Church View Farm Photovoltaic Solar Power System Installation Information paper

This Information paper describes the steps to install a grid tied photovoltaic solar panel system if you are doing a do it yourself (DIY) system install using solar panels with individual microinverters.  Microinverters represent a breakthrough technology which allows people to complete DIY solar system installations.  Each utility and state/local  government has their own administrative and permitting procedures.   This Information paper addresses the utility First Energy, the State of West Virginia, and the county of Hampshire County, WV.    There is a wealth of information conveniently available via web search also.  

I find that the Resilient Communities blog (www.resilientcommunities.com) is always useful.  One key information resource was Home Power magazine (www.homepower.com) especially during the initial study stages.  Local resident Vince Lombardi taught some local solar energy workshops and he compiled a guide book on solar system design which was very informative and useful.  In addition, Vince can conduct a siting and location assessment for a potential solar installation.

A key decision at the outset is whether to go with a grid tied system or to select an off grid system with battery backup.  There are advantages to both approaches.  Battery backup adds to the cost and complexity but provides capability in a grid down situation.  A grid tied system on the other hand allows you to get economic credit for power produced and fed back to the grid.  Or you could design a mix of both, just having some key systems, ex well, freezer, with battery backup.  Solar gear vendors can help you define your requirements.

Study your electric bills to determine your monthly and annual electricity usage in terms of kilowatt hours.  This will help you properly size and design your system to meet your requirement.  WV does not currently have a power purchase agreement policy in place so right now there is no incentive to over produce electricity on your own.    

Contact or visit the Hampshire County Planning Office to obtain an installation permit.  The cost is $25.  Fill out the application form at their office, pay the $25 fee.  For a producing farm, the fee may be waived.  Just ask.  After the Hampshire County Planner, Charlie Baker, signs the paperwork, they will mail it back to you within a few days.  At the same time, fill out the form and make application for the required electrical inspection via Middle Department Inspection Agency.  The cost is $79.50   The phone number for MDIA is 540-667-8870.   If in another locality, procedures may vary, but will be similar.

Make application to Potomac Edison, a First Energy subsidiary, our local utility.  The application fee is $30.   Search the web using “Potomac Edison (WV) Retail Interconnection”.   The web link is: https://www.firstenergycorp.com/content/fecorp/feconnect/potomacedison/retail-wv.html 

The application package consists of their form, a system sketch, a site plan sketch, and literature/specs for the equipment you are using.  This package is faxed to Potomac Edison’s regional engineering office in Willliamsport, MD at 234-678-2504.  Their email address is PE-WV_interconnection@firstenergycorp.com .  You can not call them, you can only email them to check the status.  

Photovoltaic solar panels are a commodity product.  They are manufactured globally by dozens of manufacturers using essentially the same technology.  Pricing is very competitive and is currently about $1/watt.  For example, a 240 watt solar panel can currently be purchased for about $240.   Check and compare prices with many vendors online.  In my case, I ordered from Wholesale Solar in Mount Shasta, CA.  (See www.wholesalesolar.com)  They provided the best pricing as well as excellent sales support.  However, there are dozens, if not hundreds of vendors online for solar panels and equipment.

The real breakthrough in systems technology has been the introduction of microinverters instead of the use of one large inverter for the entire system.  The advantage is that each solar panel operates independently and if there is an issue with an individual solar panel it does not compromise the operation of the entire solar array and system as occurs when using a string inverter.  Each solar panel is equipped with a microinverter which converts the voltage from DC to AC power.  Each microinverter costs about $150.  You can have up to 17 solar panels on a circuit using the Enphase M215 microinverters.  A key advantage is that you can start with just a few solar panels and grow your system over time.  You can built a system incrementally as time and funding may permit.  

There are solar rental companies which install systems for property owners.  Ex Solar City, Astrum Solar.  In most cases, the benefits primarily accrue to the solar company, and the property owner is essentially just getting paid a rental rate for their roof space.   Terms can vary so the details must be studied for each company.  

Your vendor experience will vary based on the vendor you select of course.  I can only address my purchase experience with Wholesale Solar.  If you wire the funds to Wholesale Solar, they provide a payment discount of 2-3%.  This is their cost avoidance for processing a credit card payment and they pass that savings back to their customers.  They normally ship via Con-Way freight.  At the Con-Way web site you can use their tracking number to track your shipment as it moves eastbound from CA.   Once payment is received they generally ship within a day or two.  Its basically a week from the time you pay for your order until you receive it.

Enphase (www.enphase.com) provides an M215 Microinverter Installation Guide at their web site.  They also have an excellent YouTube channel with many training videos.  Speaking of YouTube you can view videos of dozens of solar system installations as you wish.  Between the printed material and the training videos you pretty much have all you need as far as guidance to complete the installation.

As far as electrical wiring, its very basic.  A weatherproof junction box is installed on one end of the roof mounting rails.  The Enphase cable has connectors  

where the microinverters plug in.  The solar panels themselves plug into the microinverter.  The connectors are designed so that they can only plug in to the correct socket.  The electrical line from your solar array is generally a 12-3 UF or Romex wire that is wired to a 20 amp double pole breaker which installs in your electrical panel box.   The current from your solar array simply feeds the base plate of your electrical panel just like the line from the grid does.  The other circuits fed by the panel box don’t know or care where the current is coming from, the grid or the array.  Once your installation is complete, call for your electrical inspection.   Key inspection points were that all devices were properly grounded and that a cut off/disconnect switch had been installed.    They faxed the completed inspection form to Potomac Edison the next day.  

Once your install is complete and inspected, you can immediately begin generating power if you wish.  However, the official guidance from the utility is to wait until your meter is changed to a reversing “net meter” .  You have to fax “Appendix D”, Certificate of Completion from the Potomac Edison guidance to their office.  The lead time for the utility installing the net meter is generally 30-60 days.

DIY vs. Turn Key vs. A Mix

For DIY, you really only have the cost of the equipment since you are supplying the labor yourself.  To hire a solar installation company to do it all, you can estimate about 3X the cost of DIY.  You can also hire labor and expertise to augment your own efforts.  For ex, hiring an electrician to do the wiring and connections.  Like any other project, for ex building a deck, you can do all, none, or some of the labor as you see fit.  

Economic Break Even Analysis

Each project will vary in complexity and cost.  To perform an assessment of when your system will break even and become profitable, use the on line analysis tool at http://www.solar-estimate.org/   A break even of 5-6 years should be attainable for a DIY install, less than 10 years for some contractor support, and about 15 years for a hands off turn key install.  

 

Enlighten Monitoring System

Enphase provides a web based monitoring system for your solar install which provides data on power production.  A display of installed systems can be found at https://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/public_systems

Key points and Lessons learned

The solar panels and microinverters can be installed and the system can be completed with a typical DIY approach and basic skills.  

The administrative process with the local utility is not difficult but can be time consuming.  Get a head start on the administrative effort if you can.

Go and see a few solar panel system installations in your local area.  The more you can see, the better.    

Installing solar panels is like prepaying your electric bill for the length of your break even time period.  After that point you’ll have free electricity for 25-30 years until the panels wear out.  

Additional Info contact Hampshire County Extension Agent, Stephen Starcher, stephen.starcher@mail.wvu.edu , 304-822-5013 or Steven Martin, smartin3675@gmail.com, Church View Farm, 304-822-3878

This is intended to be a “living document” and additional details will be added as needed to refine the information presented.  Its a collaborative Google Doc and numerous authors are free to add information at any time.