Milwaukee Company’s Innovation Enables Solar For Everyone
Apr 02, 2013 01:25AM
By Brent Brucker
The first question most homeowners have about outfitting their homes for solar is, “How much will it cost?” Before an accurate number can be determined, many variables must be considered, including the location of the home, the orientation of the system and the amount of electric load that will be covered by the system, to name a few.
In the solar arena, the upfront costs have discouraged many homeowners from making the decision to install solar on their homes. Solar electric systems are expensive because they do something amazing: produce free, clean electricity for 25, 30 or even 40 years.
It turns out that solar electric systems nearly always pay for themselves and then some. Many homeowners would be sold if they could slowly buy into solar, starting with what they can afford today and supplementing when they are financially able, comfortable with the technology and satisfied with the results.
Solar Micro-Inverters Bring Scalability
What is missing from the solar scenario is a situation analogous to that of compact fluorescent light (CFL). When CFLs started making their way onto retail shelves, most of us did not go out and buy the new, more expensive bulbs to replace every incandescent bulb in the house. Instead, most people bought one bulb at a time for $15 or so, considering it a way to do just a bit more for the environment, to invest in future energy savings and to test the waters of the technology. As people became more comfortable with the technology, demand increased and costs went down; now, CFLs are quite common.
Until recently, small-scale solar was difficult due to limitations presented by the photovoltaic (PV) system’s inverter. The inverter converts the direct current (DC) power that a solar electric system produces into alternating current (AC) power that is serviceable to the grid. Commonly, solar electric systems string modules together prior to connecting them to the inverter, which requires system designers to begin with the end in mind when it comes to the maximum power limit the inverter can handle. This design limitation hinders the ability to add on to the system later and causes a decision-making dilemma for the potential solar customer because of cost.
The industry’s solution coincides with the advent of micro-inverter technology several years ago. Microinverters convert DC power to AC power for each module rather than an entire string of modules. Modules manufactured with micro-inverters (known in the industry as AC modules) allow for systems to become scalable, meaning they enable more solar modules to be added when the customer can afford them.
Yet most of the micro-inverter technology still did not adequately fulfill this need for a scalable system until the fall of 2012, when Helios unveiled the SolSimple Module, a revolutionary pairing of a PV module and a micro-inverter. Unlike other AC modules on the market, the SolSimple module produces AC power at the same voltage used in the home and has no exposed DC wiring, making it the only true AC module as defined by the National Electric Code.
The SolSimple Module allows, for the first time, a hasslefree and affordable way for homeowners to start with a small system and add to it at their convenience. SolSimple utilizes a connection system that is inexpensive, flexible and requires virtually no special design. Other micro-inverters require clunky trunk cables that are expensive, call for wire design and have many parts (potential points of failure). These wire systems also change over time, making future expansion cumbersome and costly. SolSimple uses a HomeRun cable— a simple 12-gauge, stranded, three-wire cable that costs less than $2 per foot.
The Final Analysis
While many variables are involved in the total cost of solar outfitting, a professional electrician should be able to install a starter system for less than $1,000. Expansion can easily occur when the end user is ready. Once the cable has been installed and paid for and the utility connection has been made, each subsequent module is considerably less expensive to install than the first. Up to 10 modules can be added on each HomeRun cable with no work except to mount and connect.
The SolSimple Module enables the homeowner to quickly turn the corner towards energy independence, becoming not just a consumer but also a producer. Solar has evolved. It can finally give a good answer to the question of a solar system’s cost: not much.
Brent Brucker is the general manager of Helios Solar Works, a manufacturer of high-performance, mono-crystalline solar modules, headquartered at 1207 W. Canal St., in Milwaukee. For more information, call 877-443-5467 or visit HeliosSolarWorks.com.
MILWAUKEE SOLAR SOLUTIONS
by Amy Heart
To determine if solar is right for you, Milwaukee Shines, the city of Milwaukee’s solar program, recommends the following steps.
Get a Site Assessment
This basic analysis of energy needs and the home’s solar availability forms the basis for a report describing the best location for a solar energy system and a general cost estimate. To find a site assessor, call 715-592-6595 or visit mreacsa.org.
Find an Installer
An estimate should include the costs of hardware, shipping, installation, connection to the utility grid and permits; get more than one, because prices and services vary. An installer should also help acquire permits, identify incentives and get an approved utility interconnection. To find an installer within Milwaukee, visit SmartEnergyPays.com; outside Milwaukee, find a list of installers at FindItWithFocus.com.
Every solar energy system installation needs to comply with the zoning and building codes of the city of Milwaukee or the municipality where it is located. To guide you through the process, Milwaukee Shines provides a Solar Permitting Guide. Also, contact your insurance agent to be certain that a solar energy system will be covered by your homeowner’s liability insurance policy.
Tap into Incentives and Financing Solutions
There is a 30 percent federal tax credit (no cap) for qualified solar installations. For details, visit DsireUsa.org.
The city of Milwaukee offers incentives through Milwaukee Shines and Me2. Milwaukee homeowners that are in process with or have already completed a Me2 project can receive a $2,000 incentive. For more information, visit SmartEnergyPays.com.
Milwaukee Shines offers low-interest loans to Milwaukee homeowners for solar electric and hot water projects. To learn more, visit MilwaukeeShines.com/SolarLoans.
Amy Heart is the solar program manager for Milwaukee Shines. For more information, call the city of Milwaukee Office of Environmental Sustainability at 414-286-5593, email [email protected] or visit MilwaukeeShines.com.