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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 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! 

A Brief History of Solar Panels

Matt Helms

The photovoltaic effect was first discovered or credited by Edmund Becquerel, a nine-teen year old French physicist in 1839 when studying an increase in electron emissions reacted to a pair of electrodes when exposed to light. In 1876, William Grylls Adams and a student, Richard Day, discovered that when selenium was exposed to light, it produced electricity, thus the discovery of photovoltaics. 

In 1881, the first solar panel was invented by an American inventor, Charles Fritts who was inspired by the photovoltaic effect. Seven years later the solar cell was patented by Edward Weston of the United States.

 Albert Einstein also theorized about photoelectricity effect in 1905. He believed that light could create electricity if it behaved, sometimes, like a particle rather than a wave. His theory outlined how a light particle might deliver enough energy, all at once, to knock an electron off an atom and create an electric current. A decade later, Einstein’s theory proved to be correct by Robert Millikan. Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize for his work with photovoltaics in 1921. His idea helped revolutionized solar energy and help make the solar panels work as they do today. 

It took almost thirty more years for the first practical photovoltaic cell to be invented. In 1954, Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson, and Daryl Chapin, discovered the silicon solar cell. This cell actually produced enough electricity and was efficient enough to run small electrical devices.  

Because of this discovery, it significantly helped improve daily life around the world by providing power to many utilities such as water pumps for irrigation. Within six years, the PV (photovoltaics) cell technology grew very rapidly and off-grid home-owners began purchasing solar panels for their homes. 1970’s, was a great time for renewable energy sources because there was the first Energy Crisis with oil shortages, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was established, which helped increase further research on PV technology. 

Since the 1970’s, solar panels and solar energy has increased dramatically in numerous places around the country. Solar modules provide over one-million homes and businesses with electricity, which provide thousands of jobs and sustainable opportunities. Businesses are now installing solar panels in homes and commercial buildings.  Solar helps eliminate electricity bills, reduce carbon emissions and they do not create noise or pollution, just clean energy.

Commercial Solar Produces Big Gains

Matt Helms

Commercial solar installations benefit not only from the direct savings on your electric bill, but also from preferential depreciation schedules by the IRS and potential USDA grants.  What this adds up to is a very quick return on investment for commercial solar in the Durango area.  With a lot of businesses looking to decrease overhead and increase their bottom line, controlling energy costs will make them more competitive now and certainly down the road as electric rates continue to rise and federal, state and local incentives are phased out.  

Solar Provides Increasing Returns Year After Year

Matt Helms

Something to consider when calculating your financial return on a solar system for your home or business is that your rate of return will increase as electric rates increase.  When your local utility increases their electric rate X%, so does your return on investment in solar.  In this regard, solar has a built in inflation adjusted return and allows you to fix your electrical costs for the life of the system which is 25 or more years.

Warmest Year On Record

Matt Helms

According to NASA, the first six months of 2016 have each individually been the hottest months respectively ever recorded (which started in 1880).  Also, not surprisingly if you think about the math, the first six months of 2016 have been the warmest first half of the year ever recorded.  This means that the sea ice in the arctic has shrunk to its smallest size ever recorded as well.  This is good news for shipping companies, but not for polar bears and seals.  

Now the question is what is causing it.  There are some theories out there and we don't know 100% for sure what the cause is, but putting solar on your roof can't hurt right?

Radioactive Trash Bags with Solar Array in Background

Matt Helms

I noticed a picture in the Wall Street Journal of the Tsunami Zone in Japan with trash bags full of radioactive waste with a solar array in the background.  How ironic right?  It seems obvious to me that solar is a better energy source than nuclear reactors.  When there's a radioactive spill they have to evacuate entire cities.  When there's a solar spill they just call it a nice day!

On the opposite page of the page there was a small article about how warming waters are destroying Australia's Great Barrier Reef.  No connection was mentioned connecting the two articles, but to me alarm bells are going off.  How many more signs do we need that we need to change course?

Federal Tax Credit Extension Brings More Solar to Durango

Matt Helms

The Federal government extended the tax credit for solar another five years!  This tax credit will greatly help the expansion of solar in the US and more specifically in the greater Durango area.  Solar is really catching on both nationally and internationally so I'm very happy to see our congress has chosen to keep the momentum going and further promote solar.  

Durango Solar Evolution with StorEdge

Matt Helms

SolarEdge, a manufacturer of solar inverters, has officially partnered with Tesla to be the exclusive provider of inverter technology for their up coming Powerwall.  It looks like all SolarEdge inverters will also be backwards compatible with the new Powerwall.  This is exciting news as self-generation of electricity moving into the next phase.  Initially the Powerwall is being marketed as backup power for grid tied solar systems, which is a great reason to invest in the technology since the Durango area can have outages in rural and urban areas.  I hear a lot of interest in backup solar power in the Durango area and this is a product that I think I will be able to offer with confidence.  StorEdge can also be used to increase self-consumption and reduce peak demand.  In the Durango area these two features are not yet economically applicable since there are no residential demand charges... yet.  For commercial customers in the area the possibility of reducing peak demand can shave quite a bit off of a bill.  Some commercial electric bills are 50% demand charge so if that peak demand can be reduced they could save a lot and have backup power for any outages.

Where I think things will get interesting with StorEdge is when projects are limited on solar output because of infrastructure deficiencies on the utility side (think old, small wires that are at capacity because they were installed in 1950 when there were only two houses on the street and now there are 30).  If the StorEdge can be set to limit the amount of power fed back into the grid, perhaps larger projects could be approved without costly upgrades to the utility infrastructure; paid for by the utility customer wanting to install solar.

Another use of StorEdge down the road could be the option to defect from the grid entirely.  I personally don't want to see things go this route because I think that grid tied solar has many benefits and could add much resiliency to the existing power grid in the Durango area for solar and non-solar customers alike, but it might come to pass that this is the most economical decision to make.  This would mean no base rate charge for the meter, no rate change surprises down the road such as demand charges, and no approval needed from the utility.  The Rocky Mountain Institute has been talking about this for some time now and StorEdge is definitely pushing things in that direction.  This is an exciting development and looks more and more promising as the details emerge.

What the Powerwall means for solar in Durango

Matt Helms

Tesla's announcement of the Powerwall has created quite a buzz in the alternative energy arena.  What does it mean for solar in Durango?  Honestly its too soon to tell, but I think it has the potential to disrupt the existing models of power generation and usage.  If Elon can deliver what he announced, then solar in Durango just got a lot more interesting.  More to come.

Fighting wars with solar panels

Matt Helms

In a follow up to my last post on 'Solar and national security', I thought I'd share some interesting stats on the use of solar by the US military.  The US military is the world's largest consumer of energy and is now looking at solar in a big way.  Tanks, trucks, generators, etc. use a lot of energy and unfortunately a lot of soldiers have died transporting fuel from A to B.  The Pentagon has now set a goal of providing "50 percent of the power used by the Navy and Marines come from renewable energy sources by 2020".  This is a huge shift for the military and one that could change the solar industry.  

The war in Afghanistan saw the first marines to use portable solar panels in the battlefield.  Additionally there are numerous military bases around the world that are now equipped with solar power.  I think as we see a shift towards autonomous military vehicles, perhaps powered by electricity, the role of solar in fighting wars will become ever more important.

Solar and national security

Matt Helms

So when I first heard that the Pentagon listed global climate change as immediate risk to national security I thought, "finally, they get it".  This is a global problem with global implications even for rich countries like the United States.  Below is a quote from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel:

“But the challenge of global climate change, while not new to history, is new to the modern world. Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, more severe natural disasters – all place additional burdens on economies, societies, and institutions around the world.”

- Secretary Hagel

(source: http://www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/CCARprint.pdf)

This is coming from a guy that opposed the Kyoto protocol; I guess we're all wrong sometimes.  

Solar vs S&P 500

Matt Helms

HOW DOES A SOLAR INVESTMENT COMPARE TO THE ALTERNATIVE?

If you look at the historic average return on investment of the S&P 500 vs. a solar system you can see what a solid investment solar is.  These two charts below compare your annual and cumulative return on investment if you invested the same amount of money in either the S&P 500 or in a solar system.  The steady return on your investment with solar would be a better long term investment (and easier on your stomach than the roller coaster of the stock market).

Annual return on investment in a solar electric system in the greater Durango Colorado area vs. the S&P 500

Your solar investment dollars will grow more quickly than the S&P 500, when compared to the last 25 years of the S&P 500.

Cumulative return on investment for a solar power system in the Durango area.

And since your investment in solar is a savings compared to earnings in the stock market, you won’t have to pay taxes on the solar investment return!  And by the way, because the price of electricity is very unlikely to decrease in the future and solar panels today have a 25 year warranty, your investment is very low risk.