When we got our solar panels installed at the end of October 2020, we had no idea what to expect. Our only point of reference was the report from our power company that broke down our usage over the previous 12 months.
We were in uncharted territory and we were going to have to track the usage and benefits ourselves. Even though the panels were active in the middle of November, we decided that to truly track the benefits of our decision, we were going to have to start our comparison at the beginning of December, which is where our quarterly reports will begin.
One thing we didn’t consider when December started was that we were entering the month with the least amount of daylight in the year. Initially, we thought that our lack of air conditioning usage would be a benefit to our overall bill, but when the sun is only high up in the sky for four to five hours during the day, it makes it really hard to accumulate a significant amount of power from the sun.
We did benefit from several days of vacation and sunshine during the days that we weren’t home using electricity, but it was clear that December was not great for solar as we only produced 710 kWh from the sun.
Our usage in December 2019 was 1724 kilowatts. Our recorded usage for December 2020 was 662 kWh from the grid, 34 kWh to the grid. Since we had decided to lock in our rate at 15 cents per kilowatt, our rate of pay was higher than the previous year, but the electric cost savings were still nearly $61.
The sun slowly returned. We started to see longer days and more days with sunshine, collecting 884 kWh from the sun.
Our usage in January 2020 was 1679 kilowatts. Our recorded usage for January 2021 was 633 kilowatts from the grid, 41.3 kWh to the grid (7 more kWh than the previous month). Since we had decided to lock in our rate at 15 cents per kilowatt, our rate of pay was higher than the previous year, but the electric cost savings over were still nearly $68.
We watched the sun spend longer periods of time in the sky, so much so that by February 6 we were ready to drop our powerwall threshold to 40%, meaning that it would drain, at the most, to 40% battery remaining overnight. If we went to bed with fully charged powerwalls, we would be able to make it through 24 hours entirely off of the grid. We were optimistic about our numbers for February.
The next week the sun hid behind clouds and the rain fell.
Then the polar vortex froze most of the country, including all of Texas, leaving us with a two to three-inch layer of slush, ice, and then snow.
Even more important, the stress on the power grid led to outages all over the state.
We knew we had a backup plan. Our power walls would work in case of a power outage, but with the need to run space heaters in addition to our furnace, we had no idea how long that power would last. When we got through the first night with the power still on, we breathed a sigh of relief, only to discover that we weren’t able to contribute to the effort to take pressure off of the grid because our solar panels were completely covered. Even though we had bright sunshine for half of the day, the 25 degree high prevented significant melting on the roof, which meant that our highest point of production was 0.9 kilowatts per hour, significantly less than the 10-kilowatt potential that the sun offered during the brightest point of the day. Just one look at our usage vs. production was a HUGE ouch.
We made it through a second night with power still on. I woke up to 12 degrees outside and only one frozen faucet (conveniently in the kitchen). By noon the temperature had reached 25 degrees and the bright sun was melting the snow off of the roof. We had six total panels (out of 48) completely cleared of snow and we were finally producing some electricity.
By mid-afternoon blue skies gave way to cloud cover. By the time the panels stopped taking in solar power, 23 of the 48 panels were clear of snow. Around 6:00 our power finally turned off and the entire system flipped immediately over to the powerwalls. We turned off everything that we didn’t need while I finished dinner and spent the rest of the evening in a single room with the gas fireplace running, sending the kids to bed and then heading to bed earlier ourselves to minimize as much energy usage as possible. Our solar electricity made it through the night with 29% power remaining by the time I crawled out of our warm bed.
The power finally went back on at 11:05 after 17 hours. Over the next three hours, our powerwall recharged from the grid (since the cloudy skies and rain and ice meant we maxed out at 1.2 kilowatts per hour from the skies) so we were prepared for the next power outage.
We were relieved that our solar setup got us through our own worst moments with the storm but were frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t do more for our friends who were powerless (although we did have one friend stay with us). Additionally, we became increasingly frustrated by the partisan attacks on green tech by our own elected officials. Green-tech kept our family warm through the night and we were doing everything possible to take pressure off of the overtaxed grid with the production taking place on our roof. The lack of acknowledgment of the complexity of the issue was not lost on us.
By the time the snow melted and the air temperatures started to climb, we were back in business and thankful that we had options. The numbers weren’t terrible either.
Our usage in February 2020 was 1477 kilowatts. Our recorded usage for February 2021 was 718 kWh from the grid, 90.6 to the grid (remember that February was three days shorter than January and we had to deal with at least three days of partial panel coverage). Since we had decided to lock in our rate at 15 cents per kilowatt, our rate of pay was higher than the previous year, but the electric cost savings over the previous year were still nearly $49, and that was after the unexpected expenses from the storm.
Final note: We also completed our taxes. The solar tax credit for 2020 was 26% (it dropped to 22% for 2021). I’m not a huge fan of talking big finances, but one of the problems with families getting access to green technology in their homes is that the options are often cost-prohibitive. Our entire system cost us nearly $55,000. (OUCH!) We did finance the cost, which is why it is even more important for us to track our monthly savings in hopes that it will eventually pay off for us. The tax credit that we received for 2020 was $8,528. Our tax credit for 2021 will be over $5,000, which means our actual cost of the system will be around $41,000. Still painful, but hopefully doable and in the end, worth the upfront cost.
Now to see how our system holds up in spring.