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5 Years In- Will my Solar Panels Still Work?

Hello again!


I'm going to address something that has been a growing concern with many of our customers this year: low production and bills coming in from the electric company. 5 Years In- Will my Solar Panels Still Work?


Many of our customers have enjoyed several years of low-or-near-zero power bills from the electric company (*they still pay for the meter and basic charges, but typically not for electricity)


And yet, in February and March of this year, they suddenly got electric bills that they weren't used to (and on top of that, many of them have not felt the rate increases that non-solar owners see every year, so a new bill looks stunningly large!)


So, what gives? Are these systems now suddenly not working like they used to? Is there something wrong? Should we roll the trucks and check it out?


The answer is: No. There's nothing wrong. We see this every few years. And we don't need to roll the trucks to check on your system - mainly because we can see if it's operating as expected through the online monitoring portal that we set up for you. On that portal we can see levels of detail that aren't usually shown to the end user - like voltages and amps generated by your system, warnings, faults, fault codes, etc. These portals give us an instant update on the health of your system. So when you call us, the first thing you'll hear will be clicking the keyboard and logging into your respective portal to see if there's anything wrong (or not).


This year, to help sort this out for our customers, we started looking to history of the systems to see if anything is "off" and (in general) - there's nothing wrong with any of the systems (we have over 1200 systems online since we started installing solar)


So...what have we found? Take a look at the screen shot below (of a system that was online and fully operational for all of 2020, 2021, and 2022):

A graph showing net metering by time of year
How Weather Affects Your Following Winter Bill Credits

We can see that the production numbers in the first half of last year are down when compared to 2020 and 2021 - significantly. And...it's no wonder: look outside. Think back to this March and (gulp) the snow that we got - many times during the month. We've had a very wet year so far (snow pack in the mountains is at 150% of normal and our reservoirs are full for the first time in decades). And - that does play a role. What we've seen is solar production being anywhere between 10% to 20% less than we've seen in previous (drier) years in the winter. And that's for a full year!


Winter time production isn't as significant as summertime production, but without it, these systems use up their "banked" power (that was generated during the previous summer) faster. So when your property sees a very wet spring (and cloudy early summer) with less sunny days, it means that you're not "filling the piggy-bank" full of kilowatt-hour credits like you did in sunnier years. Less banked credits = less credit to use in the winter/early spring months (which include January, February, and March) when your system is likely producing less power than you use per month.


Other things that play a role for our customers (that installed solar years ago) are lifestyle changes:


1) They retired and are home more, using more power

2) They had someone move in with them (boomerang kids moving home, parents moving in with the kids, kids moving in with parents to take care of them as they age)

3) They bought an EV (or two)

4) They remodeled and added square footage

5) They added other significant power-hunger things (water feature in yard, hot tub, sauna, indoor plant cultivation, etc).

6) They replaced gas appliances with electric appliances


When our customers (who installed years ago - and had these systems making all of their power for them for years) experience a lifestyle change, it can mean that the solar array (that was sized to offset a certain amount of power), is no longer large enough to meet their new needs of their property. Remember: a solar array produces "X" amount of power (estimated) per year. We base the system size off of the usage we are shown when we bid the project. If we've sized the system to meet 100% of your needs 5 years ago, and you end up adding in more usage during the next five years, then eventually, that additional usage will show up on your bill (as 100% five years ago might only be 80% now if you added significant usage to your bill).


When we see customers getting bills in the late winter/early spring, it typically means that they are using more power per year than the system is producing - over the course of the NET METERING YEAR. Again - this could be due to equipment issues - or it can also be due to lifestyle changes (which is more often than not the case), and WEATHER. If Mother Nature throws some damp months at you early in your Net Metering year, it could mean that the amount of banked kilowatt-hours just won't last you all the way to the end of the Net Metering year.


PGE's net metering year runs from April 1st of one year to March 31st of the following year. During that 12 month cycle, the systems (when sized to produce 100% of the customer's power) will start producing (roughly) the same amount of power (in April) that the customer uses - plus or minus moderate amounts. Moving into May (with expected historical weather patterns) we will see these systems "over-produce" (meaning they make more power during these months than the customer is using). This overproduction typically holds through the summer and into the mid-fall. Around early October, we usually see these systems start to produce less power due to weather and available daylight hours. During the next several months, these solar arrays will "under-produce" the amount of power needed to offset your monthly usage. This is when your "over-production" comes into play: you'll end up using credits on your bill (that you accrue during the summer months) to make up the difference in power generation that the winter months will inevitably yield.


If you run out of "overproduction" credits too soon in the winter months, you will end up getting bills (typically as early as January, but generally during the usage months of February and March).


So - if your equipment is running fine, but you've experienced some lifestyle changes OR the weather the previous spring and early summer was unusually cloudy/rainy, you're LIKELY going to see some electric bills for the months of February and March. Typically, the rest of the Net Metering year is "normal" insomuch as you still continue to see the solar array meeting the property's power demands on a monthly basis.


You do have some options if the above explanations don't resolve your concerns:


1) Reduce your usage - this is the easiest thing to do and is the most cost-effective. Get your usage down to where it was before by conserving where and how you can.


2) Add additional solar panels to your system. This is expensive - and in years when the weather isn't as wet, you'll end up leaving money (bill credit) on the table each April when the net metering year resets and your credits get "zeroed" out.


3) Add a power monitoring system to your property to "see" where the power is being used up. This is less expensive and can help identify older equipment (like AC/Heat pumps, well pumps, etc) that might be wearing out and using more power than it used to. It can also help identify easy ways to conserve power as these products tend to show the user if they are a "typical" user of (for example) a coffee pot - or not (maybe you like leaving your coffee heated all day once you brew a pot in the morning). This option is more expensive than simply conserving where you know you can, but far less expensive than adding solar panels and inverters to your existing system. (here's a great product to consider: www.sense.com)


Also try to remember - we are working with "averages" when it comes to predicting how much power you use - as well as how much power these systems will make each year.


Some years, you'll use more than the system can offset. Some years, the system will make less than the estimated amount. Each of these will have you paying an electric bill in the early part of the calendar year. And finally - some years, the systems will make more power than you need and more power than we estimated. During these years, the excess power credits get donated to low-income assistance bills by PGE (on or about April 15 of each year).


In the end, don't hesitate to call! We want to make sure your systems are running like they should. We have yet to invent a device to clear the clouds over your property - but if and when we do, we'll call!


Until then - here's to sunnier days ahead! (I'm really getting tired of freeze warnings in April!)


Josh



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