window and bring us economically into line with where we would have been had we not bought solar panels, was to adhere to a rigid electricity use scheme that is the bane of my existence.  (A less rigid scheme would have left my existence unchanged, but would have been very costly, on top of the expense we incurred installing the panels in the first place.)

What most people don’t know — at least, under the PG&E system — is that you don’t actually use the electricity your solar panels generate.  Instead, you can think of your house as having a line going out, and a line going in.  The line going out feeds electricity from the solar panels to PG&E, which buys this electricity from the homeowner.  The line going in sells electricity from PG&E to the homeowner, same as always.

Except that it’s not actually the same as always.  The way we structured things, in order to recoup our sizable investment on the solar panels sometime before our eventual deaths, is that we operate under “peak, semi-peak, and non-peak” rules.  Peak corresponds to the time of day during which our solar panels make the most electricity, semi-peak is medium production, and non-peak is no production.  During the summer, peak and semi-peak take one from 10 a.m. to 9 .m.  During the winter and on weekends, it’s a little easier, with peak running from only 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. or something like that.

If we use electricity during peak time it costs us both arms, and both legs; during semi-peak we’re charged about 1.5 arms and 1.5 legs; and during non-peak, we’re charged almost nothing.

All of the above sounds wonderful in theory.  In fact, that’s not how a household work.  My dishwasher and laundry baskets do not fill up with non-peak precision, and magically empty with peak regularity.  Instead, they accrue dirty stuff throughout the course of the day.  In the old days, I would have run them when they were full.  Now, as often as not, their being full coincides with peak or semi-peak, making them too costly to run.  And by the time non-peak comes around in my busy household, not only is my dishwasher full, so is the sink and the counter.  Likewise, if I don’t get up at the crack of dawn so that I have time to both wash and dry not just wash a load during non-peak time, I better hope it’s a cool day, because I can’t get it in the dryer until evening, when non-peak rolls around again.  On hot days, while it’s sitting in the washer waiting for cheap dryer time, it tends to get mildew.  (The mirror image is true for hot evenings, when I have to stay up late to both wash and dry a load, or risk a washer barrel full of slightly mildewy laundry in the morning.)

The result is that I end up using my appliances more than I ever used to.  I run a dishwasher every night, no matter how empty it is, so that I don’t get stuck halfway through the next day with a full dishwasher, and no ability to wash it.  I’m using cheap electricity, but I’m using twice as much for ordinary tasks, and doubling my water use too.  Laundry turns into a weekend long odyssey, as I try to cram in load after load during the day time hours.  We have dirty laundry around all week, and my weekends are not fun.

It’s also very irksome to have someone monitoring my electricity use constantly.  My husband checks the meter every day and quizzes me on energy spikes.  To his credit, he also praises low energy days, but I really don’t like to be watched that closely.  And this is my husband we’re talking about!  Wait until we’re all on smart meters, and its our utility company staring over our shoulders with such oppressive fervor.

I have no idea how White House solar panels are going to be set up.  There are other pricing plans that are less onerous to the solar owner but, as I mentioned at the top of this post, they’re also much more costly.  Considering how expensive solar panels are to begin with, I foresee a heavy taxpayer burden unless Obama gets private funding for those panels.  You see, either they’ll cost a fortune up front or, because the White House is going to use lots of peak electricity during the summer season, it’s going to be paying a heavy electric bill.

I think solar panels have the potential to create massive amounts of truly clean energy.  Right now, though, the set-up is definitely not consumer friendly, whether because it’s very costly, or because it forces homemakers into usage patterns that are inconsistent with the rhythm of a busy household.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Allen

    Yikes, I’ve heard about this, but was somewhat skeptical (I couldn’t imagine anyone going with it.) My PV system is tied through a single meter with SCE. During peak production my meter will spin backwards. If by some miracle I produce more then I used for the month SCE will pay me for the net power produced at 3.5 cents per kWh. If not they charge me at 10.5 cents per kWh. Now, I might have been fortunate that I installed my system back in 2000 when SCE was dying for any extra production whatsoever.

    If I understand the way PG&E has set it up with you, then you can only start to re-coup your costs once you produce about 2-3 times your consumption. Effectively they are selling back to you the power you produce at about a 6 cents/kWH profit to them.

  • Bookworm

    I haven’t done the math, Allen.  I just know that I hate having to conform my electrical usage to PG&Es schedule.  As my husband points out, I agreed to this, but I really didn’t have any idea how difficult it would be.  I shouldn’t complain — I made my bed so sleeping is required — but my personality is such that I like to complain.  Also, let me be a lesson to all of you….

  • suek

    My dishwasher has a time setting – that is, I set it for x hours and it starts that many hours later.  It’s great since the TV is next to the kitchen and this way we don’t have to listen to it while we watch the shows.  I wonder why they don’t have a setting like that for clothes washers…although you’d only get in one load a night.  I wonder if an option might not be a free standing timer that you’d plug your machines into…we have a couple for light switches (for when there’s no one home), but they’re probably too lightweight for the draw of a washer – either dishes or clothes.  But I bet they make them.
    You might try one of the big box stores…or I’ll check out a couple of our suppliers tomorrow and see if there’s something a little heavier duty.  You’d probably look for something intended for commercial use…

  • Bookworm

    My dishwasher does too, suek, but I can’t use it.  You see, we also got one of those instant hot water heaters, which isn’t that instant.  Because it’s on the other side of the house from the kitchen, it takes about two minutes to get hot water to the kitchen.  If I run the dishwasher without first summoning up the hot water, the dishwasher doesn’t clean the dishes, and I have to run the same load twice.  I have to be standing in front of the dishwasher to start it.  Also, as I said, dishes pile up on their own schedule.

  • Allen

    Bookworm, I hope you didn’t take my response as criticism. Conservation is to be admired and duplicated. I have designed and built both on and off-grid “green” systems. The issue is not about energy usage or savings. It’s always about money.

  • Ymarsakar

    ” As my husband points out, I agreed to this, but I really didn’t have any idea how difficult it would be.”
    The whole thing is set up to make people use up more energy.
    There’s no real legitimate way they can make money transmitting power back and forth with so little production base. They would go out of business selling you energy that you produce.
    The environmentalist greed companies cannot make money, thus Gore cannot make a killing off his green mutual funds, if environmental damage is lessened and resources are used more efficiently. So the entire panoply is designed to increase resource usage, decrease efficiency, and increase pollution.

  • Ymarsakar

    Btw, Book, are you using a new anti spam program, Sphere, or something?

  • Bookworm

    If I am, Y, I don’t know it.

  • Oldflyer

    I wish there were some way to get the cost of the WH solar panels published, along with the electric bills for pre and post installation.

    During WWII, when Mother and the kids lived in an apartment in my Grandparent’s house, we experienced the joys of solar panels.  My Grandfather, who loved that kind of thing, installed an admittedly rudimentary solar powered hot water system based on plans he found in Popular Mechanics magazine.  Fortunately, we were in central Florida.  Still, living with limited supplies of luke-warm water took some adaptation.  I know that modern panels are much more sophisticated, but I still hearken back to those experiences whenever SPs and other such marvels are touted.

    A little off topic; but since  El Supremo is so interested in energy conservation and independence, I wish that the new GOP Congress would legislate that all WH vehicles would be Smart Cars–or equivalent.  That would include the Presidential micro-limo.

  • Ymarsakar

    The ‘ruling class’ tends to take special benefits tha they don’t extend to anybody not of the clique. It’s how they control membership and increase demand for their services.
    If a businessman without political connections and a businessman with high level connections both had the same privileges and luxuries, there is no drive to join the “political club”. But if you sanction the zero influence guy and reward the high influence guy, more and more people will attempt to get influence. This puts them in their place and lets the cult have power over them, to demand them to do certain things and to certain people.
    It’s why they won’t adhere to the restrictions they demand of others. If they did, they would lose power and influence. The exact things required to shove through an environmental policy that is disliked by a great many.

  • jj

    It doesn’t matter what the white house panels cost – they’ll be free to whoever lives there – though of course we’ll be paying for them.  Obama could probably hang solar panels off those ears with equal efficiency.
    Y is right about PGE, btw.  They aren’t designed for you to produce your own power – what the hell kind of business model would that be?  Oil companies will mouth wonderful platitudes – but they don’t actually want cars to run on fuel cells, or salt water, or anything but oil.  No company seriously indulges in a program the ultimate goal of which is to put them out of business.  Companies are not in the business of suicide, for the most part.  Why would they be?

  • suek

    >>But if you sanction the zero influence guy and reward the high influence guy, more and more people will attempt to get influence.>>
    Quite so.  Otherwise known as “Banana Republic Corruption”.
    Equal justice under the law – what a disastrous idea for politicians!  AFAIC, the reason – combined with the unabridgable right of personal property ownership – for the success of the US.  With the loss of both…the future is pretty dim, imo.

  • Ymarsakar

    What it ultimately means is that once the aristocrats strip the peasants of their property, claiming it all for the nobility or the Crown, then the peasants can claim the lives of the aristocracy. Because if they can take from others using force as a justification, then the same is true of them, their mansions, their bank accounts, and their towers of money sitting around not doing a Damn Thing to help humanity.

  • Ymarsakar

    Of course, historically crossbows and other weapons were explicitly illegal for peasants to own. Precisely because a cheap crossbow can kill a noble as easily as a peasant. Given the nobility were not anywhere near as numerous as the often dying peasants, that’s not a mark of success for Rule by Tyranny.
    In this day age, Obama may actually live to see what happens when a technocracy strips the rights of a people away, without at the same time Completely Disarming them. Britain made the same mistake attempting to rule from overseas, even though much of the Colonial local matters were settled by Americans, including their arms manufactures.

  • Gringo

    What about hanging out clothes to dry, which could be done most of the year in the Bay Area? I use a clothes dryer once every two years, but I am not washing for  four people.
    Sounds like a big hassle.
    Solar electricity is not cost effective. Solar heating- depends where you are.

  • zabrina

    Not criticizing you, Book, but the original deal does seem like an unfortunate bargain now that you know what’s involved. Why should it have to be restructured that way (with peak/non-peak restrictions), instead of just reducing your electricity costs based on your total contribution of solar power? What strikes me most about this story is the truism that when civilizations devolve, physical drudgery takes over the time once available for creativity and innovation, and it’s usually the women who are first and last to get stuck with the drudgery. Thanks for pointing out the realities involved in these schemes. If actual free-market capitalism were involved, a mutually-agreeable solution would occur that actually profits all parties. Like, the electric company would pay YOU to host the solar panels, etc. At least your sadder but wiser, and thanks for the warning.

  • Charles

    Somewhat related – several years ago I visited a friend’s aunt and uncle who had just moved into a gated community. The community was advertised as being a “green community.”  The proud new owners showed us everything about the house and how it “helped the environment.”  Such details as window shades that reflected the light back out in the summer; even the quilted pattern in the shades was done in such a fashion as to not have needle holes (it was done with glue) so that they were “air-tight.” etc. etc. etc.

    Then the real irony of the whole complex was that, being an exclusive gated community, the aunt pointed out that after they tried to hang up a clothes line the community board sent them a letter stating that according to the community’s by-laws clotheslines were not allowed as they were considered “unsightly.”

    So, the oldest, most effective use of solar and wind power was “outlawed”!

  • Ymarsakar


  • Ymarsakar

    Not in my Backyard=Liberals, Democrats, progressives, aka enemies of humanity.
    Book, can’t you work out some LEGAL contract thingies with your law degree and do something about your contract or what not? What’s the point of studying the law if you can’t make it work for ya, right.

  • Gringo

    Then the real irony of the whole complex was that, being an exclusive gated community, the aunt pointed out that after they tried to hang up a clothes line the community board sent them a letter stating that according to the community’s by-laws clotheslines were not allowed as they were considered “unsightly.”So, the oldest, most effective use of solar and wind power was “outlawed”!
    Doesn’t surprise me  at all. My sibilings have lived in HOAs that forbade laundry being hung outside to dry. The difference is that those HOA’s don’t claim to be “green.” I can visualize my mother hanging out laundry on a clear winter day with snow on the ground. By contrast: in TX, when a sheet can dry in 20 minutes on a 100 degree summer day, there is a climatic advantage for drying laundry outside. I find it easier to dry the laundry in a spare room, which makes the transference from drying to closet a lot faster. Just dry shirts right on hangers.
    Did your aunt point out to the board the contradiction between claiming to be a “green” community and prohibiting hanging out laundry?

  • David Foster

    Zabrina…”Why should it have to be restructured that way (with peak/non-peak restrictions), instead of just reducing your electricity costs based on your total contribution of solar power?” Remember, the power company has the same problem on a macro scale that Book has on a micro scale. Power consumption is very peak-y, because people’s activities tend to follow consistent patterns. If they make the power themselves, they have to install enough equipment to handle the peaks…and the interest costs  go on accumulating when it’s *not* a peak time. If they buy the power from another provider, the price charged is *very* dependent on time of day.
    The problem is that wind and solar are intermittent sources, and the times they choose to start generating power are not necessarily those when the power is wanted. There are few practical ways to store large amounts of power: the best way, pumped storage, takes a lot of acreage and is anathema to environmentalists.
    Meanwhile, more setbacks for nuclear power in the US:

  • Pingback: Bookworm Room » Some random things while I get my act together()