Installation of Solar Energy has Improved and Gained Deserved Respect
By Paul Hull
Many readers will not remember some of the earliest installations of solar power, especially for individual residences. They were hailed as saviors, but they seemed to have two key, weakening attributes: they were primarily sales items and they were often poorly installed. People who were genuinely enthusiastic about the concept of solar power were disappointed by the high-pressure sales approach and annoyed by shoddy installation. That has changed for the better and solar power is beginning to get the praise and understanding it deserves. Like all lasting progress, it has taken time to mature.
The installation and servicing of new products are vital to their success. Consider something common such as asphalt. When it is placed correctly, it lasts well; when it is thrown down by incompetent crews it cracks and shifts quickly, and becomes uneven and dangerous. What is interesting to me in the field of solar energy is the move towards installation of large projects-such as utilities-rather than individual sites like residential rooftops. Some call the large installations utility scale power, and that describes them well. Support from established power utilities will go a long way to push solar energy forward. As the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) points out, a utility scale power plant can be one of several solar technologies: photovoltaics (PV), concentrating solar power (CSP) and concentrating photovoltaics (CPV). The main distinction between utility-scale power and distributed generation is the size of the project-and the aspect that the electricity is sold to wholesale utility buyers and not to end-user consumers. Some utility-scale plants will include built-in storage capacity so that power can be provided even when the sun isn't shining. There are now more than 500 MW of CSP in operation in the US, with a further 26,000 MW of utility scale solar power projects under development-enough to power more than 4 million households. Solar energy is not a fad, not merely a hot sales item for today. Solar energy is a powerful tool for tomorrow to give us reliable energy when we need it and at a cost we can afford.
Do-it-yourself is seldom the best way of installing a solar energy system, especially for an inexperienced individual. Like most technology-based products, it must be done correctly. That would include permitting and licensing, doing the right (and legal) preparations for your community. One obvious problem to overcome is that any roof supporting the system must be able to support the weight of the system. Some systems weigh, for example, as much as 1,500 pounds. Another pitfall could be a person's lack of knowledge about solar systems. As one chief of a city fire department put it: "These systems are energized power sources and dangerous." In several communities, it is required that a canvas tarpaulin be placed over a system to prevent the system from producing electricity when it is not needed or appropriate. Some systems are as big as 30 feet by 60 feet. Safety is the top priority, as with all power operations. Your local fire department's responsibility is to ensure all persons using a building-home or business-are safe; having solar systems correctly installed, and obeying local codes, is essential.
Seattle City Light has an excellent article on installing a solar electric system. It reminds us that electrical permits are required for all solar electric systems. The permits must be secured by the person doing the electrical work; that would be your electrical contractor for most residential projects. Property owners who have the necessary, required planning and installation skills and who want to do the installation themselves can also obtain that electrical permit. The system will be given a field inspection after installation at a cost of about $200.
A building permit is required in Seattle for solar arrays when any of the following apply:
• The weight of the array is 1,000 pounds or more-and there are special rules for those installed on flat roofs.
• The installation is structurally complex-a fact determined by the Department of Planning and Development.
• The solar project is part of building alterations or additions valued at more than $4,000.
• The solar project requires construction of stand-alone support structures valued at more than $4,000.
Your community has its own regulations, and observing them is of paramount importance for safety reasons. In addition, consideration for neighbors will be required. The situation and height of solar panels will probably be regulated so they provide no hindrance for the safety and comfort of neighbors. Of course there are rules. They are the same kind of rules that forbid neighbors from making junk yards of their front yards, the same kind that make a community and neighborhood enjoyable for everyone who lives in it.
You will likely need a contractor to install your residential or larger system, and this seems a good place to mention several fundamental facts you should see before you hire a contractor. Some of them may seem childish, but everyone in the contracting world is not straightforward. Does the contractor you like have a license? Is the contractor licensed to do the work you need? Does the contractor have good experience in installation of solar systems? Has the contractor crew had training in the appropriate techniques and skills? Does the contractor have references? If he does, check them. Your state or community may have information about contractors in general, even specifically for solar system installations.
In any contract you have for installation, you should consider more than the installed price of the system (which would include the cost of equipment and installation), the availability of warranty service, the costs of required permits, the size of the system, and the estimated energy produced. Many installers charge a potential client for an inspection of the proposed site to make sure it is suitable and possible, but they usually refund that charge if a system is installed by them.
As solar energy equipment gets better and more efficient, we can expect to see continued growth in that sector of power distribution. It is not surprising that utility scale solar power is gaining constant momentum because those who already supply electric power have the experience and resources to promote new technologies until they become standard usage. I previously mentioned that do-it-yourself projects are not ideal at the moment, but that can change. This does not mean that the average householder will install a solar energy system without help, but it does mean that much of the work may be done by unskilled hands. The electrical work-wiring and metering, for example-will probably be done by a professional, qualified electrician. Remember, for permits and licenses, the recipient, in most places, must be a qualified professional. That's one reason why utilities will be leading the way in those larger projects.
There are wholesale vendors of solar systems who can give excellent advice and help with all the preparations that are so important to their installation. Check with your proposed suppler to see what help they can give. Gridtie solar systems are for those people who are already using utility power. It is less complex in its installation than offgrid systems but there may be more rules and regulations to follow, and you will need a qualified electrician to do the final hook-up. An offgrid system is often planned by property owners who do not have utility power available. They may live in the country, in some dream spot where they want to live what they consider a life of unusual freedom. But yes, off grid systems can mostly be installed by those individuals.
Solar energy has arrived, just as gasoline engines and vehicles arrived, just as television arrived, and just as computers arrived and are now considered everyday items. As with all those technologies that have become part of our lives, their installation is of maximum importance, whether your project is for an individual building or a larger project. Our motto should be: Get your new power technology, but get it right!