Zillow Has Published a Primer on Home Solar — Here Are My Reflections on It  

On April 27, Zillow published an article, “6 Questions to Ask as You Consider Home Solar.” I thought it was pretty comprehensive, but it was written for a national audience, and some of the questions are readily answered for us here in Colorado.

The article begins by asserting that, according to Zillow’s research, homes which highlight eco-friendly features like solar sell up to 10 days quicker and for 1.4% more than homes that don’t. That statistic, however, fails to distinguish between homes which have fully-owned solar installations, and homes that have leased systems or “power purchase agreements.” Those alternative arrangements basically create a situation in which the homeowner purchases electricity from two companies instead of one — still a good deal, since the solar power typically costs less than the power purchased from the utility.

Zillow’s question #1 is whether your home is suitable for solar. We all know, of course, that a south-facing roof without shading is best, but there are other considerations, such as the condition of your roof. If your roof needs replacing before you put solar panels on it, you may want to include Roper Roofing & Solar in Golden among the solar companies you interview. It’s the only solar company I know which is also a roofing company.

One question posed by Zillow is whether your HOA (if you have one) will allow solar. Fortunately, Colorado passed a law over a decade ago (C.R.S. 38-30-168) which requires HOAs to allow solar and other sustainable improvements. HOAs can regulate appearance but not prohibit solar. For example, it could require that solar panels be flush with your roof rather than angled out from it.

The article points out that if your home is not suitable for solar, you should look into community solar, for which it provides a link. Community solar is also a good alternative for renters and condo owners.

The second question is how to find a reputable installer. Personally, I prefer to hire a small (and local) family-owned company over a national business with a local sales team. I recommend Golden Solar, which has installed five systems for me over the past two decades, and Buglet Solar Electric. The owners of those two companies, Don Parker and Whitney Painter, can answer question #3, which is what incentives and rebates are available on the federal, state, local and utility level. The current federal incentive is a 26% tax credit, which drops to 22% next year and expires the following year unless Congress extends it.

Question #4 is whether there’s net metering, which allows you to “bank” your daytime production for nighttime use and carry forward your surplus solar production to future months and years. In Colorado, the answer is a resounding yes.

Question #5 is about battery storage. Net metering, in my opinion, makes home battery backup/storage unnecessary unless you are worried about power outages. (If you have life-sustaining equipment that requires uninterrupted electricity, battery storage might be appropriate.)

Where battery storage is essential, of course, is in off-grid applications, such as in a mountain cabin without accessible electricity from a utility.  I have listed such homes with impressive battery systems.

The last question which Zillow poses is whether a solar installation is worth it, admitting that this is a very personal decision.

A solar installation nowadays costs between $10,000 and $20,000 for the typical home, and you can ask the companies you interview what the return on investment will be. I have never worried about ROI, because installing solar, to me, is simply the right thing to do, satisfied as I am that it does pay for itself, whether in five years or ten.

One piece of advice not in the Zillow article is to factor in the increased electricity you will need when you buy an electric vehicle — which you will at some point, since most manufacturers plan to phase out gas-powered vehicles. Xcel Energy lets you to carry forward surplus generation from year to year, and allows you to install solar panels equivalent to double your last 12 months’ usage. (Do NOT elect to receive a yearly check from Xcel Energy for your excess solar production, because they pay you a small fraction of that electricity’s retail value — carry it forward for future use at its full retail value.)

Xcel Energy Is Penalizing Small Businesses Which Offer Workplace Charging

Golden Real Estate is justly proud — if I say so myself — of having a Net Zero Energy office, meaning that our solar photovoltaic panels produce all the electricity needed to heat, cool and power our office as well as to the charge the five Teslas owned by our agents and me and offering free EV charging to the general public. (We have four EV charging stations at our office — two for our own use and two for the public.)

Meanwhile, Xcel Energy boasts that it is moving in the direction of 100% renewable energy and facilitating the adoption of electric vehicles. A big part of that is promoting “workplace charging.”

Xcel is right to promote workplace charging over, say, charging stations at retail stores, because cars are parked for up to 8 hours at one’s workplace — long enough to fully charge almost any EV using a standard Level 2 (240V) charging station.

So why is Xcel Energy penalizing small companies like Golden Real Estate which have already installed workplace charging stations for EVs?

As stated above, we generate all the electricity needed at our office on South Golden Road. Until this March, our monthly Xcel bill was under $11 every month — the cost of being connected to Xcel’s electric grid.

But now our Xcel bill is over $300 per month, even though we are still generating all the electricity we use. How can that be?  It’s because one day in March we drew over 30,000 watts of energy during a single 15-minute period, converting us automatically from standard “commercial” service to “demand” service. That means that in addition to the charges for electricity consumption, we are now charged for the highest amount of electricity that we draw during each month.

So our electric bill at Golden Real Estate is now over $300 per month regardless of the amount of actual electricity we consume during any particular month. To put it in numbers, we are charged about $15 per kilowatt for peak demand, and our monthly maximum draw of power is usually about 20 kilowatts.  Thus, we are charged $300 each month even though our net consumption of electricity is zero!

The only way we could draw over 25 kW of electricity at a given time is because we are charging cars at all four charging stations, something Xcel says they want to encourage.

When I communicated my dilemma to Xcel Energy, the response was to tell me that they’re introducing a new EV charging tariff later this summer. Unfortunately, the tariff requires that Xcel install the charging stations and offers nothing to those of us who were early adopters and already have charging stations in place.

Under Xcel’s proposed EV tariff, my penalty would drop to a little over $100 per month. But that’s still a $100 penalty.

The logical solution would be for Xcel to modify its commercial tariff to make the demand threshold 50 or 75 kW instead of 25 kW for forcing small businesses like us into their demand tariffs.

Now some good news.

I made these same arguments during public comments at a May 13th virtual hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) adjudicating an Xcel Energy rate case. This Monday, that ALJ published his ruling and cited my own testimony in ordering Xcel to increase its demand threshold to 50 kW.

I had made the same argument a couple years ago during public comments at a regular PUC meeting, but I got no satisfaction at that time, so I wasn’t expecting to be more successful this time, but I was.

Ironically, I had already written this column with no clue that the ruling was about to be handed down. Indeed, this column was uploaded to three Jeffco weekly newspapers Monday morning without this news.

The ALJ’s ruling has a few more steps before it is finalized.  Parties to the case can make final pleas and seek Commission reconsideration, akin to last ditch arguments, but I’m hopeful that my Xcel bill will return to $10.26/month soon.