Solar Panels: 18 Day Assessment (Part 1)


The intent of this article is to provide a summary of the experience installing a solar-based electric power generation system and the benefits.

For those interested in more details of the system itself I have prepared a Solar Project Page that provides more details including: the project timeline, system design, technology description, monthly power generation estimates and design decisions. The Page also includes a real-time power generation report as well as weekly and monthly views.  The page also collects all blog posts related to the project.

To start …

  • Who was our installer: Solsmart
  • What did we install: a 5.9 kW system made up of 23 panels (37 square meters) and a single inverter (see Solar Project page for details)
  • When did the project start and end: research started in May, 2015. The installer was selected the end of July. Power generation started November 12; The project wrapped up the end of November.
  • Where were the panels installed: on our south-facing roof in Thornhill Ontario.  We could have put panels on the east and west facing roofs as well, but these are on the front of the house and we were worried about the view from the street.
  • Why did we do this:  the environmental benefit to carbon reduction was the primary objective, but the financial incentives made it feasible to execute.  By simply doing a straight calculation of: the initial investment plus projected cost of electricity (at current demand) over the next 20 years is just about the same as the amount we expect to get paid for the power we generate over that same period.  
  • How much are we paid per generated kWh: $0.384 per kWh

Was deployment (installation) a complex process?
No.  I should qualify my answer; not for us.  The installer took care of all dealings — completing applications; building permits as required; scheduling work; completing inspections; paying fees — with the government agency that manages the MicroFIT program and our local Electricity Provider.  It was, as they say, turn key.

Were there any installation surprises?
No. It was deployed a head of schedule.

Are you happy with it?

How did you find the installer?
I completed a survey on and they recommended 5 installers in my area.  In the end, 3 of them presented bids.  They all seemed to be credible companies. All of the companies based their power generation estimates on the same power generation modelling tool (PVWatts Calculator) enabling me to compare the different proposals as I had confidence that the generation numbers were comparable.  I ended up going with the bid that provided the lowest cost per watt for the proposed system.

Does the system generate the power expected?
To be confirmed with a larger sample of actual results.

According to the model the system should generate about 239 kWh in November. This averages to about 7.96 per day.  Over the 16 days the system has been installed the average production is 6.93 kWh.  This period included 4 days of rain and while the model does take this into consideration, a small sample size exaggerates the impact.  

Is it hard to operate, maintain and monitor?
No.  There are no steps that need to be taken to operate the system. It just runs.  There are no moving parts to oil.  There are no filters to replace. There are no levers to pull (or push). Some might be concerned about snow cover and dirty panels as these would reduce panel efficiency, but none of the installers I spoke with considered these as problems.  Given the panels are glass, snow does not usually accumulate–it often slides off–but if it does, it will usually melt in a few days.  As for dirt on the panels the common answer was the rain will clean them.  Monitoring will identify if these issues emerge.

The purpose of monitoring is to confirm the system continues to generate power; if not, then there is a problem and the installer will be contacted.  The first requirement is to confirm that there is energy production to validate the system is working.  The second is to assess if production is deteriorating to determine if the panels need to be cleaned.

There are several methods available to monitor, including: data collection and physical surveillance.  Data can be collected directly from the inverter and presented through a Web Page or a Desktop / iPhone application. I have an application that runs on my Mac that displays in real time the production and the accumulated daily amount. If daily production is 0 kWh then I’ll take a look.

The top bar of my screen provides real-time power generation information
The top bar of my screen provides real-time power generation information

Surveillance cameras can be set up to enable a physical view of the panels. As I cannot see the panels from the ground, a camera seems a better option than climbing up onto the roof to check for snow coverage etc. I have not installed a camera, although I’ll consider it if I can find a convenient solution.

Are there government incentives?
Yes, in Ontario, there is the MicroFIT program.  The MicroFIT program offered by the Government of Ontario provides incentives for individuals to install solar panels up to 10 kW generation capacity.  While the individual needs to pay the capital cost, the Government guarantees to buy back the electricity at a rate fixed for 20 years.  This essentially ensures one recoups their investment.

The rate is reviewed every few years and adjusted to account for improvements in technology and lower deployment costs, notwithstanding, once one installs a system their rate is fixed for the period regardless of adjustments that come later (which apply to new installations).

Is it worth it?
Yes (financially) and maybe (environmentally).

The financial return is essentially guaranteed as long as the system generates at the levels anticipated by the model.  As the amount paid for this power is guaranteed for 20 years it is easy to calculate the 20 year return by multiplying the number of kWh to be generated over that period by the guaranteed rate. Therefore it is important that the power generation figures are accurate.  The model used to estimate generation is provided through the government and seems robust. Most importantly, all the installers I worked with used this same modelling tool making their proposed solutions comparable.

Environmentally, while we continue to consume power from the grid, someone else is consuming the [green] power we generated and thus the logic suggests some dirty power-generation facility can produce less, and thus pump less carbon into the air. So the environmental benefit is measured by the reduction in carbon production.  In Ontario, the grid generates about 80 g per kWh[2].  In contrast, Alberta generates about 820 grams and Quebec is about  3 grams per kWh. So the benefit depends on where you are, and when: if governments are able to achieve their carbon reduction targets, and deploy greener infrastructure, this benefit will decrease over time.

Note:  The 80 g / kWh is the estimated average given Ontario Hydro’s mix of nuclear, hydro, natural gas, etc. facilities.  In theory, Hydro could reduce generation from the most polluting facilities on receipt of power from my generation facility which would mean that I may be saving more than 80 g / kWh.  However, the complexity to figure that out is beyond the scope of this effort.

What about home insurance?
We contacted our insurer.  The incremental cost was about $50 per year.

Any links?
Yes.  The links I kept can be found online here.

Another good source is at Solar Powered in Toronto.  Their are more organized than mine.

Tomorrow’s post will look more broadly at the impacts on climate change.


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