Green living has always been our household ideal, dreaming big with each of our four house purchases. For awhile we were fascinated by roofing technology as we learned that metal roofs are a solid investment in both durability and energy savings due to the necessary insulation that comes with them. When we bought our foreclosure in Fort Wayne we convinced ourselves that when we needed to replace the heating and cooling system (because it was clear those would need to be replaced eventually), we would go geothermal. Unfortunately, we needed to replace the HVAC sooner than anticipated and had to make our replacement decisions based on immediately available funds. We couldn’t think about long term savings because we were financially strapped to the here and now. Then I convinced myself that I could be a legitimate gardener, using the large plot in our backyard to grow all the vegetables that we wanted. A couple weeks trying to rehabilitate the garden and the outdoor labor involved convinced me that if we ever decided to live in a commune, I would have to find other ways to contribute. (It’s my aversion to gardening that has prevented me from being truly serious about composting, another green living practice that I love in theory but can’t get myself to actually do.)
Through all of our green dreams, solar energy has always been at the top of the list. We knew that in the long run going solar would pay off, but the upfront cost and the knowledge that the technology was still improving held us back. Then we witnessed the incredible efforts of the National Parks Service at Mesa Verde National Park and the infrastructure changes they had made throughout the park to make it run at nearly net-zero emissions. Over the course of two summer vacation trips out west, we saw more and more solar fields and decided that now was the time for us to actually look into what it would cost us to work our way off of the grid.
Jeff started doing his research over the summer and discovered that, in terms of relative affordability, now was the time for us to consider the energy change. 2019 was the last year for a 30% tax credit with the purchase of solar power. The 26% tax credit for 2020 was slowly slipping away from us and in another year we would be facing a 22% tax credit, still helpful but not nearly as helpful as we needed or wanted.
Jeff dove into researching the many options, most of which consisted of just spending money on solar panels, helpful for the day but not at all helpful once the sun goes down. We finally settled on Tesla, which not only would install 48 solar panels on our roof but would also provide us with three additional powerwalls that store 13 kilowatts a piece, providing us with nighttime power and giving us a natural whole-house generator in case of power outage. It significantly raised the cost of the entire project, but we would still be spending about as much a month on our payments as we were spending on electricity and the powerwalls would allow us to maximize natural power. It seemed like a win-win.
While the two-day install was completed with few problems, we soon learned that the technicalities of getting solar power connected to the grid so that we could feed extra power back to the grid meant waiting. The first week after the panels were installed we had day after day of clear blue skies and bright sunshine. It was painful to watch all of that natural energy go to waste. But last week we were finally connected to the grid, the switch was flipped, and our house was (mostly) powered by the sun.
Here’s how the first week went.
We woke up with a fully drained powerwalls that needed to be filled and cloudy skies. We were also hoping to get as much power out of the sun as possible during the day. Jeff and I spent most of the day obsessively checking our Tesla app to see how much power we were getting at a given moment, excited when the fall sun somehow broke through to over 10 kilowatts and we were feeding the house, powerwall, and the grid.
By the end of the day our powerwalls were over 50% full and Jeff set the overnight threshold to 20%. We would wake up the next morning knowing that we had used the power grid overnight, but also aware that during the day we had still been mostly self-powered once the sun came up, and that was WITH me running the laundry when we were home and with the air conditioning running for part of the day (because even in November there can be some uncomfortably warm and humid days in southeast Texas).
Overnight our powerwalls drained to 20%, the initial threshold that Jeff put in place to make sure they didn’t completely drain to 0% again. We had full sunshine that continued to feed both the house and the powerwalls all day and excitedly watched the powerwall numbers climb. We were also able to eventually turn off the air conditioning which lowered our electric usage some over the day before. We watched the electric spikes as we used different appliances around the house to see how much each new appliance required when it was in full use.
By the time 3:00 rolled around, we had filled our powerwalls to just over 70% and decided we would let it roll through the night to see how low it got. We knew we had a week of sunshine coming our way so we would be able to keep seeing our electric storage climb over the next couple days.
We started the day with 24% battery life and when the sun came out, it just kept charging the powerwalls instead of powering the house. I mean, yes, we wanted a fully charged back up so that we could see how long we could run off of it at night, but we wanted the sun powering the house too. Apparently, the setting we had it on was prioritizing charging the powerwalls over feeding the house. By mid-day Jeff switched it over to powering the house with the extra power going to the powerwalls. He also put the threshold for our battery power at 50%, which meant keeping them half-full at all times to guarantee power in case of a daytime power outage.
By the end of the day we got the powerwalls fully charged to 97%, so despite our irritation at taking from the grid for the first part of the day, we were nearly where we wanted to be in seeing how we could power our house without the use of the power grid. We also used surprisingly little power during the day, the least amount that we used all week.
We got through the night without needing to pull from the grid, which meant we were headed into a full 24 hours of powering from the sun. Overnight we had drained down to 51% battery life, but it didn’t quite hit our threshold before it started filling up with morning sunshine. I was home for my grandmother’s funeral so we knew we would be using a little more power, but we optimistically looked at our bright blue skies and believed that we could possibly have a good day of being both self-powered and feeding back to the grid (and therefore making money off of the sun).
By 1:20 in the afternoon, we were feeding back to the grid, which meant we were going to get at least one and a half hours of negative zero power collection. By the end of the day we had fed 5.1 kilowatts to the grid. It’s the best production we would see all week.
Overnight we managed to drain the powerwall down to 50%, which meant about an hour of pulling from the grid before we were once again recharging the powerwall after 9:00 AM. Thankfully we had another day of clear skies and bright sunshine and we were back in business once the sunlight was directly hitting our roof. For the second day in the row we filled our powerwalls to 100% and we fed back to the grid, although not as much as the day before. Still, it was exciting to know what we could produce even with late autumn sunshine.
It was the first cloudy day since we managed to get our powerwalls up to 100% charge the day before. Most of the clouds cleared up enough to still give us clear sunshine by the middle of the day and we got through the morning without having to resort to pulling from the grid.
In the end, even with the moving cloud cover we got the powerwalls up to 98% full (a minor miracle helped by Jeff’s careful management of electric usage while the only one at home). When we went to bed we weren’t sure how much battery would be left by the time the sun came back up, but we had managed to go another 24 hours without pulling from the grid.
We woke up to overcast skies and a misty fog blanketing the ground, not exactly ideal conditions for using the sun to power our house. Rain was in the forecast, but wasn’t supposed to hit until much later in the day, so the best we could hope for was a break in the gray skies so that we could absorb the full power of sun.
The rain never arrived, but the cloud hung around for most of the day with only occasional breaks of masked sunshine. After four days of full, or nearly full, powerwalls, we only made it up to 76% full, which meant we would only get through half of the night before we would start pulling from the grid. But we also knew that when you are depending on nature to have power, that is sometimes how it goes. The goal wasn’t daily success but success over time, and that remained to be seen.
Final thoughts after a week of solar power
It’s funny how obsessive we’ve been about our usage over the last week, as demonstrated by this series of messages between Jeff and myself.
After years of paying for electricity, we’re now overly concerned with not paying for electricity (especially while we are going to be paying off the solar panels for awhile). We know that for the first couple months of solar ownership we are going to be dealing with shorter winter days and cloud cover more days than not. But we’ve learned that even on cloudy days when it isn’t storming, we are still producing electricity. We’ve also learned that we can control our usage and hopefully we will finally develop the better habits we’ve been telling ourselves we were going to do years ago.
So as we roll into 2021, I will do quarterly reports on how our solar journey is going. Then perhaps, dear Reader, you will be inspired to join us.
Sarah is a high school English teacher, yearbook adviser, wife to an amazingly supportive husband, and mom to two quickly growing kiddos. When she’s not working to balance life as a working mom, she uses this space to write about the wonderful complexities of life as a wife, mother, and teacher, as well as her family’s camping adventures whenever they can get out of town.
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