Solar Power for the Workshop?

Article - December 8, 2014

Image by Kreuzschnabel/Wikimedia Commons, License: artlibre
Image by Kreuzschnabel/Wikimedia Commons, License: artlibre

Every time I discuss electrical power as it relates to the shop someone will inevitably bring up the question of solar energy. After all, I’m in the “Valley of the Sun” and if anyone should be able to harness the awesome power of that big ball of fire in the sky it should be Phoenicians with our 296 days of sunshine per year! Well, you might be surprised to know that I actually do have solar panels and I thought it would be helpful to share my story and experience. This is not meant to be a guide to solar energy and I’m not really prepared (or qualified) to give much advice on the topic. When you dig into the world of alternative energy you’ll quickly find out that there’s a lot of ever-changing local laws, regulations, and red tape that will dictate what you can and can’t do so be sure to do your research. If anything, my hope is that this blog post encourages you to look into your options with realistic expectations.

Our Setup

When we decided to go solar, the company we hired did an audit of our electrical usage over the last few years. Their goal was to correctly match our power needs with our future power production. They also made sure our house could accommodate the number of panels we needed and of course the roof had to be able to support the additional weight. In addition to the panels, we had to select a location for the power converter dealie-wackers. In our case, these were three large wall-mounted devices that live in our garage. Some people put them outside but it’s quite an eyesore. Something to keep in mind is that these things make quite a bit of noise during the day. As they process the energy, they make a rhythmic clicking sound that can easily be heard in the guest bedroom on the other side of the garage wall.

solar-panels solar-thingies

To Buy or Lease?

While on the surface this might seem like a big part of the decision, but for us it was a no-brainer. We found the purchase price to be prohibitively expensive (approximately $35,000) so we went for the lease program. The lease locks us in at a monthly price of $220 for 20 years and ensures the system will continue to be operational for the duration of that period. If we sell the house, the new owner simply takes over the lease. And after about six years, we’ll have the option to purchase again at the appropriate reduced cost. I doubt we’ll take that option.

How Does it Work?

It’s not as simple as you might think. I was originally under the impression that solar panels would pull us “off the grid” and we would be self-sufficient but that’s not how it works. The solar panels produce energy and that energy is sent back to the electric company. They keep track of our production as it offsets our usage. So we still pull power from the electric company just like we always have, but the power we send to the electric company cancels out the power we draw. If we produce more than we consume, we will get paid for the unused energy. The value of that payment is something that seems to be in flux and it was recently lowered.

The Financials

Our electric bill used to average $350 and increased each year. We use dramatically more energy in the summer due to the constant running of air conditioners so we rely on a level-pay program to keep our bill predictable each month. So now that our solar panels are compensating for our energy use, our electric bill amounts to about $20/month. Just by virtue of being connected to the grid, there will always be small associated fees that need to be paid. Our total monthly payment is:

$20 (electric company) + $220 (lease fee) = $240 Total

Savings: At least $110/month

Because our panels were set up to handle our worst case usage scenario, we won’t likely see a change in our monthly bill for a very long time and we generally over-produce each month. Furthermore, this setup insulates us from energy price increases as the lionshare of our bill is going to our lease and not the electric company. Of course there may be unforeseen circumstances that cause us to regret our decision to go this route, but now that we are two years into this arrangement I have to say we are extremely happy with it. Below you can see a graphic showing our power production for the last 14 months with some cool statistics about what that amount of energy equates to.


Don’t Take My Word For It!

Do your research. As I mentioned before, the laws are ever-changing and the system (government and big utilities) seems to be set up to discourage folks from incorporating alternative energy sources into their homes. For example, I heard recently that they are considering a special surcharge for folks who have solar panels and efforts are already underway in Oklahoma. I’ll refrain from getting too political here but let’s just say it can be incredibly frustrating for people who are just trying to “do the right thing.”

If you already have solar, I’d love to hear about your experiences. And if the laws are different in your area, I’d love to hear about that too. Let’s compare notes!


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