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Durango, CO 81301

(970)403-5004

Based in Durango, Colorado, Flatrock Solar is a locally owned and operated solar panel contractor and installer serving the Durango area from Cortez to Pagosa Springs and Silverton to Ignacio.  Flatrock Solar has been helping businesses, homeowners and non-profits convert Colorado sunshine into clean, renewable energy since 2010.  

Thoughts - musings on solar panels and renewable energy

This page is for thoughts and ideas about solar and the environment in general.  I'm passionate about solar and think and read about it daily.  This will be a space for these thoughts.

Solar employs more than fossil fuels and nuclear combined

Matt Helms

According to the department of energy, the solar industry employs more people than fossil fuel and nuclear.

solar employs more than fossil fuel

So although traditionally coal and oil have employed many people and supported communities, today solar supports more families and there are no nasty by products! The time is now to switch to clean renewable energy by installing solar panels and wind turbines. Call today to get a free quote on installing solar panels in the Durango area.

Corporate America Investing in solar

Matt Helms

Many US corporations are investing in solar power with Apple leading the way (see graph below).

These large corporations are investing in solar in order to lower their overhead costs and lock in electrical rates for the long term. Favorable financing terms and state and federal incentives are boosting the amount of solar installed. Current commercial installations in the US generate enough solar electricity to power about 1.4 million homes.

Utilities pay to use residential batteries

Matt Helms

A utility in New England is paying some of their customers that have solar and batteries to use them during peak load times. A single battery pack could earn the owner up to $1,000 during one summer. This program helps the utility reduce their peak demand and reduces the requirement to build out more infrastructure. There is also another utility in Vermont, Green Mountain Power, that will install batteries in a customer’s home for $30 a month allowing them to ride out grid outages.

Solar Panel Efficiency

Matt Helms

I get quite a few questions about solar panel efficiency so I thought I’d dive into this topic again.

I understand why this comes up. It has been pounded into our brains throughout our lifetimes that more efficient is better. Whether we’re talking about a car, water heater or our time management skills; more efficient it better. Inefficient car = more costly to operate and more polluting. I get it.

Now, with solar panels that story is a little more nuanced because sunshine is free and likely to remain so. Let’s go back to our example of a car. Imagine that gasoline is free (and non-polluting). How would that influence your decision between the cheaper gas guzzler and the more expensive hybrid car that sips gas? Again, assuming gas doesn’t pollute, I might choose the cheaper car that is less efficient. I know this kind of turns the efficiency topic on its head, but if you think about it, it makes sense.

The Rocky Mountain Institute recently wrote an article about building efficiency and the exponential cost of incremental R-value increases. In other words, to get that triple pane window from R-6 to R-7 is much more expensive than from R-2 to R-3. One of their conclusions that struck me was that at some point it is more economically feasible to add more solar panels to the roof than chase more efficient insulation in the home. This coming from the Rocky Mountain Institute is surprising because they are all about efficiency.

There is a use case where more efficient solar panels makes sense. If you have a small roof (and nowhere to put the solar panels on the ground), and a large electric bill and a large budget for the project, then by all means go for the more expensive solar panels.

I personally don’t run into this situation too often in the Durango area. Most roofs are large and we get a lot of sunshine so the most efficient solar panels aren’t needed. Besides, the more efficient panels usually only knock off one or two panels from the total array. Its not like you need half the panels or something.

It does feel weird to push ‘less efficient’, but in the end an electron is an electron and your TV won’t be able to tell the difference of where it came from. If you want the best bang for your buck, look at the unit of production with respect to the cost per unit or $/Watt. This is the most common metric used to compare apples to apples when evaluating solar systems.

Happy Earth Day!

Matt Helms

Happy Earth Day Durango! It’s great that there’s a dedicated day every year where we celebrate this wonderful planet we all live on. We can take this day to reflect on all the natural wonders that surround our community and think about how to help Durango live more harmoniously in the natural landscape. 

I am always happy to see more bikes, pedestrians and electric cars on the roads and people out enjoying the natural surrounds. If you’d like to power your new electric car or E-bike with sunshine, give us a call and we can help you get solar panels working for you!

Congress investigates Tri-State

Matt Helms

Tri-State, the electrical supplier for the Durango area, is under investigation by congress for funding a lobbying group that is trying to weaken the Clean Air Act. I always suspected that Tri-state was not pro-solar, but this confirms my suspicions. It isn’t surprising since Tri-state has a lot of capital invested in coal burning power plants, but its a shame that they are using rate payer funds (i.e. your money if you live in the Durango area or anywhere in southwest Colorado) to undermine environmental protections instead of investing the money in cheaper, renewable energy projects such as wind and solar. I guess they’re just going to dig in their heals and get drug screaming into the future. Someone should sit down with them and explain what the term ‘sunk cost’ means…and maybe the word ‘ethical’.

Silicon Wafers For Solar Panels From Appalachia?

Matt Helms

It turns out that some of the most pure silicon dioxide in the world is mined in Appalachia in the same hills that are the home to coal mines. This ultra pure silicon dioxide is used to make microchips for computers, smart phones and solar panels. In fact, most of the high and ultra high purity silicon dioxide used in the world comes from Appalachia. This ultra pure silicon dioxide is melted down to form silicon metal ingots such as the below:

silicon+ingot+for+solar+panels.jpeg

The ingots are cut into wafers and doped with Boron and Phosphorus to create an electrical potential that is excited by photons to produce electricity. Who knew something so high tech has its origins in the Appalachian mountains?

Global Investment in Solar and Wind More Than Fossil Fuels

Matt Helms

More investment is going to solar and wind than coal, natural gas and nuclear for generation capacity around the globe.  This is a trend that has been increasing since 2010 according to an article about solar and renewable energy in the Wall Street Journal.  The main reason for this trend is that solar and other renewable energy sources are the lowest cost option to generate electricity on a utility scale.  Other reasons for the increased investment in solar and wind is that the capital is easier to come by as there are pension funds and other long term investors that are willing to finance solar farms and solar farms are easier to get permission to install with respect to coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants.

Below is a graph that shows the percentage of new power generation capacity world wide from 2010 to 2016.

Solar and Wind Generation.png

This is great news for renewable energy and solar and wind in particular.  Experts estimate that the price of solar and wind will continue to fall and replace a larger portion of the energy generation mix for the globe.

Durango Electricity Second Most Polluting in Nation

Matt Helms

Tri-State supplies power to LPEA which then sells it to its customers.  The electricity that Tri-State produces releases more CO2 per unit of power than all other power producers in the US except one.  Tri-State has many coal burning power stations and therefore produces more CO2 to generate electricity. LPEA is contractually obligated to purchase 95% or the electricity they sell from Tri-State until 2050.

This has two implications with respect to solar:

1. The electricity you produce from your solar panels in Durango for example will offset more CO2 than the same production in a less polluting area such as PG&E in California.  PG&E generates about 100 lbs of CO2 per MWH of electricity whereas Tri-State generates about 2,100 lbs of CO2 per MWH of electricity; about 21 times as much CO2 for the same amount of power!

2. The requirement to purchase 95% of the power LPEA sells from Tri-State means that they are legally blocking LPEA (and you and me) from purchasing wind, solar or natural gas generated power from someone else.  

Tri-State might have their contract on their side now, but if they continue to resist solar and other renewable sources of power they will only hurt themselves in the long run.

 

Solar Power and the Eclipse

Matt Helms

Solar power systems across America survived the solar eclipse last week.  There were some concerns as to what would happen during the eclipse when millions of solar panels would be shaded by the moon.  Although some solar production was lost, no grid instabilities were reported and solar systems across the country safely ramped down and then back up again after the eclipse passed and started to produce solar electricity again.  Its really no different than a giant cloud passing over the country in terms of solar energy production and the solar panels don't know the difference.

Larsen C Ice Shelf Departing Antartica Soon

Matt Helms

The Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antartica is breaking away from the mainland and a massive rift has formed in the shelf.  This isn't just a small iceberg that is breaking off, but rather a piece of ice about the size of the state of Delaware.  The crack alone is 70 miles long, 300 feet wide and about a third of a mile deep.  Click on the image below to learn more from NASA.

So if you like the idea of all that ice staying in Antartica and not melting and ending up in downtown Miami (or any other coastal city in the world), think about installing some solar panels on your roof and get your electricity from the sun and not coal.  Its a small step in the right direction, but every little bit helps.

All Volvo cars will have an electric motor by 2019

Matt Helms

Volvo announced on July 5th that by 2019 all of their cars will be either entirely electric or a hybrid of some sort.  This is a pretty big announcement since most global car manufacturers have just a couple of models that are either electric, plug in hybrid or hybrid.  Honestly, the transition from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles is happening faster than I thought and I'm glad.  The first Toyota Prius came out in 1997 which is 20 years ago, so maybe not that fast... But is seems like the pace is quickening and electric cars are here to stay. 

I'm very excited about electric cars because they are a way to get away from fossil fuel transportation and tie in nicely with solar.  Solar needs batteries some day and cars do too.  So any advancements in battery technology will benefit both electric vehicles and renewable energy storage; a win-win.

Potential Solar Trade Tariffs ... Again

Matt Helms

Suniva, a Chinese-owned solar company, and SolarWorld, a German-owned solar company have filed a petition with the International Trade Commission.  Both of these companies have filed for bankruptcy.  These two companies are asking that the US federal government impose tariffs on imported solar cells and establish a minimum price for imported solar panels.  

SolarWorld was behind another petition in 2012 that led to a trade tariff on imported Chinese solar panels.  They claimed then that Chinese companies were dumping solar panels on the US market.  The economic definition of dumping is selling a product below your cost which is obviously unsustainable over time.  After the tariff on Chinese panels was imposed, production of solar panels by the affected companies moved to Taiwan, Vietnam and India.  Interestingly, they were able to sell their products at the same price while producing them in these new locations.  So are Taiwan, Vietnam and India dumping as well?

This new complaint by Suniva and SolarWorld argues that imported cells and panels need to have their prices artificially inflated (through a tariff) in order to protect domestic production of solar panels.  And this is coming from German and Chinese owned companies.  

So exactly which jobs and profits are being protected?  SolarWorld employs 800 people in its Oregon factory and Suniva employs 300 people in Georgia.  The corporate profits from these two companies go to Germany and China.  The Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (COSEIA) estimates that if this tariff is imposed, about 2,000 jobs in Colorado will be lost and 88,000 solar jobs will be lost nationally.

Death of Trees = Death of People

Matt Helms

Researchers with the US Forest Service and the University of California have recently performed research on the health benefits of trees.  OK, we know that trees provide shade, consume CO2 and clean the air, but this research was more about how a lack of trees increases heart disease and respiratory illness.  

Entomologists and Arborists have been studying mass tree die off from infestations of insects in the midwest and now in Southern California.  Very similar to the pine beetle infestation we are experiencing in Colorado, but a different insect, different trees.  Their study of the midwest tree die off showed an increase in deaths in areas where the trees died off.  The Polyphagous Shot Hole borer from Southeast Asia is primed and ready to kill off 26.8 million trees in Southern California or about 40% of all the trees from the beach in LA to the Nevada border.

Major US Corporations Stay the Course on Climate Change

Matt Helms

General Electric, Mars and even Exxon Mobil have recently announced that they will continue to reduce emissions and work towards their own climate change goals regardless of the Trump administration's efforts to roll back regulations that push utilities to burn cleaner fuels to make electricity.

GE's CEO Jeffrey Immelt said in a Wall Street Journal article dated March 31st, 2017, "We believe climate change is real and the science is well accepted.  We hope that the United States continues the play a constructive role in furthering solutions to these challenges."  When the CEO of a company that sells parts for coal burning power plants speaks out against rolling back regulations on coal burning power plants you have to sit back and wonder...

Mars Inc. said this week, "The science is clear and unambiguous: Climate change is real and human activity is a factor," adding it was, "disappointed the administration has decided to roll back climate regulations."  On March 28th, InBev's CEO Carlos Brito said, "Cutting back on fossil fuels is good for the environment and good for business." One of the largest brewers in the world that brews Anheuser-Busch among many others, has pledged to use 100% renewable energy for all its global operations by 2025.  Exxon's CEO said earlier this year, "climate risks warrant action" and called the Paris deal "an effective framework" for dealing with climate change.

The shift towards renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind has occurred.  Companies and individuals that think long term aren't swayed by these recent rollback to environmental protections.  The Trump administration will be gone in the not so distant future and the pendulum will swing back towards science and reason.  When considering long term capital outlays, four to eight years is a short amount of time.

Solar Virtual Power Plants

Matt Helms

Utilities in California, Colorado and New York are working on combining solar panels, batteries and communication networks with the utility control room to fit more solar into the existing grid.  According to a Wall Street Journal article in Monday's paper (March 6th, 2017), these 'virtual power plants' allow the utility to store excess solar energy during the day in batteries and use it in the evening and at night when the sun isn't shining.  PG&E, a San Francisco based utility, is shutting down the last nuclear power plant in California in 2025 and is planning on investing $1 billion through 2020 to modernize its grid by incorporating batteries and intelligent communication to offset the loss in generation from the Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant.  Consolidated Edison in New York has invested $200 million in a virtual power plant spread among several buildings in New York City that can decrease peak demand by as much as 52 megawatts.  This virtual power plant allows the utility to smooth out its demand through out the day.  By decreasing its peak demand by 52 megawatts it can delay installing roughly $1 billion in conventional power equipment (e.g. a new traditional power plant) for another 20 years.

Saving $800 million over 20 years by installing communication networks, batteries and solar panels seems like a good idea to me.  PG&E's senior vice president of strategy and policy, Steve Malnight said in the article, "We are rethinking the grid and how it operates".  I think this is very forward thinking of PG&E and something all grid operators across the country should be doing.  Change is always hard and it seems to be especially difficult for entrenched industries such as electrical utilities, but that doesn't mean that their only course of action is active resistance to change.  Accepting the changing landscape of power production and working with these new sources of production is much more productive than the alternative.  California plans to get 50% of its power in 2030 from renewable sources and currently produces more peak power than it can use on certain days.  On these sunny days in California, the state's utilities sell this excess power to neighboring states, sometimes at very low rates.  With a smarter gird and storage capacity, they will be able to use more of their own solar energy and not export to neighboring states.  Like all things solar, this concept can be scaled up or down.  Individual cities or homes can use this same concept to increase self consumption of solar energy.  As our homes become smarter they can intelligently control our appliances such as the water heater, dish washer, etc to turn on and off based on the production of the solar system on your roof and the state of charge of your home's batteries.  Cities could do this on a neighborhood basis with a large battery bank installed for each city block for example.  Intelligent use of energy through conservation, peak demand reduction and self consumption is one possible outcome for the grid.  There are other power production options, but the smart choice is often the best choice.  

2016 Was Hottest Year Ever Recorded

Matt Helms

According to NOAA, NASA and several other reputable sources, 2016 was the warmest recorded since 1880 when they started keeping track of these things.  In fact, 2016 was the third year in a row of record breaking temperatures.  I'm writing this in Durango, Colorado on March 20th and its 71 degrees outside... not normal.  No snow in my yard and there should be.  

Its probably just a coincidence, but I think burning less coal can't hurt.  Since most of the electricity generated in this area is from coal burning power plants, solar panels on your roof can have a big impact.  So if you like cold and snow and skiing, only in the winter of course, think about making some of your electricity from sunshine instead of coal.

Further Advancements in Solar Inverter Technology

Matt Helms

Solar electric generation is an exciting field and there are technological advancements all the time.  Inverter technology is where the real gains and exciting advancements are today.  The inverter is the piece of equipment that converts (or inverts) the DC electricity that the solar panels on your roof produce into AC electricity that the appliances in your house run on.  

Inverter manufactures are continually trying to squeeze more DC power out of the solar panels, invert it more efficiently and produce cleaner AC power.  They are striving to do this at a lower cost and in a smaller, lighter package.  SolarEdge technologies is now shipping their newest inverter called the HD-wave that accomplishes many of the above goals.  It is more efficient, lighter and produces a smoother, cleaner AC wave.  It also uses more advanced silicon switches and power conversion devices with the goal of extended life of the unit.  I'm very excited to learn about these new technological advances in inverter technology and look forward to installing them in the field in the Durango area!