To Be Continued…

Taichung-Swallows-Nest-Vincenct-Cellebaut-011

Vincent Callebaut’s architectural design for “Swallow’s Nest“–a cultural center in Taichung, Taiwan that would incorporate natural light and structurally integrated photovoltaics, all in the shape of a mobius strip variant

I’m leaving you all on a cliffhanger—with our solar panels not yet installed, and the specter of climate change knocking at the door.  Since Amie and I are getting married in May, I’m taking a temporary hiatus from the blog to focus my energies wholeheartedly on making that wedding the best possible celebration of our love. I plan to return in June, with many more stories to tell.  In “Season 2” I’ll unveil the designs for our solar panels, discuss the sharing economy and solar’s role in it, release interviews with my neighbors who have panels, and, of course, share what it’s like to have the panels installed and providing electricity! In the meantime—take some time to look back through previous episodes in my solar journey:

  1. Introduction, Part 1: Climate Change and the Power of the Sun
  2. Introduction, Part 2: What is a solar lease, and is it a good idea?
  3. A Home in Beacon…and Ecovillages!
  4. A Friendly Passerby Tells Me How To Get Solar Panels
  5. Hardward Stores Are Secretly Magical
  6. We Make the Decision To Go Solar
  7. Doubt and Research, Part 1: Rare Earth Elements
  8. Doubt and Research, Part 2: Customer Complaints and Fear of Commitment
  9. A Post-Holiday Solar Site Assessment

A Post-Holiday Solar Site Assessment

Time rolled on, as it is wont to do.  Everyone at Verengo Solar was very communicative during the intervening weeks, and we learned that the next step would be a site assessment to evaluate our roof in preparation for designing our solar panel system.

Farmigo's office in Gowanus, Brooklyn, New York

Farmigo’s office in Gowanus, Brooklyn, New York

In the intervening weeks, I had the opportunity to further connect with people working to create a more sustainable world, including the wonderful folks at a company called Farmigo.  They are a fascinating startup that connects local farms directly to consumers.  Cutting out the middle man of the supermarket allows consumers to buy more affordable local food while simultaneously contributing more of the profits directly to farmers (60 cents on the dollar vs. the typical 20% seen when selling through wholesale).  A certified B Corporation, their cofounder and CEO, Benzi Ronen, is a Microsoft veteran and has spent a great deal of effort making Farmigo an innovative company and a great place to work.

Their warehouse space in Gowanus (Brooklyn, New York) is a veritable treehouse playground—an open floor plan in a converted warehouse with hammocks and wooden ladders that lead up to the second level’s meeting rooms.  Farmigo is incredibly supportive of the local food communities they organize, and they look after their own staff with equal vigor.  The Farmigo team inhabits a workplace whose environment and culture provides consistent reminders and encouragement of their mission.  One small example—which I got to experience first-hand—is that every Friday, different members of the team make a healthy lunch with fresh, local produce for the entire workplace to enjoy.  They truly practice what they preach, and with over 100 communities getting food from local farmers because of Farmigo, they’re making a serious change in the way consumers and businesses think about food.

Not long after visiting Farmigo, the winter solstice holidays came around.  This brought out all the traditions of walking down Fifth Avenue to experience the Christmas Windows, getting candied nuts from street vendors more often than I care to admit, an epic “Latkethon” Chanukah celebration at my coworker’s family’s magnificent apartment, and Amie and I celebrating our first Christmas in our new home with her father, Dan—complete with a decked out balsam fir tree, newly invented holiday cocktails, and folk songs sung around the fire.

Two days after Christmas, two friendly gentlemen from Verengo came to visit our house for a solar site assessment.  The one who led the way introduced himself as Fernando.  I showed them our electric panel in the basement, walked them upstairs through the house, and listened as they talked about the support beams in our roof.  We have no attic, so armed with a flashlight, they peered through a small hole left behind from where they had carefully pulled out a light fixture.  Staring up into that space between ceiling and rafters at the very finite pieces of wood that kept our roof from falling in, I had the sudden sensation of all the weight that the solar panels would add and was glad we had a whole team behind us to carefully inspect everything and support this endeavor.

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The solar industry brings together a diverse group of skill sets and lifestyles.  Increasing photovoltaic efficiency is a sophisticated applied physics and engineering challenge, which draws in the minds of researchers.  As a technology that’s disrupting the incumbent energy production system, venture capitalists and startup founders are drawn to it for the massive growth that solar has seen and will continue to have as more people move toward renewables.  Policy makers and activists who support a more sustainable lifestyle believe in the cause of renewable energy and will fight to support it as climate change continues to shape our world in increasingly dire ways.  Contractors and electricians who were building houses and working on construction projects can apply their skills in this new targeted domain and meet a demand for skilled builders who can plan for and mount the necessary equipment.

All of this means that solar is responsible for an incredible amount of job growth across the globe and in the United States.  According to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census, over 31,000 solar energy jobs were created in 2014 and the industry is growing almost twenty times faster than the overall U.S. economy.

Fernando and his colleague went out to the truck to get their ladder.  They climbed onto the roof to get the exact measurements of everything, including the dimensions, the shingle material, the pitch, and how much shade is cast on the roof.  For this last measurement they used a tool called a SunEye, which uses annual sun path and weather data to project not only how much shade is currently cast on the roof, but how much shade the roof will see throughout the year.  The data projection is here done programmatically with GPS and a fisheye camera, but tracking the shadows cast by the sun has an ancient legacy whose remnants can be seen in the great solar alignments of the world (like Abu Simbel, a temple whose construction was ordered by Ramses II, and whose inner chamber is aligned in such a way that twice a year the statues of Ramses, Ra-Horakthy, Amun Ra are lit while Ptah, god of the Underworld, remains in shadow).

Light pouring into Abu Simbel in Nubia, Egypt, illuminating Ramses II, Ra Horakthy, and Amun Ra, while Ptah remains in shadow

The sun’s light pouring into Abu Simbel in Nubia, Egypt, illuminating Ramses II, Ra Horakthy, and Amun Ra, with Ptah in shadow

As they packed up their gear, Fernando said everything was looking good.  They would give their data to the system designer who would map out the system and its technical specifications.  We would hear back from them in three weeks or so.

With the final all-clear from the site assessors, we prepared to ring in the new year.


P.S.:

Rum + Kahlúa + Eggnog + Chai = Reindeer's Delight

A post shared by Patrick Metzger (@prossm) on

Doubt and Research, Part 2: Customer Complaints and Fear of Commitment

So two major doubts about solar leasing had been resolved for me: it’s not simply a scam and the rare earth elements issue is largely blown out of proportion.  I continued diligently onward to make sure we were making the right choice.

In terms of public perception of how our house looked, we weren’t too worried what the neighbors would think.  Personally, I think solar panels look cool, and when it came to helping the environment, we were happy to be the Big Orange Splot house on the block.  And as it turned out, we weren’t even the first house in our neighborhood to get solar panels!  But that’s a story for another day.

The Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Manus Pinkwater

The Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Manus Pinkwater

I knew that Verengo was incentivized to set us up with the most affordable panels available on the market that can still regularly produce energy, and for a moment I worried that we wouldn’t be getting the most efficient panels possible.  But I had to ask myself—efficient compared to what?  The amount of panels currently on my roof was zero.  The more expensive options were not something we could afford in the first place.  So yes, Verengo would seek to get the most profit by putting a lower cost system on my roof.  But you know what?  The panels will still generate electricity out of the light in the friggin’ sky.

So I went on to research Verengo Solar further as a company, and I found the Better Business Bureau’s site to be the perfect place to do it.  There I found a list of customer complaints that had been filed and closed with the BBB.  At first, I was worried that Verengo had any customer complaints at all.  But having been involved recently with the creation of a social media analytics app, I reminded myself that user feedback was a natural part of any business.

There are always hiccups or delays in a sales or operations process that can lead to customer anxiety, especially with something so complex as a rooftop solar panel system (which involves intricate technology, weeks of permitting, contractors to install the panels, etc).  What I found, actually, after reading through Verengo’s customer complaints (and their responses to those complaints) is that, by and large, as soon as an issue arose, Verengo was incredibly communicative and worked with their customers to resolve the matter quickly and smoothly.  The complaints ranged from misunderstandings about the kilowatt output of the system (resulting from DC to AC conversion), to someone whose roof was in bad shape and needed to be fixed after the panels had been installed, to complications arising from Verengo’s partnerships with other solar providers like SunRun. In each case, Verengo’s response eased my worry that they would not support their customers.

The Yelp reviews of Verengo were a bit overwhelming, and, unhelpfully, all the negative reviews seemed to relate almost exclusively to the sleaziness of particular salespeople.  Stephen Lacey wrote a great breakdown of the nature of the sales process in the solar industry where customer acquisition feels for many companies like a life-or-death imperative right now.  The article is accompanied by the best and worst Yelp reviews given to each of the top 5 US solar installers (Verengo is second in the country), which helped me to understand that this is clearly an issue facing all the major companies.  Since my sales process had gone smoothly so far and there were several glowing reviews of people who had undergone a successful installation, I felt satisfied that Verengo was “good as any, better than some.”

Improvements to solar efficiency since the 1970s. Courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Improvements to solar efficiency since the 1970s. Courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

My final concern was about just how long of a commitment the lease required.  20 years is a long time, and there’s no getting around that.  However, you can transfer the lease to a new owner if you sell the house.  And honestly, solar panels on a house are likely to be an attractive thing to most home buyers (and will self-select to attract the kind of buyer who wants them).

Getting panels immediately also quite simply allows us to start making an impact on the environment right away.  Given the urgency of the climate crisis, this was (and is) incredibly important to Amie and I.  Going solar allows us to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Lastly, solar panels will always get progressively more efficient.  If we were to wait 5 years until costs were lower, or until we’d saved up money to buy them ourselves, we would still find ourselves imagining five years from then when the panels would be even more efficient.  And in the process of waiting, we would have wasted money on our electric bills and continued to contribute to the production of dirty energy in the Hudson Valley.

The time for waiting was over.  We were ready for solar panels.

Doubt and Research, Part 1: Rare Earth Elements

Tellurium, produced in order to create cadmium telluride, used in some solar panels. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Tellurium, produced in order to create cadmium telluride, used in some solar panels. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

After running into that “solar fleecing” site that described solar leases as a scam, I had some trepidations about the contract we had just signed.  After all, this was a 20-year commitment.  Since we had a window of opportunity where we could cancel the process, I got online and did my research.

My worries related to that particular site were quickly dispelled once I realized that it was created with the ulterior motive of drawing in customers, preferably to their loan system (which simply makes you indebted to the bank rather than a solar leasing company; for a more rational, less partisan comparison of solar loans vs. solar leases, visit EnergySage).

The site also tries to convince visitors to patronize them by articulating something that I already knew to be true: leasing solar panels is not as good of a return on your investment as buying solar panels outright.  This argument seems to be articulated mainly for those people who can afford to buy panels in the first place—and as I’ve said before, for that group of folks, buying solar panels outright is the way to go.  It’s an amazing investment right now and you can more directly reap the benefits of the various tax incentives that are in place.  But as someone who can’t afford the upfront costs, this isn’t really applicable to me.

So further research dispelled that “solar fleecing” anxiety.  However, one big worry that lingered in the back of my mind was an issue that a couple of my friends had brought up—namely that many solar panels are made using rare earth elements.

As Stuart Elms (CEO of UK’s Viridian Solar) points out, “rare earths” is a bit of a misnomer.  While cerium oxide is sometimes used in the production of solar panels, most of the elements involved aren’t technically among the rare earth elements of the periodic table.  However, getting to some of these resources can be tricky.  Most notably, cadmium telluride (CdTe) is used to create inexpensive and efficient photovoltaic film.  Cadmium (Cd) is not rare.  It’s a waste product of many other mining and manufacturing processes and photovoltaics are actually a safe place to put it, since it can be hazardous when not combined with other elements.  Tellurium (Te), however, is three times rarer than gold, and getting your hands on it is geopolitically complicated (China controls about 95% of rare earth element exports and 47% of US imports of tellurium, for instance, so Chinese markets have a lot of global economic impact when businesses do things like reduce mining operations).  The worry is that solar panels might not be that great of an idea if they are dependent on finite resources and can’t genuinely create a sustainable future.

USGS_rare_earth_oxides_production_graph

This is a complex issue, and the debate continues from many perspectives.  My take on it: The use of rare earth elements and scarce resources is a real concern in the production of electricity-generating solar panels—but even more so in the production of energy-consuming products like computers and cell phones which also use rare earths, are totally pervasive in every aspect of our lives, and don’t contribute any electricity back to the larger system.  And while finite resources like oil and coal are simply burned away (emitting greenhouse gases that change our planet’s climate, with the energy produced never to be captured again), tellurium is being used in photovoltaics to contribute energy for 30 years or more, after which they can be recycled to be used in future solar panels.

Increased photovoltaic recycling has meant that there’s more tellurium to go around outside of its raw production.  If unit efficiency of tellurium continues to improve as predicted, the impacts of photovoltaic recycling processes are expected to create a decline in tellurium demand after 2020, even though more people will want solar panels at that time.

In addition, some solar panels are made without the use of CdTe, and research continues into the development and manufacturing of more affordable options that don’t use rare elements.

The Center for Alternative Technology gives a very thorough explanation of the less-than-perfect steps involved in the production of photovoltaics (all the way down to safety concerns involving Cadmium that only arise in industrial fires exceeding 1050 degrees C), but also gives a great response for why it’s still a good idea to use solar panels:

“…it is important to take these issues in context. All electronic equipment can cause these concerns, and whereas many electrical goods are only designed to last for a couple of years, PV panels are expected to last for at least 30 years (here at CAT we have some that are 15 years old and still functioning well). Furthermore, PV panels are used in place of other sources of electricity which have a much greater environmental impact per unit of electricity generated.”

Really what this whole issue brings up is the glaring fact that every aspect of the manufacturing supply chain (for any product) is steeped in millions of tiny lesser-evil decisions that add up to a massive unsustainable system.  For far too long the driving incentive behind our consumer culture (and corporate culture of the bottom line) has been affordable materials, with little thought to hidden costs and externalities.  Externalities basically occur when entities outside the (imagined) closed system of a private business are unwittingly harmed or benefited by the actions of that business (such as people breathing toxic fumes from a factory, or any ecological impact that a company has).  As many scholars point out, when private businesses minimize costs from their own manufacturing process, it is often the natural environment (and the people it surrounds) that take the actual burden of that cost.  In the study of externalities, there’s even an argument to be made that arrangements like solar leases—where companies share the burden of risk with a consumer—can lead to the reduction of environmental externalities by encouraging companies to innovate.  More on that later.

Put simply, we need more companies built on systems thinking.

Having fewer tchotchkes in our lives (and recycling those items that we’re done with—especially electronics) is a good thing.  Getting solar panels is a good thing.  They may look like really big tchotchkes, but they’re actually busily displacing their carbon footprint through the production of renewable electricity.

We Make the Decision To Go Solar

From Prometheus Garden, claymation animation by Bruce Bickford

In order to start the process of designing the system for our solar panels we needed to wait until we had a bill from our utility company.  Amie and I had just moved in, and with Central Hudson’s billing system, this meant we needed to wait two months before we could fully dive in.

Weeks passed.  We hosted a haunted housewarming on Halloween and projected Bruce Bickford animations on the living room wall.  We visited my dad in Baltimore for a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat (featuring a Quorn Turk’y Roast and all the best fixin’s).  The plans for our wedding in May started to crystallize and get put into action.  I turned twenty-seven.  Then one day we got a call from Verengo, and we were ready to get things rolling.  So we scheduled a time for a salesperson to come visit our home to tell us more about Verengo’s solar leasing program.

Our salesperson, Michael, arrived at the somewhat farcical hour of 4:30pm…exactly 24 hours before we expected him!  Luckily, Amie and I were in for the night anyway and more than happy to welcome him to chat about solar for a while.  We got him a glass of water and sat down to talk shop.

I wanted to know everything, and I tried to think of all the questions I had considered before Michael arrived.  Yes, Verengo would come and do maintenance if any issues arose.  No, we would not need to pay any money upfront for site assessment, permits, or installation.  I learned that we’ll be able to log onto the web and watch the energy the panels are collecting in real time (which totally makes me drool as a data analyst).

In between questions, we got to know Michael.  Aside from being a sales representative with Verengo, Michael Balkind, as it turns out, is an author.  He has written four sports mysteries.  His most recent book, The Fix, was co-authored with NBC Sports journalist, Ryan Burr, and follows a college quarterback and a football referee as they tumble further into the world of sports gambling.

Horizontal_Verengo_Logo_(3)

In between getting to know Michael, I got to know Verengo.  The company has been around since 2008 when its co-founders (Ken Button and Randy Bishop) acquired a small California home improvement company called Jemstar Builders and turned it into a home solar installation business.  Since then the company has grown to install over 13,000 residential rooftop solar panel systems, earning $115 million in revenue in 2013, with over 1300 employees across the country.

We gave Michael our 2-month utility bill to run the numbers and make a projection for what our usage would be like throughout the year (accounting for fluctuations in the summer when window air conditioners would pull more juice from those wires in the wall).  There was a certain amount of data entry and processing that needed to run before we’d get an estimate for what our payments would look like.  So I headed to the kitchen to grab a snack.

While numbers were crunching in the other room, Amie—diligently skeptical—gave me a look and handed me her computer.  This site was open—describing solar leases as a scam.  I scanned through the page while she talked to Michael in the other room.  I slowly got the sinking sensation that maybe we were being swindled.  I knew it was too good to be true, I thought.  I was foolish to think that there’s a system in place set up by corporations where everybody benefits.

I have since found that there are plenty of these sites on the internet that will tell you that solar leases are unequivocally scams (usually sites with low-quality web design to accompany their own scam-and-spam language).  These are usually created by solar companies that do not offer a leasing option, and are therefore trying to convince consumers that it’s a bad idea to lease (to get more people coming to them to buy the panels outright).

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, a solar lease is not the best return on investment you can possibly get for solar.  It is, however, one of the only practical solutions available to consumers who can’t afford the up-front cost of buying panels themselves (i.e., $20-40k).

The data projection finished.  Our numbers came back and I was openly astonished to see that our regular monthly payments would be half of our average monthly utility bill.  On top of that, we learned that we would get a tax rebate covering every single payment we made to Verengo for up to five years.

It took a good amount of thorough conversation between Amie, Michael, and myself, but by the end of it all we were convinced.  Seeing it all laid out, by the end it seemed like a no-brainer: lower cost electricity, maintenance and upkeep covered by Verengo, the ability to transfer the lease to a new owner if we sold the house, immediate environmental impact.  We read and signed the proper documents and came to the close of a 3-hour endeavor.

We bade Michael farewell.  He wished us luck with our wedding.  And we were one step closer to getting solar panels.


  • For those interested in more detail on solar leases, I cover them in more depth here.
  • If you live in the New York area, I highly recommend Michael Balkind as someone who can help you go solar.  You can contact him here.