Sun Powerless

subnpower 1019

It is snowing this morning when I was expecting — based on my last reading of Wunderground’s 10-day forecast (which might have taken place Saturday) — sunshine and warming temperatures. I was planning to reclaim screens at the car wash tomorrow or Wednesday, and this isn’t helping.

It’s also not helping my mood, which was shaping up to be better than last week — until I remembered that I wanted to check my monitoring system for my new solar panels here at the house.

For the house, I bought a different brand of panel than what is installed on the roof at work. Originally at work I had panels manufactured by BP — yes, British Petroleum, the oil company that badly polluted the Gulf of Mexico when a well exploded and then remained uncapped for weeks. (It’s hard to keep track of major oil spills, and forget about the “minor” ones.)

While solar may be the “way of the future” and an easy face of “clean energy,” the harsh truth is that everything that goes into the manufacture of a panel comes from the extractive industries. So British Petroleum got into the manufacture of panels, but apparently didn’t do so well, at least with the panels a handful of us installed here in Gunnison in the mid-’00s. (Is that how we say that? It looks weird.)

When my system went down at work in January 2018, I called Nunatak Alternative Energy, the local company I had been pointed toward in the event of panel failure. They walked me through BP’s replacement/refund program (I opted for the panel buy-back) and then set up a new system with a different brand of panels the name of which I can never remember.

Instead of eight panels, I now have six on the roof at Pat’s, but instead of producing seven kilowatt hours of electricity on a good day, I’m routinely getting 12 kWh. I know this because instead of having to drag a ladder outside and climb up to the inverter, my system now has six micro-inverters that communicate over the internet. I can even provide my stats in real time to any inquiring mind. Or I could, if I remembered how to find the link.

When I got quotes from Nunatak for my panels here at the house, they offered I think the same brand, but also recommended SunPower, which they said produce a bit more energy with the same size panel. So that’s what I opted for, in an effort to spend as much money as possible on this house, particularly on big-ticket items that don’t work as advertised.

Initially, these panels worked great, starting even before they were supposed to, when the owner of Nunatak inadvertently left the system on during testing, prompting a visit from men from the electric co-op, a little bit miffed that the system was operating prior to their inspection.

We’ve received one bill so far from the co-op, showing that we produced 67 more kWh of electricity than we used. So that was all good, but everything’s been downhill since. To be perfectly fair, all the problems may be with the user interface and not the panels themselves, and I suppose I won’t really know until we get another bill. Or maybe I trek out to the meter and see if it’s something simple enough for a layman to read and see if the dial’s moving backward or not.

It took awhile to get the user interface set up, and while it can be done wirelessly, SunPower was apparently put out that they couldn’t offer an ethernet back-up. For whatever reason, there is no ethernet wiring in our futuristic new house, just phone jacks. Go figure.

Once that got set up, it shows more details than the Enlighten program at work, telling me how much electricity the house is using and how much of that is coming from the sun. So that’s cool, but for every day it was showing more usage than solar production, which is at odds with the bill sent by GCEA.

It turned out to be at odds with what Nunatak was reading on their dealer interface, too, so the other owner checked with SunPower, which recently switched to this new information system, then dispatched an employee to switch two wires that SunPower believed might have been installed backwards.

That happened several days ago, possibly on Oct. 11 as I examine the evidence, but I only just this morning got around to looking again at my computer read-out. I should not have done that so early this morning, because it shows zero output for eight of the last 10 days. Zero. Not one iota of solar power produced.

Having panels at work with an easy-to-grasp graphic that provides a month of data at a glance, I can tell you authoritatively than even on days when the sun doesn’t seem like it shines at all, solar energy is still produced. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a zero day from the system at work.

And now I’m showing eight, including days that were completely filled with sunshine. Of course, it would be easy to assume that switching the wires was less than helpful, but anomalies pop up: on one day in the last 10, it shows a production of almost 23 kWh for the day, followed the next day, which was last Thursday, by 2.4 kWh. I of course can barely remember what the weather was doing at the outset of this blog, let alone several days ago, but I feel like Thursday was sunnier than that. I might have even ridden my bike back to work after lunch that day.

I don’t know what any of this means, other than that something Lynn and I paid big money for isn’t working as advertised. How usual!

Again, we can hope that the system itself is working as it’s supposed to, and it’s just the transmission of data that’s getting screwed up, but do you have any idea how frustrating it is for so many things at once to not work as advertised?

Now, several hours later, I have heard from Nunatak — no faulting their customer service, so there’s that — and Lena is assuring me that it all appears to be in the interface and not with the panels themselves. She’s dispatching her employee again this afternoon to see if they can’t get this figured out. In the meantime, she’s showing that we’re routinely producing 18-27 kWh per day.

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