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.