The Switch to Solar Energy: An Interview
February 2021. A month that, for Texans, came with weather of extraordinary proportions. Temperatures plummeted to the negatives as wind gusts ripped trees out of the soil and a thick layer of snow quickly blanketed the landscape. With pipes coming dangerously close to cracking and power plants failing to provide electricity to millions of homes, the majority of Texas quickly succumbed to a state of solitude marked by long-drawn blackouts and freezing families. For many, the state’s inability to provide adequate heating and electricity during the winter storm served as a wake-up call about the need for a sustainable alternative to natural gas, the supposedly “pristine” fossil fuel that the state has long been combusting to keep lights stunning and appliances running. Mrs.Jamie Cleveland was one such Texan who, following the February storm, turned to solar energy in particular to circumvent the future risks associated with dependency on natural gas pipelines. After chatting with Mrs.Cleveland about her experience with solar power, I realized that harnessing the sun’s energy is an expensive yet reliable alternative to the endless fluctuations of a conventional grid. In a state that’s so often defined by extensive periods of intense sunlight, solar energy may just be the solution to keeping electrical power constant in the face of weather that is, well, quite the opposite.
A Sudden Change
As I walked to Mrs.Cleveland’s house, I instantly spotted rows of shiny solar panels gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. Some rest just on top of the south-facing garage to enhance exposure to sunlight, while others lie above a quaint yard on the east side of the house. With a mighty 31 solar panels glistening on her roof, as well as a system of batteries and a generator in her garage, Mrs.Cleveland agrees that her home is certainly hard to miss — and for good reason. Though she was fortunate to not lose power for an extended period during the winter storm, several of her closest relatives weren’t as lucky. When I asked her what motivated her and her family to make such a life-altering investment, her response certainly left me surprised:
To be honest with you, we had never considered solar panels. We just hadn’t. But we'd always been concerned about whether the grid would be able to sustain the population here. This system came out at just the right time.
My dad called me up one day and said, “You need to be at my house. I have some guys coming over about a generator system.” I had no idea he also meant solar panels! We had mainly just wanted a generator so that we’d never have to go through what we went through in February, with no electricity. This is a new product that they have through which solar panels feed the generator energy. We can literally lose gas and electricity, and this house will still function.
It’s amazing what can come of a simple desire for a generator.
The System: 31 Panels, 4 Batteries, a Generator, and a Transfer Switch
While conventional solar panel packages generally consist solely of the panels themselves, Mrs.Cleveland’s system, called the PWRcell and designed by the company Generac, is slightly more complex. Well, more than just slightly. In fact, as Mrs.Cleveland walked me through her garage and outside her house, I noticed an intricate network of inverters, batteries, a generator, and ample other gadgets that all work together to keep her home running. Upon doing a deep dive on the batteries that stand in a tall tower in her garage, I learned that the number of batteries is tailored specifically to a family’s past energy usage and future desires. Mrs.Cleveland told me, for example, that while her daughter needed six batteries to help sustain her swimming pool, she needed fewer of them due to her lower energy needs:
We got four batteries. To determine this, [Generac] got our electrical usage for the year and asked us what we would want running even when we lost power. We said heating, air conditioning, and appliances. Of course, we knew we couldn’t light this house up like at Christmas, but at least now we should still be running even if we lose gas and electricity.
Mrs.Cleveland went on to highlight the convenience of her batteries for their ability to store a substantial amount of excess solar energy for later use. By disconnecting from the grid in the afternoon or evening each day and using energy entirely from her batteries until the next morning, she’s able to lighten the burgeoning load on the Texas grid during hours of high statewide usage. And Mrs.Cleveland isn’t the only one who benefits. Since her solar panels continue to harness sunlight even while she’s using her batteries, she’s often able to send surplus solar energy to the grid to power other households. Who knows? Maybe you’re using some of that energy right now!
Though the behind-the-scenes role of batteries is nothing short of fascinating, Mrs.Cleveland's generator, which differs from conventional standalone propane and gasoline generators, is what really took me by surprise. Mrs.Cleveland explained that she didn’t want to worry about going outside and handling propane, especially because its flammability has made it the enemy of many community HOAs. And since gas generators cannot function without an input of natural gas, they likely wouldn’t have provided power during the winter storm because of the widespread natural gas plant failures that occurred throughout Texas. In purchasing a PWRcell package, Mrs.Cleveland ensured that she would receive a constant influx of energy without the added burden of dealing with propane or natural gas. Her system uses a novel kind of generator, which will work alongside a transfer switch to power her appliances, heating, and air in the event that the grid goes down — an important feature that simple solar panel systems lack. Mrs.Cleveland summed up her satisfaction with her PWRcell package with a simple wish:
Overall, I’m quite pleased. I just hope I never have to use the generator part of it.
I certainly hope so, too.
The Installation Process
Mrs.Cleveland mentioned that though installation of her solar panels began on July 22nd, 2021 — the same day that she received her permit — the time required to go from permit to power took much longer than anticipated:
After getting the system designed, we had to go through the HOA. Originally, we had wanted to put solar panels on the west side of our house, but [our neighborhood’s HOA] didn’t like that because then [the solar panels] would have been visible to another row of homes. So, we had to figure out another configuration.
[Upon getting approved by the HOA,] we got all the strips installed but had to wait for the panels for probably a good week or two weeks because of COVID-related delays. And after the solar panels were installed, we had to wait for a transfer switch from CoServ, as well as for another missing part. So, we weren’t up and running for quite a while. It was the very end of August or even early September when we finally got up and running.
Although the installation process was certainly drawn out, Mrs.Cleveland commended the workers for spending hours at a time in the scorching Texas summer heat to ensure that every solar panel was securely attached. She and I alike were astonished by the speed with which a surprisingly small team of people not only set up the generator and batteries in her garage, but also installed the nearly forty-pound panels. And despite that the workers were constantly drilling into or walking across her roof, Mrs.Cleveland confirmed that she has not had a single roof leak since installation. As put by her,
The installers were great. I had to look really carefully for a couple of slivers of metal on our grass that I didn’t want my dogs to ingest, but on the whole, it was pretty neatly done. I don’t have any complaints.
Though the odds were certainly against them, the workers still managed to exceed expectations. Kudos to them!
A Cost Potentially Reclaimed
It’s widely known that solar panels come with a hefty price tag, and Mrs.Cleveland’s system was no different. Because she purchased her PWRcell system just after it had hit the market, she admitted that the novelty of the product was certainly reflected in its price:
This is ridiculously priced. At his age, my dad will never see his money come back. We might, and our daughter definitely will. Since Generac is such a powerhouse in the generator market for individual homes, and since they’ve made generators affordable for most people, I think they will work hard to get this system to a better price point. Especially in areas where this tends to be a problem or could become a problem, it would be nice if these started to be a standard feature in homes.
Upon discovering that Mrs.Cleveland was not only harnessing enough solar energy to power her own home but also frequently feeding the grid with the surplus, I wondered whether she was being reimbursed by CoServ, her electric provider. To my surprise, Mrs.Cleveland still has to pay CoServ a minimum of $20 per month, even during months when her household is feeding the grid. And when she does end up using more energy than her solar panels can harness, she has to pay a fee slightly higher than the minimum. From September 9th to October 7th, for example, Mrs.Cleveland used 1058 kilowatt-hours of energy but only had to pay for the 220 kilowatt-hours that came from the grid, likely on days when she really cranked down her air conditioning. Mrs.Cleveland agreed that the relationship between her usage and cost is one that will continue to evolve with time:
Very rarely, on really hot days, we pull some electricity from the grid. I’m anxious to see how this changes come December, or even when we have the time change. In the winter, we don’t use the heater that much, so we shall see.
Through Generac’s app for homeowners, conveniently named Generac PowerView, solar viewers can track their usage at any given time. Mrs.Cleveland’s usage at 9:04 A.M., 1:09 P.M., 5:18 P.M., 6:27 P.M. during a particular September day is summarized in the images above. Each image shows how much the solar panels are providing (orange), how much energy is stored in the batteries (green), how much the house is using (blue), and how much is being sent back to the grid (purple). Though the positive and negative signs in the circles tend to cause some head scratches, the general consensus is the following:
A negative value in the green circle indicates that Mrs.Cleveland is using energy from her batteries. A value of 0.00 in the green circle usually means that the batteries are fully charged but aren’t being used.
The value in the orange circle increases as sunlight increases, and decreases as the sun starts to set.
A negative value in the purple circle indicates that Mrs.Cleveland is taking some energy from the grid.
The Challenge of Novelty
As I flipped through Mrs.Cleveland’s solar panel manuals, I found myself face-to-face with words like “terminal lugs” and “maximum circuit breaker.” Mrs.Cleveland chuckled as she too detailed her ongoing struggle to interpret instructions designed for tenured PhD professors or Nobel-Prize-winning lab scientists. When I asked her what she wishes she could have changed about the installation process, Mrs.Cleveland agreed that it was certainly a learning experience — for both herself and the workers:
I wish that [this system] wasn’t so new so that the people installing it could sit down with me and explain it to me. In normal circumstances, I would have done my due diligence of researching everything prior to meeting with anybody, just to be a more informed consumer. Now, I feel like I’m still playing catch up. [The workers] knew what they were doing, but they didn’t know how to convey it to the end user. They’re probably more educated now, though, because they haven’t stopped installing these since then. My dad’s was the first one they installed in the metroplex. My daughter’s was second, and mine was third. And they have hundreds locked up now.
Since understanding the intricacies of her solar panel system was a challenge in and of itself, I asked Mrs.Cleveland what advice she would give to homeowners who are hesitant to make the switch to solar. Here’s what she had to say:
Don’t be scared of it. I was pleasantly surprised by the results. All it took was that one freeze, and you can’t believe how many people are getting some form of generator power.
It looks like Texas will be seeing a lot more solar panels in the next few years. If you’re next in line, Mrs.Cleveland’s words of wisdom may just be what you need.
Unlimited in supply yet seemingly infinite in cost, solar energy has long been hailed as a promising renewable resource with a stubborn financial barrier. By providing a constant supply of energy that is available even in the presence of turbulent weather conditions, systems such as those designed by Generac could be the solution to an ever-increasing strain on natural gas pipelines. As solar power becomes increasingly affordable and accessible, one can only hope that more people begin to see the sun as the powerful enigma that it is.
Perhaps then, we will finally begin to see the light.