My Journey with Solar

My solar panels
I decided it was time to look into solar power. I have been thinking about it for some time now as my brother has been setting up stand-alone solar systems up north in Queensland for years and is an ongoing topic in our phone conversations. I live in a small town in rural Western Victoria, around 350 km west of Melbourne.

On this particular day, I received a phone call from someone from a solar power company that was offering systems in my area.After a few attempts to shut the call down, they were terribly persistent, not taking no for an answer. They were actually a solar company, so I thought to myself, ‘what the heck’ and decided to give them a try – at least see what they had to offer – get a quote – no harm done. I accepted and arranged to meet with one of their reps at my home. The guy arrived a week later, and we sat down and began the discussion. The offer was for a 3.3kW system with 10 x 330W Canadian mono panels and a Feronius inverter for $8500 with the STC rebate of $2,000. It seemed a bit excessive as I had been pricing solar panels, inverters, railing, wiring, switches for a while now due to ideas of planning to build my own stand-alone system sometime in the future with totals (including labour costs) being well under this figure.

Anyway, I thanked him and told him I’d get back to him.

So, the journey begins. My mission is to find the most cost-effective solar power solution for my home.
The next step is to get more quotes and make some comparisons.

I went online to a solar website and requested two quotes. Of the two that were offered, one was from Jim’s Energy Solar, the other company didn’t respond. The deal from Jim’s Energy Solar was as follows: $5670 total, being a 3.24kW system consisting of 12 x 270W Q.Cells panels, a Fronius inverter, and an STC discount of $1764. So right away, $5670 was a much better price than the previous $8500, with a saving of $2830. Drilling down into this deal, I discovered a hidden cost of $800, which turned out to be for travel expenses that didn’t show up until I questioned the discrepancy. OK, so there are travel costs involved. What I need to do now is get some quotes locally where there shouldn’t be any travel costs.

Of all the local places I tried, only one offer came through (excuses were sorry not in our service area) and it was from Keppel Prince Solar, who is located in Portland. Their offer was as follows: $6250 total for a 5.6kW system comprising of 20 x 280W poly Talesun panels, a Solis inverter, and an STC of $3,311. So, the offer was quite reasonable, with no hidden travel costs. At the time, I hadn’t heard of the Solis inverter, but after reading online reviews and forums, I found that it was quite a reputable one. So, I decided to go ahead with this offer, signed the contract and paid the deposit.

A few days later, a friend from Melbourne sent me a pic of an advert from his newspaper with an offer for a 6.2kW solar system for $4499, so I decided to chase it up as I was still in the cooling off period with Keppel Prince Solar. This seemingly too-good-to-be-true offer came from Captain Green Solar (CGS), a Sydney-based company, and resulted in the following: A total of $5099 for a 6.5kW system consisting of 21 x 310W JinkO mono panels with a GoodWe GW5000D-NS 5kW inverter (Fig 3) and an STC of $3700, a saving of $1151 over the other. The reason the difference between the advertised price of $4499 and the final price of $5099 is a $400 travel cost (they threw in an extra panel which brought it to 21 to compensate) and $200 (negotiated) for a split raised frame. Being impressed with the deal and the savings, I signed the contract and paid the deposit, then cancelled the Keppel Prince contract.

Feeling so warm and fuzzy about the deal, now 7 weeks on and still no sign of an installation, out of the blue, I received a phone call from CGS telling me that the installation would not begin until I upgraded my switchboard and that they would charge $1200 to have this done. Wow! It floored me and I felt kicked in the stomach as I’m on an extremely tight budget and will find it very difficult to raise the amount they’re asking. My switchboard is the old ceramic base type, but I have replaced all the fuse wire ceramics with plug in circuit breakers. Note that CGS knew about my switchboard layout well before signing and payment of deposit through the pics I’d taken and sent to them, and also that Keppel Prince viewed my switchboard on site and made no reference to it needing an upgrade. Anyway, I got the call on a Friday, so I had to stew on it over the weekend before I could do anything about it.

First thing Monday, I visited a local electrician, Bob Menzel from Portland, and told him what had happened. He shook his head and, having come across many solar installations and after viewing pics of the switchboard, indicated that it was not unsafe and in keeping with most houses in the area. He said the solar company probably needed more room to place their solar switches. With that, he offered to change some switches around that would allow enough room for the solar switches to be positioned. Somewhat relieved, I sent an email off to CGS explaining the proposed change to the switchboard and received a response saying they’d put it to the installer.

In the mean time, I decided to have a look at the terms and conditions on CGS’s website and, sure enough, there it was: Para 3 section (h), “In addition to the Purchase price, you may have to pay any unforeseen costs necessary to install your System (if any, not shown in the original quote). These costs will be known to you either during a pre-installation inspection, a technical phone inspection, or on the day of your installation. We will require your consent for any additional costs prior to the installation. ” Hmmmmm, you got me by the short and curlys. So, in the worst case scenario, on the day of installation, they can hit you for any extra costs and put them down to ‘unforeseen’. It seems to be a one-sided argument to me.

Moving on – so it turns out the CGS installer had accepted my solution but demanded a signed disclaimer from my electrician saying that he (the installer) would not be held responsible for the switchboard should it fail the solar installation inspection. Hmmmmm again, bolics! I would have to say that this is becoming a nightmarish situation for me. It is definitely not a pleasant experience. My star rating for them has now dropped to 3 stars on, which is a sad state for CGS, as it’s the installer causing all the pain here.

The electrician came to my home and looked at the switchboard and the wiring behind it. As he discovered, everything looked OK; the wiring was where it should be and was reasonably neat and tidy. He stated that all he could do was move the two components across to make room for a solar switch and certify it to ESV (Energy Safe Victoria) standards, but he would not sign any disclaimer. OK, at this point, it seems I have no other choice but to go with the solar installer’s initial demand to fully upgrade the switchboard. At least then the solar installer would be totally responsible for the outcome of the final inspection, and there should be no extra cost passed on to me if it fails. If I went with the first option, I’d be at risk of a failed inspection and be held responsible for the extra costs of rectifying, travel, and another inspection.

So there it is, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

I decided to contact Energy Safe Victoria to get a ruling on this from them. The following is a response in answer to my question to them: “Does a switchboard need a full replacement upgrade if it has ceramic based elements and a new solar system is to be installed?” and their answer:
“There is no specific requirement to retrofit or upgrade an older style switchboard because of the age of the property or the switchboard itself. As you have had the switchboard inspected by your electrician and he is satisfied that it complies, I don’t see any issues. The inspection of the solar power installation, I believe, will relate to that portion of the electrical installation only”.In other words, the inspection for solar should focus only on the newly installed solar power switch at the switchboard, all the way back to the inverter and panels.

There’s been a change of heart by the installer? The offer is now that my electrician makes a change to the switchboard and only needs to provide a ‘Non-Prescribed Certificate of Energy Safe (COES)’ – pity this wasn’t offered in the first place. It would have saved a lot of grief, heartache, and time if it had. I asked and received confirmation from the solar company that, once the certificate had been received by them, installation could begin.

Now it seems my electrician has dropped the case and is now not returning any of my calls. What the hell? Thanks very much, “mate”? Now, I’ll have to find another electrician. More delays!

So, I eventually came across another local electrician in Ben Rose who was more than happy to do the job. After inspecting the switchboard, he quoted a price that was reasonable, which I accepted and then arranged to have my switchboard made solar ready in about a week’s time. Phew! – Thank goodness for that!

After another 2 weeks, the switchboard was ‘Solar Ready’ with a COES certificate thanks to my new preferred electrician, Ben. I’ve sent the certificate and pics of the modified switchboard (Fig 1) to CGS and am currently awaiting word on when installation can begin.

The updated switchboard
Fig 1. Switchboard with the new solar relay.

Solar installation began on the day after the switchboard was modified, but there was a catch. For some reason, the solar installer wouldn’t install 7 of the 21 panels on the north facing pergola roof as arranged before the signing of the contract. Instead, we came to an ‘agreement’ of 2 strings (1 x 10 panels and 1 x 11 panels) on the west side of the house roof (Fig 2). OK – not exactly as I wanted, but you can’t argue with the installer, right? As it turned out, installation was relatively straight-forward with no reference to the switchboard layout and no ‘unforeseen’ costs, which was a relief. All that is left now is the inspection.
I since found the reason why the pergola roof with the 7 panels wasn’t used and is that the total of the open circuit voltages of the 14 panels on the house roof came to 567Vdc (where Voc=40.5Vdc and 40.5 x 14 = 567Vdc), which exceeded the maximum input voltage to the inverter of 550Vdc.

My solar panels
Fig 2. My Jinko solar panels

My solar system is up and running and pumping power to my home and out to the grid. I will need to contact my power retailer, Alinta, to arrange a FiT refund of 11.3 cents/kWh on my power bill. My next power bill will also have an added one-off cost of $60 from my power distributor, Powercor, to enable the smartmeter to record power flow to the grid.

Fig 3. The Goodwe Grid Tied PV Inverter

I have set up the wifi connection from the inverter to my router through the Goodwe portal such that I am now able to monitor data associated with my solar array. Data values such as total voltage and current from the 11 panel string Vpv1 & Ipv1, total voltage and current from the 10 panel string Vpv2 & Ipv2 and power from the inverter are recorded at two-minute intervals for around 10 hours every day. It’s the middle of winter here in Heywood, Vic, so the current and power figures won’t be outstanding, but at least I can get a clear indication of what to look out for. In doing so, I have come across a minor intermittent discrepancy with Ipv1 in that, for some reason, the current on Ivp1 drops to zero amps while Ivp2 remains steady at greater than 0 amps at intermittent intervals. For more information, please see the data sheet below:

Fig 4. Table shows current on Ivp1 drops to zero amps

I sent an email off to CGS support describing this condition and received an answer the same day saying it was a cloud based issue. Looking at the data more closely, I discovered a re-occurring pattern of Ivp1 dropping to zero amps. Looking over a 3-day period, I could see it happened at similar time periods on each day, which sort of does away with a cloud issue and points more to an inverter issue. Not convinced with the CGS’s answer, I decided to send an email off to Goodwe support in China and received a response a few hours later saying that they would monitor my portal and make changes to the inverter remotely if needed. Looking over the charts made with data from the inverter, I can see that the issue has been resolved by Goodwe remotely the day after I sent the email to them. I’m truly impressed by the response from Goodwe.

It’s been a month since installation and not a word about when the inspection is to happen. I decided to give the inspector a call and was surprised to find that he had already done the job and sent the paperwork off to CGS. So CGS has been sitting on it for over a week now without a word? I gave them a call, with the response, “We’ll get back to you.” Three days later, still no response, so I called them again, this time on a different number and with a more positive response in that they have sent the paperwork off to my power distributor, Powercor, and they will send a copy to me. CGS must have sent it right after my phone call to them because Powercor sent me an email saying they had received the paperwork for my case and were now waiting for a response from my power retailer, Alinta, about an hour after I made the call to CGS.

Over the past 2 weeks, there’s been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between CGS and Alinta Energy. Initially, it was CGS to get the paperwork off to Powercor, then it was Alinta who needed a phone call to get them to get back to Powercor. My last phone call to Alinta informed me that Powercor would be arranging a day for someone to visit my premises to re-configure the smartmeter for solar. I can see that my smartmeter is already registering what kWh is being sent to the grid, but I’m not sure what that is all about? Alinta sent me a form called the ‘application form standard feed-in tariff (Victoria)’ which I had to fill in and send to them before they would respond to Powercor. So, finally, I get an email from Powercor stating that they had serviced the smartmeter and that I would now be paid for what I was sending to the grid, also known as Feed-in-tariff (FiT). In doing so, they zeroed the kWh readings on the smartmeter for both incoming and outgoing, which means all that has been put out to the grid since installation (some 300kWh’s worth) has fallen into a black hole. Oh well – everything seems to be in order now, so all that’s left to do now is set up the charts in Excel to monitor the solar energy generated, energy sent out to the grid, and energy taken from the grid in kWh’s on a daily basis and also to view the next power bill.

I have constructed the charts in Excel as can be seen below (Fig 5):

Fig 5. My solar charts

The top chart shows the solar pattern over a 24 hour period on a good sunny day in winter (in Rual, Western Victoria). The bottom chart displays the accumulated energy generated and consumed over this period.

My first bill from Alinta with power to the grid entries shows a FiT of $9.96 and that Powercor charged me $60 to re-configure the smartmeter. This puts the total amount well over what I usually pay a month, but I expect this to drop severely in the coming months.

A couple of things regarding the solar credits earned and the power retailer:
1) Earned solar credits are not repaid in cash unless you switch retailers (see 2). It is debited over the winter months when power costs from the grid exceed the solar credits to the grid.2) If you change power retailers, the credit gained from the original power retailer may not be transferable to the new power retailer or debited to your bank account. Check this out first before you make the change.

It is now over six months since I had my solar panels installed, and during that time I have accumulated a solar credit of $118.76. This means that my past four monthly power bills ended up with a credit balance where before solar they were a debit amount of around $90. Below, I have included a chart that depicts the solar power distribution over the period (Fig 6).

Fig 6. Chart shows the power distribution over a summer period

The chart shows that over the period, an average of ~4kWh was taken from the grid, ~24kWh was sent to the grid, ~30kWh was generated by the panels, with a load at the house of 12kWh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *