Rooftop Solar: The Nuts and Bolts of Choosing Sunshine
David R. Weiss – October 18, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #44 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
Sometime soon Margaret and I will—at least metaphorically—flip one of the most significant switches of our lives when our rooftop solar array goes live. Whether we actually get to flip a switch remains to be seen (maybe the Xcel Energy technician or Apadana Solar Tech’s master electrician has to do that). In any case, we’re excited! Let me tell you how we got here. (Next post I’ll tell you why.)
We’ve been intrigued by solar for years, although, like most people I suppose, we figured it was beyond our reach. Then, over the past 2-3 years, while out on our evening strolls, we’ve seen a small but growing number of rooftop solar installations on homes right in our neighborhood. But we were still intimidated by how little we knew about getting into solar and how modest our income is. (We’re practically a single-income household; I earn only about $10,000/year, leaving our household income well below six figures. I say this not to embarrass myself or garner pity, but to emphasize, if solar was doable for us, it’s doable for many households—presuming your home/roof is a good match for solar.)
Last June we received an email invitation to a residential solar “bulk buy” information session hosted by Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light (MNIPL). That was our doorway into the process. It was a no-pressure event where we learned about the potential benefits to rooftop solar, including the financial incentives, directly from the president of Apadana Solar, the firm chosen by MNIPL. 
The fact that an MNIPL task force (comprised of persons with far more solar savvy than us) vetted several firms and chose Apadana was crucial in helping us explore solar with confidence. Among MNIPL’s reasons: Apadana is minority-owned, employs a diverse workforce, has a strong reputation from past projects—and was eager to collaborate in creating a residential solar program accessible to people with a range of incomes. MNIPL hosts info sessions to recruit buyers as a group. Apadana can then buy materials for a bundled set of homeowners at one time, passing along that bulk savings to us. We were in the first group of bulk buyers—in fact, ours was the very first solar installation completed as part of this program. We haven’t turned it on yet, but so far the process has been a breeze.
The average home solar system costs about $20,000. Our total cost was $28,650, but that’s because our roof is larger than average with reasonably good sun exposure on most of it, allowing for a 26-panel array—enough (just shy of 10kW/year) to theoretically offset our entire electricity usage. We could NOT afford $28,600. But we didn’t have to. A federal tax rebate will pay back 30% (the rebate decreases to 26% next year), so next spring we’ll get $8600 back at tax time. Also, because we’re tied into Excel’s grid, they pay us a “Solar Rewards” premium—about $625/year (based on our energy production at 7¢/watt) for ten years; this allows them to claim our array as part of their “distributed grid” in meeting their renewable energy goals. That offsets another $6250 over the next ten years.
The remaining $13,800 is our actual cost—but because the solar array will effectively cancel our electricity bill, which is projected to run about $13,700 over the next ten years, the system will be paid for in ten years’ time with virtually no outlay of money from us. Yes, we’ll incur interest on the loan, but even that is held down by a special solar home loan program available through a couple Minnesota credit unions (www.cu-green.org/#solar-financing). After that, the solar array will provide “pure” energy savings to us or the future homeowners: over $40,000 of net gain during the last 20 years of its 30-year life. And, while it obviously adds value to our house, that added value is excluded from property tax calculations. All in all a very good deal—even though this wasn’t our primary motivation.
Back to the process. We were encouraged to bring several months of utility bills to the info session. Between those bills and a special sun-exposure map view of our home, Apadana was able to compare our annual electricity use to our roof size/layout to determine if there was enough flat rectangular space (solar panels come in non-bendable 3’x6’ rectangles) with good sun exposure so the panels could generate sufficient electricity to make it a worthwhile investment. It looked good, so they provided us with an initial proposal in early July—to be followed by a site visit if we were interested. We were!
Two weeks later two Apadana workers came to check our home’s current wiring, take some exact measurements, and get a firsthand view of the roof. The wiring checked out, but a couple quirks in our roof lines required a few adjustments to the proposal. By the end of July we received our final proposal and sent in our first $500 to secure a spot in the bulk buy. Now we were ready to seek financing. In early August we applied for a Home Solar Loan through Hiway Federal Credit Union. The loan process moved slower than anything else—its pace dictated by a required title search and appraisal. We were finally able to close on our loan in early September. With the loan money in hand, we sent in our 30% down payment and were promptly scheduled (much sooner than we expected!): September 23-26.
The installation went very smoothly. Scaffolding went up on Monday afternoon. On Tuesday all the supplies were delivered and they fastened the rails—the frames that hold the panels—to the roof. On Wednesday and Thursday they affixed the panels to the rails and cleaned everything up. Just like that. They updated our main electric meter housing and added a couple extra boxes alongside it for the solar connections. Before the crew left on Thursday I got to watch the several-second test. They flipped on the system; the sun was shining brightly; and I watched as the slowly rotating disk inside our electric meter snapped to a stop and then started positively whirring in reverse—sending excess energy back to the transformer on the pole in the alley where it would ricochet right back out to a neighbor’s home. Then they switched it off. Next step: city inspection.
Saint Paul has several inspectors who reflect a degree of personal discretion in their inspection expectations … which keeps life “interesting” for Apadana’s master electrician. A recent meeting among the inspectors promised to get them all on the same page; still a slightly different page than Minneapolis inspectors, but at least one standard for all of Saint Paul. Except, not quite. At our inspection, last Wednesday (October 16), the inspector balked over a “missing” pair of decals on two of the utility boxes. Not required on the other side of the river. Not discussed in the recent inspectors’ meeting, but deemed essential by this particular inspector before he’d sign off on the project. Oh well.
As soon as we get those decals put on, Excel Energy will schedule a time to come out and install the photovoltaic meter next to our usage meter—hopefully yet this month! This meter tracks our solar production (used to calculate our Solar Rewards payment). When we use more electricity than we’re generating (winter, and nighttime year round) we’ll draw it from the alley transformer (and be billed by Xcel). But when we generate more than we use, the excess goes back to the alley transformer—and out to a neighbor’s home. Xcel buys that extra from us at the same rate as they charge us when we need it from them. Over the course of the year, it should balance out to something close to zero.
The day the photovoltaic meter is installed, someone (maybe one of us!) will throw a switch … and we’ll be making energy from the sun! Hardly a fix for the climate crisis, but one small step in bringing the practical side of our life into closer alignment with the values of our hearts—and the needs of our planet. Which is where I’ll begin next time.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 MNIPL: www.mnipl.org/bulkbuy; Apadana: www.apadanasolartech.com. There are other local solar installers; they might be great, too. I can just say that Apadana was communicative, professional, and friendly at every step.
 This map (www.solar.maps.umn.edu/app) shows your rooftop sun, though the results can vary quite a bit depending on exactly where you place the cursor. Apadana uses something like this but with more precision.