Solar Southwest Florida - Solar Energy and Solar Panel Information for Fort Myers, Naples, Cape Coral, and Port Charlotte Areas

Solar Southwest Florida

Solar Energy and Solar Panel Information for Fort Myers, Naples, Cape Coral, and Port Charlotte Areas

Florida Solar Design Group is Born

Posted by On January 10, 2015

Florida Solar Design GroupIt is with great excitement that I announce that I am now an independent solar consultant and started the Florida Solar Design Group with my partner, Dominick Zito. Effective January 1, 2015 we are open for business.

We will still be representing our former employer, Fafco Solar. We are very thankful for our time at Fafco Solar, and will still work very closely with them, offering the same products through Florida Solar Design Group.

Sadly, this will probably be the last post to this blog, for which I have enjoyed writing hundreds of posts. I will continue monitoring and responding to comments. On a good note, I will begin blogging again at our new website located at Please drop by and check out our new site!

I’m not going to lie – I caught myself saying to myself, “my solar electric system is not saving me as much as I expected.” That doesn’t sound good for a solar guy to be saying that!

When I installed my solar electric system last December, I was looking forward to having nearly net-zero house (which will be possible after I replace my aging air conditioner). My net-zero aspirations have not come to fruition, so I started searching for answers why. The first step was to look at my system energy production using the monitoring system. Sure enough, everything pointed toward a well-operating system. I was, indeed, producing the power expected over the days and months I analyzed. So why did I just get an $80 electric bill (down from $200 last year) when I expected something closer to $40 in September/October?

My Solar Electric Production during the time-frame of my last electric bill. Note that panels on the right size have been significantly impacted by shading from trees.

My solar electricity production during the time-frame of my last electric bill. Note that panels on the right side have been significantly impacted by shading from trees.

After thinking about it, the answers started coming to me very quickly.

  • When I installed the system I told myself that I would need to do some serious tree trimming to avoid shading, and I never did it (I had some trimming done, but not nearly what I knew was necessary for optimum production).
  • My wife and I started setting the air conditioning on 73ºF all the time, and rarely remember to turn it up when leaving the house. This is much cooler than we previously kept it, and we are complacent/wasteful about it now.
  • I extended my pool pump run time for convenience, making my pool a little easier to keep clean, but using extra energy.
  • My landscape lighting now runs from dusk to dawn instead of 4-6 hours each night.
  • For a little extra security, I keep my two pool lights on all night now (until 5am).
  • We are downright wasteful with hot water usage (longer, hotter showers).
  • I turn on about twice as many indoor lights in the evening as I previously would.
  • For convenience, I leave my computer on 24 hours a day, and I recently upgraded my power supply from 400W to 800W to support the graphics card for my larger monitor. I also leave my dual monitors on (although they go to sleep after 15 minutes).
  • I’m more likely to preheat the oven or start water boiling far before needed for cooking.

Basically, I was spoiled by the low electric bills that came soon after I installed my solar electric system. I became lazy… wasteful. Solar electricity is not just a money saving investment – it’s a luxury! I now enjoy less stress over turning out the lights, and love looking at my well-lit backyard vegetation at night. The pool looks awesome when illuminated. I’m more productive when sitting down in my home office. We are cool all day and night, even right when returning home. Convenience and happiness have trumped saving money.

The most frequent and obvious issue I see is when people say they will keep trees trimmed, but don’t follow through or become complacent over time. It definitely happened to me! This applies to all kinds of solar energy, including solar electric, solar pool heating, and solar water heating. Shaded panels don’t perform as well. As for the other energy use questions, it’s much harder to quantify, since most homes don’t have energy monitoring equipment that tell you what’s using energy in your home. Your utility company can only tell your the total amount of energy used, or in the case of a home with solar electricity, the net amount used from the utility company.

I equate this with what happens after many people get a speeding ticket. For a while, they are very careful, following all of the traffic laws, making sure they don’t have another embarrassing and costly incident.¹ Over time, however, complacency sets in, and the lead-foot comes out again. If you are accustomed to an electric bill at a given level, you are accepting of that level and tend to gravitate back toward it.



¹ Based on my brief research it’s actually been shown that recidivism rates for speeders are high – speeders are no less likely to get another ticket compared to a control group. See I think most of us believe we are more careful, nonetheless.

My Fort Myers Solar PV System, 8 Months Later

Posted by On September 24, 2014

It has been 8 months since I installed my solar photovoltaic (PV) system, and I couldn’t be happier. Low electric bills and the pride of producing my own energy makes all of the hard work worthwhile. I climbed up to check out the system, making sure that everything is still tight and unaffected by the heavy rain season. Of course, like any installation with excellent workmanship, everything checked out fine. PV Systems are so trouble-free and maintenance-free, but even though I know that, I was still compelled to break out my ladder and head up to the roof to take a look.

It got me thinking — surely our customers have questions about how well their investment is holding up. With monitoring systems, the energy output is recorded and verifiable, so from a production standpoint, reviewing the system is easy. From a physical standpoint, there is no substitution for an up-close visual inspection. On one hand, it would be great to charge customers for an annual checkup, earning a little money for providing peace of mind. However, I can’t really recommend that in good conscience. With no moving parts, there isn’t much to go wrong. A quick look from the ground and a review of annual production should tell an owner all they need to know. Unnecessary maintenance costs cut into the return on investment, and based on the small number of formal system inspections I have done, I don’t recall discovering any significant physical problems with installations we have done other than minor wire management issues.

My recommendation would be for owners to simply look up once in a while to see if anything seems out of place or physically damaged. If you really want the peace of mind an inspection can provide, perhaps get it done one year after installation and then at 3-5 year increments thereafter. PV systems are so trouble-free, I just don’t see the need for frequent physical inspections for systems installed by reputable professionals.

See more at my new blog at Florida Solar Design Group here.


My Fort Myers Solar PV System

My Fort Myers Solar PV System

Solar Pool Heating Season Traditionally Starts October 15

Solar Pool Heating Season Traditionally Starts October 15th in Southwest Florida

The heat of summer is still upon us, but fall has arrived and solar pool heating season is right around the corner! October 15th traditionally starts the solar pool heating season, but it seems to be getting earlier and earlier every year. The phone starts ringing off the hook as seasonal residents flock back to Southwest Florida and year-round residents find pool temperatures dropping. People like their warm pools — getting and keeping them warm is what we do!

Shorter days and cooler nights result in significantly lower pool temperatures, especially for uncovered pools that lose lots of heat to the evening sky. Warm daytime temperatures and cooler water temperatures make pools feel relatively cold, reducing enjoyment significantly. The initial shock of getting into a cold pool when the ambient temperature is high stops many people from taking the plunge. Solar heated pools, however, reduce this relative difference in temperature, making pools feel warm and inviting as temperatures steadily drop through the fall and winter months.

We also see quite a few people struggling to turn their systems back on after the long, hot summer, especially for solar pool heaters without automated temperature controllers. Valve positions can be confusing if you don’t frequently use them. For a review of our most common valve setups, click here to learn how to turn your solar pool heater on or off.

New customers, some who have only recently moved to the area, see solar pool heaters all around their neighborhoods and wonder why they are so popular in Southwest Florida. As solar pool heating season rolls around, it becomes very apparent. As much as solar pool heating has become a year-round business, there is definitely an uptick in inquiries starting in October, and we get busy very quickly. While installation time-frames rarely stretch out more than a few weeks, buyers will definitely wait a little longer to get installations completed (due to permitting, especially in some areas, there is always some lead time). The best solution is to get yours ahead of the rush so you can maximize your enjoyment throughout the season.


Solar water heaters are very old and proven technology, with roots in ancient times. Modern solar water heating collectors can capture about 85% of the available solar energy in a given area. That’s far above the ~20% harnessed by commercially available solar electric panels. A question often asked is whether someone should buy a solar water heater or a solar electric system, but the answer is not always obvious.

Solar Water Heating Collector Label

Solar Water Heating Collectors are terrifically efficient.

One of the solar water heaters we sell has a rating of 12.5kWh/day. This rating is based on a particular climate and rating category (relative water temperatures). What this rating tells us is that the collector is capable of transferring the equivalent of 12.5kWh of stored energy to water on an average day. That’s like heating about 100 gallons of water by 50ºF (for example, 75-125ºF) each day.  To offset the same amount of electricity each day, you would need a solar electric array rated at about 2.4kW, which would cost substantially more  — almost twice as much.

So the answer seems obvious — before you invest in a solar electric system, you should buy a solar water heater, right? Not so fast…

The first question to ask is whether you really use that much hot water. Smaller households rarely use that much hot water. Larger households, especially those with children, use a lot of hot water, and are much more likely to benefit from solar water heating. The next thing to consider is whether you will heat water every day. Some days households use lots of hot water for laundry and dish washing. Other days may not see much water use at all. In fact, while on vacation or out of town seasonally, a solar water heating does effectively nothing. There are really no savings to consider.

That 12.5kWh rating becomes effectively much, much less if you don’t actually need to heat water! If your needs were for about half that amount of water heating, you would essentially be indifferent between a solar water heating and solar electric panel investment (because the initial cost of an equivalent solar water heater is about half). If you are a very light hot water user, the analysis will favor solar electric panels.

What makes it even harder to decide is that your existing water heater is not metered – you probably have no clue how much electricity it uses. Your overall household electricity use, on the other hand, is metered by the electric company. It’s easy to know how much energy you use. Perhaps even more important – once a solar water heater is installed, there is no cost effective means to measure how much it actually saves you, and how you can maximize your benefit.

While it may sound like I don’t want you to consider a solar water heater, the opposite is true. If you feel you are a heavy hot water user, you should go this route first. In fact, I just installed a solar water heater at my home, knowing that I do not economize on my hot water use, despite having just a two-person household. Having copious amounts of hot water, heated economically, is important to me.

There are two other factors to consider, one in favor for solar water heating, and one against. In favor, you can have heated water in times where electricity is not available (think post-storm hot showers!) Against, solar water heaters typically have 10 year collectors warranties, which is less than half that of 25 year warranties on solar electric systems.

While this analysis makes a decision clear as mud, the point is that you should strongly consider your water usage and other factors important to solar water heating before deciding what technology is right for you. An experienced solar advisor should be able to help you make a decision, which is often arrived upon using a combination of objective and subjective measures. Don’t rule out a small solar electric system as an alternative to solar water heating, and consider a solar water heater first if you are a heavy hot water user.

Solar Water Heating Collector

My Solar Water Heating Collector


You may have seen my recent post on how Florida utility companies are trying to spin the argument against Netmetering, the method by which millions of solar energy systems interconnect with the utility grid. The gist of the argument is that people who use less energy shift the cost of the grid’s infrastructure onto others. Of course, they don’t say it that way, but that is, in fact, what they are saying.

I installed a solar water heater at my home yesterday. This solar energy product does not produce any electricity. It heats (or preheats) water to reduce the amount of energy used by an electric or gas water heater. It is not connected to the electric grid. All it does is makes your existing water heater use less energy. In fact, the electric element in my new solar water heater uses the same amount of power as my old non-solar water heater (4,500W). It just turns on less often.

What does that mean from the utility company’s perspective? Because I can and occassionally will use the same amount of power as my non-solar neighbor, the utility company is still obligated to plan for this demand. They have to build and maintain power plants and run electrical lines to my home. Their costs to service my home are the same – they just produce and deliver less energy to me, and I pay them less each month.

So why is there such outrage from the utility companies about solar electric systems being Netmetered, but no complaints about the thousands of solar water heaters installed every year? In fact, many more solar water heating systems exist in Florida than solar electric systems. The same thing applies to energy efficient high-SEER rating air conditioners, LED lighting, high R-value insulation, duct sealing, and other energy efficient home upgrades. These all (according to utility companies) shift the burden of maintaining the electric grid to other ratepayers. It seems that the utility companies have made a disingenuous argument against solar electricity!

So why are the utility companies lobbying legislators and the Public Service Commission to eliminate or change the current Netmetering laws without taking aim at these other “unfair” solar and efficiency upgrades? Simply because they can’t. Florida’s laws are geared toward allowing utility electric companies to have a monopoly on selling electricity in the state. Notice that I did not say they have a monopoly on producing energy — just selling it. State law already gives utility companies the sole privilege of selling electricity, except for the pesky Netmetering rule that allows individuals the right to offset their own electricity use and “sell” excess energy back to the utility grid. They can’t touch energy efficiency. They can’t make you use more energy. In fact, they put on a good show and tell you how to reduce energy in their emails and bill inserts. They are okay with you using less energy – as long as you can’t buy it elsewhere.

Netmetering is necessary because excess power produced by solar energy systems cannot be economically stored using current technology. Manufacturer’s of grid-interactive solar energy equipment depend on the fact that excess energy produced in any given solar electric system can be used by other interconnected customers on the electricity grid. In a big way, Netmetered customers rely on the electric grid to have a place to “store” the excess power produced at some times of the day. It’s true that once solar reaches a certain saturation point on a local utility grid that there will be nowhere to store excess energy produced at times. However, Florida is nowhere near that point, with other states nearing 50 times the relative production capacity that Florida currently has. In those states, utility companies have a more reasonable, practical, and logical argument against additional Netmetered customers.

Fair enough… there is probably some middle ground that will be reached in this debate. Arizona recently saw it’s new Netmetered customers hit with a monthly charge based on the size of the system installed. Smaller cooperatives and municipal utilities have successfully implemented higher base customer charges for Netmetered customers (our local Coop, LCEC, has a slightly higher, almost negligible customer charge that impacts some Netmetered customers). However, one thing is certain — Florida utilities are spinning the debate in a disingenuous way, trying to convince you that installing a solar electric system is hurting your neighbors. The fact of the matter is that installing a solar electric system is not much different than your neighbor diligently turning his lights off when he leaves a room.

My closest friends know I’m a huge Happy Gilmore fan. Back in the day I watched it at least a few times a week. I had ringtones and computer alerts with soundbites from the movie. In the scene where Mr. Larson (played by Richard Kiel) threatens Shooter McGavin, he’s wearing a distasteful pro-gun shirt that reads “Guns Don’t Kill People… I Kill People.”

Guns Don't Kill People, and Homes Don't Use Energy

Guns Don’t Kill People, and Homes Don’t Use Energy

Maybe that’s where I got my favorite solar energy related catch-phrase: “Homes Don’t Use Energy… People Use Energy.”

If you think about it for a minute, it’s pretty obvious. While most people would consider electricity a necessity, technically speaking, energy use is a choice. You can turn off light switches. You can shower in cold water. You can go with a raw food diet. You can turn that pool into a giant sandbox and turn off your pump.

Let’s be realistic… Most people are not going to endure the heat of summer in Southwest Florida without air conditioning, or at least some serious fans. The point is that we choose to use electricity. Our homes do not use energy by themselves. Some homes are more energy efficient, but that efficiency comes from choices made by humans. How much and what type of insulation was chosen. What types of light bulbs were chosen. Did the pool builder choose a variable speed pump? At what temperature do you choose to set your thermostat?

Just like Bob Barker had some choice words for Happy Gilmore in the movie, you have a choice about your energy use, and your energy production source. While most choose to buy electricity from their utility company, I have chosen to produce my own. Well… people don’t produce solar electricity, solar panels do! :)

Solar Pool Heater Optimum Flow Rate

Posted by On August 12, 2014

I’ve seen homeowners do some pretty crazy stuff with their pool plumbing, but one thing that is quite common is finding valves arranged to slow down the water flow through a solar pool heater. The rationale given by people is that they want the water in the solar pool heating panel to heat up more before it gets returned to the pool. It sounds like a reasonable idea, but unfortunately it’s not the right way to maximize the performance of a solar pool heater!

Solar Pool Heating Panel Efficiency Curve

Typical Solar Pool Heating Panel Efficiency Curve

Sure, it’s nice to stand by the return jets in your pool and feel that warm water coming off your roof, but to maximize the overall heat transferred to your pool, you actually want a higher flow rate with a smaller temperature rise. Why is that? Because solar pool heating panels perform better when the relative pool water temperature is lower. More heat can be transferred to the water if it is not already relatively hot. Think of it this way — there is a stagnation temperature at which the water temperature will not increase any more. As the water in the panel heats up an approaches stagnation, the rate at which it heats up continues to go down.

Solar panel manufacturers test panels to find the optimum flow rate. The tests are performed under ideal conditions. At most, solar pool heating panels can convert about 85% of the solar energy that hits them. At 4 gallons per minute, a typical panel reaches about 80% efficiency and the efficiency curve flattens out. Higher flow rates just cause unnecessary energy use and excess pressure within the system, adding little heating performance. At just 2 gallons per minute, the efficiency is pretty good, and you are at the “knee” of the efficiency curve, which is a good balance. Of course, solar pool heaters often operate in less than optimal conditions, so a slightly lower flow rate may be justified. A good rule of thumb is between 2 and 4 gallons per minute per panel, proven by decades of experience.

Most of the time we are limited by the existing pool pump, which will produce a flow rate that is dependent on the back pressure in the existing pool equipment plus the pressure added by the solar pool heater. Fortunately, in most residential applications the existing pump will produce a flow rate in the ideal range. The best scenario is having a variable speed pump that can be “dialed in” to a suitable flow rate, maximizing the balance between heating performance and energy savings. In many commercial applications, a booster pump is required to maintain overall flow rates while optimizing the solar pool heating performance.

If you are wondering what flow rate is ideal for your solar pool heater, consult the manufacturer’s spec sheet or ask you trusted dealer. Don’t fall into the trap of believing the a low flow rate with a large temperature rise will provide the best performance from your system!


The best looking solar pool heaters are not just about the panels. The plumbing is a key component that can easily be botched. This is a masterful job.

The best looking solar pool heaters are not just about the panels. The plumbing is a key component that can easily be botched. This is a masterful job.

While all of our installers do great work, I can often tell which installer did a job by the plumbing. Sometimes it’s the valve manifold at the pool equipment pad and sometimes it’s the roof work. While he likely trained the person doing the actual work on the roof, I’d call this a “Danny job,” recently installed in Cape Coral, FL.

Because two lengths of solar pool heating panel were combined in this system, it required that a “common high” be installed. This entails making sure that the water leaving the shorter panels reaches the common high point in the system, which equalizes pressure and keeps the flow rate uniform among panel sizes. We use a “zee” plumbing technique to tie two solar panel lengths together.

Also of note are the two 45º fittings at the upper right. This bend could have been accomplished with a single 90º fitting, but using the two 45’s follows the hip line and avoids the 90 sticking out over the hip. You might think this is obvious, but believe me — I’ve seen some pretty embarrassing plumbing jobs done by others. The two 45’s also reduce pressure loss slightly, maximizing flow rate.

Since we are often maximizing the amount of solar pool heating coverage on a roof, we bump up against hips often, making masterful plumbing techniques an important skill for solar pool heating installers. Tile roofs present even greater challenges with hip caps that protrude from the roof plane. In this case we need to perform a “hump jump,” which is one of the hardest plumbing techniques to learn, using at least 9 fittings to get the feed and return lines around corners properly.



Let me start by saying that the solar energy debate has nothing to do with solar pool heating or solar water heating, which are traditionally the bread and butter of solar energy products in Florida. This debate is about solar electricity (photovoltaic panels).

There has been a rash of articles recently describing a brewing battle between utility companies and the solar energy industry in Florida. Things reached a boiling point when the Public Service Commission refused to hear PUBLIC comment on issues that affect the solar industry. (read that again – it’s true – and it’s shocking).

On one side we have the investor owned utility companies and an army of lobbyists with virtually unlimited budgets who have the ear of elected legislators, who appoint Public Service Commission members. On the other side you have a bunch of small companies and individuals who are somewhat organized but very poorly funded. It’s a classic David vs. Goliath battle.

FPL would make you think they want you to use less electricity - which is exactly what solar energy producers do!

From their most recent email blast – FPL would make you think they want you to use less electricity – which is exactly what solar energy producers do!

The utilities both individually and through industry groups have been making irrational, but persuasive arguments against solar electricity on several fronts, and the latest is the bizarre argument that solar energy production hurts low income energy users. This theory has been pitched to legislators and groups that tend to represent lower income groups, and they have bought it hook, line, and sinker. The basis of the argument is that solar energy producers (“rich people who can afford solar energy” in their minds) use the electricity grid, but don’t pay for its upkeep because they pay less to the utility company when they use less net energy.

What makes that argument bizarre is that you would have to say the same thing about people who install Energy Star appliances, high-SEER Air Conditioners, variable speed pool pumps, LED light bulbs, and other energy saving improvements to their homes. Those people (the “rich” ones who can afford these upgrades), are shifting the burden to low income people the same way solar energy producers do – if you pay less for your electric bill, you are making your neighbors pay more proportionally to keep up the grid.

News Flash: By turning off the lights you are hurting poor people!!!

It sounds funny, but that’s exactly the argument they are making. Your utility company sends out emails and bill inserts that tell you how to lower your bill. They pay rebates for energy saving appliances. They want you to think that they really care about you using less energy. Maybe they should just send those tips to poor neighborhoods so rich people don’t accidentally save energy.

Shame on them – the utility companies are hurting the poor by telling rich people how to save energy!

In all seriousness, and it is a very serious issue for the solar industry and consumers alike, naturally you would expect people who use more energy to pay more of the upkeep costs for the infrastructure required to produce and deliver electricity. The truth of the matter is that distributed solar energy reduces the infrastructure needed. Less production capability is needed (smaller power plants), long-distance transmission lines are reduced, and another “fuel” is added to the mix to reduce risk (by the way, FPL has most of it’s eggs in the natural gas basket, a finite fuel with fluctuating prices). What’s really hard to determine is how much reduction in infrastructure is created when a solar energy system comes on line. What is certain is that the argument on the utility’s side is blown way out of proportion.

What do utility companies want? The want an end to Net Metering, the de facto interconnection method for solar energy systems in Florida and many states. Net metering means you only pay for the net amount of energy you consume each month after taking into account how much electricity your solar energy system produces. The key is that sometimes you are consuming more energy than you are producing, and sometimes you are producing more than you are consuming. Most net-metered customer still consume more than they produce on a monthly basis and still get a bill for the net amount of energy consumed. The sticking point is that at any given instant, a producer may be making more power than they are using, and the utility company is obligated to take that energy back and put it in the “bank” for the producer. In reality, this excess energy is being used elsewhere in the neighborhood. The utility companies argue that solar energy producers get the benefit of “selling” energy to their neighbors, but don’t pay their fair share for the grid upkeep. They don’t want to “buy” back energy from producers, or at least they want to “pay” less to do so. The utility isn’t really buying or paying for anything – another non-solar consumer is doing so at exactly the same rate they would if the electricity emanated from a natural gas fired turbine. The argument that lower income energy users have to pay more for solar energy is bunk.

What is “fair” when it comes to energy production and distribution prices? Many would argue that there should be a higher base charge for all customers that compensates the utility for grid upkeep whether you use it or not. After all, being connected means you can use it if you want. Couple this with lower per unit rates, and some would be winners and some would be losers. While this would be “fair,” inevitably smaller consumers, presumably poorer people, would suffer. A 1,500 sq ft house and a 3,000 sq ft house may both have 200A utility service, which means the utility has the same costs to service each customer excluding the amount of electricity used (see my article on how homes don’t use energy – people use energy – here). Therefore, the larger home is already paying disproportionately higher prices to keep up the grid now.

There are fixed and variable components to electricity production and delivery, and the current rate structure covers a large proportion of fixed and semi-fixed utility costs with rates applied to variable usage.

In reality, most solar homes in Florida don’t send much electricity back to the grid anyway. Energy use in homes follows energy production pretty closely, largely due to air conditioning use during the daytime when solar energy systems are producing. Pool homes have a base load that eats up a good chunk of the solar production during the day (unless you have an energy saving variable speed pump, which I highly recommend).

This debate is has a philosophical component and a business component. Utility companies would make you think that we are out clubbing baby seals and taking food from babies. Think for a moment what the real motivation of investor owned utility companies is most likely to be. They want to maintain their monopoly and cut out other producers.

Net metering works. Is it a threat to utility companies? Perhaps, in the long run. Does it steal Cheerios from the orphanage? Hardly.



Jason Szumlanski, Solar Contractor CVC56956

Jason Szumlanski, Solar Contractor CVC56956

Florida’s most recently licensed certified solar contractor is, you guessed it, me!

I passed the required tests long ago, but just recently decided it was time to go forward with securing my own CVC license. I was assigned licence number CVC56956.

This brings the number of certified solar contractors at Fafco Solar to three, which happens to be triple the number of solar contractors at any of our competitors. While I have chosen to keep my license in an inactive status (there’s no reason to purchase separate insurance), I thought making things official was an important message to send – we have an incredible amount of talent, knowledge, and expertise at Fafco Solar. Licensure is one way of proving that a company has the experience required to do things right.

Well, the match was great… A big win for the US team. Maybe Ghana should have let power lapse during the match…

In case you missed it, I posted on Monday about how Ghanaians have a power shortage, and they “purchased power” from Ivory Coast to make sure TVs stayed on during the World Cup match against the United States. To tie this into solar power, I wanted to point out how Ghana can alleviate some (but not all) of their power woes – by installing solar panels, of course!

2014 FIFA World Cup USA vs. Ghana

USA’s Dempsey reacts to goal against Ghana.

Ghana’s power comes largely from capacity built up in a reservoir behind a dam. The Lake Volta reservoir is the largest man-made lake in the world, making it one of the largest “batteries” in the world, providing a “fuel” source for the 1 Gigawatt Akosombo Dam hydroelectric plant. The amount of power and energy that can be produced is limited by the power rating of the generation plant and the amount of energy stored in the elevated reservoir.

Solar photovoltaic panels add to power generation capacity, but in a very different way than a hydroelectric plant. They can help keep the lights – and TVs – on during the day. The bad news is that grid-interconnected solar energy systems are typically installed without batteries. The capacity to generate power is variable with the amount of sunlight available. If production does not coincide with consumption, solar energy does not contribute toward correcting power woes. In the case of the Ghana vs. USA match on Monday, it was already dark in Ghana by the time the match started, so solar power would not have effectively contributed to solving the problem. Solar power Monday night would have been like a dam in front of an empty lake.

Akosombo Dam

Akosombo Dam, Ghana

Think of these three components in any generation system: power rating, fuel source, and storage capacity. With solar plants the power rating is based on the number of panels; the fuel source (solar radiation) can be massive, but is always variable and somewhat unpredictable; and the storage capacity is nil. In a hydroelectric dam the power rating is based on the size of the turbines; the fuel source is steady, predictable, and finite (but replenished over time); and the storage capacity (water in the reservoir) is variable. In traditional fossil fuel burning plants the power rating is based on the size of the generator; the fuel source is steady, very predictable, and virtually unlimited (in relation to the power rating); and storage is nil.

There are other factors, like ability to ramp up and down production, and other sources, like nuclear and wind.

Because each source of energy has it’s pros and cons, and no source can currently supply all electricity needs reliably in the short- or the long-term, we need to understand and accept the reality of the situation and adopt a good energy mix. Regardless of how much solar capacity we install, without storage we cannot function on solar power alone. The relationship between power production sources is critical to grid stability, but with smart planning, many energy sources can form an economical and reliable mix so we can continue to quench our thirst for more and more electricity. For now, the relative amount of solar energy installed is minuscule, so few technical barriers to expansion exist.

Unfortunately, Ghana would not have benefited in this case from solar energy. Being the country closest to 0º Latitude, 0º Longitude, the solar resource capabilities in the country are tremendous. However, with excellent natural gas reserves and an electricity grid focused on hydroelectric power for baseline demand, solar energy may not become a large part of their energy mix any time soon. Without additional peak demand plants (likely natural gas fueled), Ghana will probably need to continue purchasing power to meet peak demand from its neighbors.

I was driving home today listening to Miller and Moulten on ESPN radio like I often do. They were talking about how Ghana is planning to purchase electricity from Ivory Coast to make sure television sets stay on during the 2014 FIFA World Cup match tonight against the United States. They were quoting an [erroneous] news report that said the same thing*. They almost got it right…

Ghana has problems delivering power (and, thus, electricity) to it’s people at times. Right now water levels are low in reservoirs, causing hydroelectric dam power output capacity to be low. That means power outages may occur if too many people turn on their TV sets (or lights, or anything else that requires power). Ghana is planning to solve this problem to ensure people can enjoy the match by purchasing power. Notice that I said power, not electricity.

It reminded me of my primer on power vs. energy written a few years ago. I’m a stickler for these kinds of things.

Allow me to establish an brief analogy. Let’s say a bank has a million dollars in the safe one day, and a hundred people come in to get a thousand dollars each. No problem, right? They have the “power” to deliver that withdrawal rate. Now let’s say a couple thousand people come in to get a thousand dollars each on the same day. Problem, right? Ghana has a very small bank vault, and lots of people want a few bucks right now.

The size of the bank represents power. The amount of money being taken out in a given amount of time represents energy. If you don’t have a big enough vault (power), you will run out of capacity to satisfy withdrawals (energy).

The problem with my favorite local sports commentators’ segment was that Ghana is not purchasing electricity. Ghana is purchasing 50 megawatts of power (capacity to deliver electricity) from Ivory Coast. What Ghana is really doing is asking Ivory Coast to open up it’s power generating capacity to the people of Ghana during the world cup so individual consumers can purchase as much electricity (electrical energy) as they want. Consumers purchase electricity (energy), not power. What Ghana is trying to prevent is a shortfall of power.

Ghana may be paying Ivory Coast for this privilege, but they are not paying for electricity. They are paying for power – the capability to deliver the desired electricity to consumers. In reality, Ghana is probably not going to pay for power at all. They have asked Ivory Coast to make 50mW of power capacity available so that people can purchase electricity. If the demand requires 30 mW of power for three hours, Ivory Coast will have no problems delivering 90 megawatt-hours of energy to help the Ghanaian people lose their first match to the United States in the last three World Cups (the match just started – gotta go!)


* To be fair, the news release from Ghana’s own Public Utilities Regulatory Commission also got it wrong.

A hot lug in a meter socket in Cape Coral holds up a solar electric interconnection.

A hot lug in a meter socket in Cape Coral holds up a solar electric interconnection.

One of the subjects that often comes up at the start of a solar electric (photovoltaic) system conversation is whether the utility company will “allow” a solar energy system to be installed. Is Lee County Electric Cooperative (LCEC) solar friendly in Cape Coral, Sanibel, Marco Island, and the other areas they cover?

While there are challenges, utility companies are generally bound to Public Service Commission Rules, including Florida’s Met Metering Rule, which give consumers fairly broad power to install customer owned renewable generation equipment. LCEC is no different, and it’s actually quite easy to get a residential or small to medium commercial system installed.

In fact, I just had a very pleasant experience with a LCEC employee. I won’t name her, but we ran into a problem with an interconnection and the LCEC employee was a terrific help in resolving the issue. Our customer had an unforeseen problem with the existing utility meter socket. This was discovered when LCEC went to install the customers new bi-directional (net) meter. There was a lug in the meter can that was “hot,” meaning it was loose or there was an overload condition. Either way, it was unrelated to the solar installation, but there was a safety issue with leaving it as-is. The LCEC employee coordinated getting us pictures from the LCEC Journeyman who discovered the fault condition. The homeowner hired a electrician to resolve the issue quickly, and the next day LCEC came back to install the new meter. The customer is now up and running with a new solar energy system!

In a way solar energy contractors are competitors with utility companies, and in other way we are suppliers. This sets up a situation where we have mutual customers. It is refreshing to see a level of cooperation that satisfies the mutual customer rather than putting them in the middle of a situation that could easily become a dispute.

Anyone who reads my blog frequently knows that I’m not very complementary of our local utilities, FPL and LCEC, but this is due to company policy and the regulatory environment in which we operate. I want to point out that the people in the trenches working with us solar contractors are generally very helpful, cooperative, and friendly. It would be very remiss of me to not mention that. The end result is that home and business owners that wish to install solar panels can do so without fear of utility interference. That makes utility companies “friendly,” or at least their employees with whom we work are friendly!

Big Box Stores Go Solar

Posted by On May 13, 2014

You’ve probably heard of high profile investments in solar by large retailers like Ikea, Kohl’s, Costco, and the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. These investments leverage the long terms assets (real estate) of the companies into income producing machines both inside and out. Coupled with various tax credits, accelerated depreciation, rebates, and other incentives, investments in solar make great financial sense for companies who have maximized interior square footage, but haven’t taken advantage of massive swaths of roof space. Walmart alone has installed over 65 megawatts of solar capacity to date.

Susan O'Neal Gear of Upstream Insight

Susan O’Neal Gear of Upstream Insight

Susan O’Neal Gear of Upstream Insight has an interesting perspective on big-box solar investments. She hypothesizes that investments in solar may help consumers feel good about the brands they consume. While greenwashing is rampant among those seeking a quick marketing boost by installing a few solar panels, large retailers committing to a renewable energy strategy as part of their investment portfolio and core strategic principles can gain considerable respect among consumers for “doing the right thing.”

Read Susan’s recent post here about Walmart’s commitment to solar and what it means from a marketing perspective, and don’t forget to subscribe to her insightful blog while you are there.

Brand loyalty is a powerful thing, and engaging your customer base in a unique, albeit tangential way, is part of the effort to attract and retain customers. Walmart is surely one of the largest consumers of energy among retailers. Air conditioning, heating, and superb lighting don’t come cheap in terms of energy consumption. The 65 MW investment in solar is a drop in the bucket compared to the annual energy consumption of Walmart’s stores.

Think about this – Nationwide Insurance is a NASCAR sponsor, and they would probably frown upon driving 200 miles per hour, right? However, NASCAR actually has a lot to do with safe driving, safe cars, safe tires, etc. Nationwide’s investment in something tangentially related to what they do creates a connection between consumers and their brand.

Speaking of NASCAR, even those 98 octane gas guzzling speed demons use the green movement to promote their brand. They have a well funded and well known green program called NASCAR Green with 22 corporate partners. Check it out – pretty interesting marketing strategy, and the list contains some of the world’s most successful brands.