If you want a definition of optimism, find someone in Portland who’s installing solar panels—especially with the summer we’ve been having. Oh, and it doesn’t help when experts say that Portland gets the same amount of sunshine as an average American city. We live here. We’ve earned the right to question that.

Still the promise of solar energy is intriguing. Who doesn’t dream of telling the power company that its services will no longer be needed? Who doesn’t want to go off the grid? It even sounds escapist and fun. Plus there’s the feel-good part, especially given the strain on the power supply across much of America right now. In a small way, you’d be helping. You’d take some pressure off the grid during an historic national heat wave.

Of course, without batteries, you can’t keep any excess power at home, but that’s still okay. During the times when you made more than you needed, you would sell it back to the power company for someone else to use. The meter would, in effect, be running backwards. How sweet is that? So it is intriguing, but does it make practical sense, especially for a person living in Portland? What do you need to know?

There are a variety of solar technology options available.
There are a variety of solar technology options available. Photo: Bill McDonald


First, this is a fast-moving field. Developments in the efficiency of solar panels and how light energy is processed are occurring at an impressive rate. MIT has come up with a way to print solar cells on paper, using the same method that gives that silver coat to the inside of a bag of potato chips. The solar cells even work if the paper is folded up many times and unfolded again. This means, one day, you could have window shades that generate electricity and then roll up out of sight.

Want more science? The University of Michigan has developed a technology in which the energy of sunlight arrives not into a traditional cell, but into an optical battery. This creates a very low heat load while the energy in the light is transformed directly into magnetism. And if you can follow how that works, you deserve a bag of chips.

Then there are all the various tax incentives and subsidies, and a lot of decisions about the actual equipment you should choose. For example, you could lease the panels from a company, rather than buying them outright, but that becomes tricky if you want to sell your house. Then there are performance questions about the capacity you’d want and the various models. For instance, panels can still work on cloudy days, but how well?

Maybe it would be best just to describe one solar upgrade that took place earlier this month on a house in Southeast Portland. Then, after the details of this specific contract, you can go to the links below to find out more.

A palette of solar panels waiting to be installed.
A palette of solar panels waiting to be installed. Photo: Bill McDonald
 

The future arrived on Wednesday, July 13, 2011: A delivery truck dropped off a palette full of solar panels to the home. Each panel weighed 46.7 pounds, and there were 20 of them. There is definitely a weight factor to be considered for your roof.

The deal was made with Sunlight Solar Energy, who have offices in Bend and a sales rep here in town. The cost was $26,000, but the Energy Trust Fund paid for $8,000 of that, and the various federal and state tax incentives will take the cost for the homeowner down to $6,000.

This house had the required south-facing roof without any trees blocking the sunlight. The struts for the rails that hold the panels had already been drilled into place, and then the roof was redone as a precaution. Obviously, anytime you drill into your roof, leaking is a concern—that’s something else to think about.

Rails installed on the roof waiting for the solar panels.
Rails installed on the roof waiting for the solar panels. Photo: Bill McDonald
 

An electrical subcontractor was brought in to install the panels, and the first snag became clear. Although the struts drilled into the roof were okay, the rails mounted on them were the wrong size for the model of product that was selected, so the rest of the day was devoted to taking the rails back down and working on the electrical wiring.

The panels are direct current, but instead of converting all of them to alternating current with one unit that leads into the house, each panel has its own converter, so that it will continue working if one malfunctions.

Here’s a crucial and disappointing drawback to this home’s new solar setup: If the grid goes down, this system goes down with it. That’s the bad news. The notion of having electricity even when there’s a power failure on your block is still not within the reach of this particular choice of plans.

The next morning, a truck from Bend arrived with the right parts and another day of wiring followed. Then, late in the afternoon, the panels started going up. Compared to the long electrical sessions, this went surprisingly quickly.

Each panel weighs 46.7 pounds and can add a significant amount of weight to your roof.
Each panel weighs 46.7 pounds and can add a significant amount of
weight to your roof. Photo: Bill McDonald
 

Late Thursday afternoon, however, it was determined that the truck from Bend had only brought half of what was needed, and a phone call was made from the roof for more supplies. What can you expect really? The future never falls into place without a few glitches. Even Thomas Edison struggled along the way, sticking to direct current after Tesla proved that alternating current was far better. These things are supposed to take time. The workers remained positive and resolute.

By late Friday, the last panels went up. The workers on the roof installed the second row of these high-tech marvels right next to an old-time brick chimney from another era. The old and the new were now side-by-side on a roof in Southeast Portland.

The good news is that this system generates—on a sunny day—5,000 watts. That’s significant, especially if it also inspires you to limit your electrical use, now that you have a cash flow incentive. Any leftover power is routed to the electric company where it is credited to the homeowner like a bank account. That means, theoretically, that you can use summer days to help out in the winter. However, on March 31 of each year, whatever you have in your account is turned over to the power company. The homeowner was told it would be given to the poor.

There are also some surprise benefits: A recent study found that the solar panels themselves help buildings in the summer by keeping the roof underneath them cooler by five degrees Fahrenheit. They also act as insulation during colder times, keeping heat in at night.

The actual installation of panels goes relatively quickly.
The actual installation of panels goes relatively quickly. Photo: Bill McDonald


Since the final installation on Friday the 15th, 3 days after the project started, the city and the Energy Trust Fund have sent inspectors, and everything is a go. This rooftop now has the same futuristic technology that runs the International Space Station.

How this will play out economically is unclear. There are a lot of variables, starting with the lack of sunshine. NASA doesn’t have that problem in space. The station also has half-a-football-field worth of panels that rotate to capture the light on the sunny side of Earth.

Still, these two fixed rows in Southeast Portland are a start, and unlike the space station’s arrays, they don’t have to be repositioned at night to reduce orbital drag.

The best approach is to view the initial cost as a one-time fee that is gone. Focus instead on being part of the grid. You now have your own way to generate electric power, and it’s free. Not only that, but you’re able to capture energy that has traveled 93 million miles through space to get here. That part alone is pretty amazing, especially if it’s not raining.
 

Resources

10 Steps to Solar
Energy Trust of Oregon
Does Solar Work in Portland?