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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Installing a Solar PV Upgrade During the Winter

Andrew Hammer, owner of Natosi Solar, hoists up the finished array

Barb and Greg Whitchurch

We’ve been trying to electrify our lives for some time now, mainly in an effort to help preserve some remnants of our environmental status quo: the air we breathe and the climate we depend upon. But also, to preserve our own personal health and comfort and the affordability of our lifestyle.

We installed about 4kW of rooftop solar PV with battery back-up in 2010, then built a Passive House addition to our house for Greg’s parents in 2014 and installed another 3kW in 2016 to “net-zero” that. Then we replaced our gas-mobiles with EVs and are again spending about $2,000 a year on electricity — but $0 for gasoline for lawn, garden, logging, and driving.

So, we added another 10kW this January for a total of 16.7kW AC. We’re planning to replace our electric water heater with a heat pump, to be driving more after COVID, and, as we age, to replace our wood stoves with heat pumps. Being retired and on fixed incomes, we now hope we’ve ended our utility bills forever.

We’d been researching vendors for two years. We ruled out trackers because of their maintenance and failure records versus the relatively small contribution made by the tracking itself, and a few extra panels, which are very cheap now, will make up the difference.

Adam, the electrician, sits on an I-beam to make the final connections. Note adjusting screw above and to the right of the pole.

We skipped through a bunch of providers who seemed to be looking for the low-hanging fruit of people who aren’t interested in details and system comparisons; who are basically willing to just write a check to the lowest bidder. We did look carefully at options and features; final cost per watt was not at the top of our list. Reputation, experience and patience were more important to us.

Natosi Solar (natosisolar.com/) did not try to fast-talk or pressure us, or have set offerings or a limited product selection. They were open to new strategies and didn’t pretend that direction, angles and snow “don’t matter that much,” claims which sloppy installers often make. They also do large commercial projects and were endlessly patient during the planning stages.

Our location calls for a tall and wide array that would fit into a corner of the woods behind our house. We wanted the process to be as “green” as possible, so no concrete. Greg talked to Zach LaPorte at Techno Metal Posts (bit.ly/vt-helical), and he engineered a beautiful design with a large screw pile and outrigger braces underground. However, we wanted to put up a very large single-pole array so as to avoid multiple foundations, and the weight and wind load metrics ruled out the helical pile. (But they work wonderfully in most PV applications, thereby eliminating the most climate-damaging material used in construction: concrete.)

Concrete is back in the picture – yuk. We measured distances and drops in elevation from the neighbor’s driveway to see if we could avoid a pumper by sluicing the stuff down a chute; but no – yuk, again. But at least we have only one pole. Natosi chose a 10-inch-by-17-foot schedule 80 (VERY heavy-duty) pole and a 3-foot-by-8 foot Sonotube. Greg talked to area concrete providers, and we ordered 20% fly ash (low-cement) “green-ish” concrete which takes a while longer to set but is actually stronger in the end (see bit.ly/gerg-concrete).

Barb and Remi (Saint Bernard) pose in front of the pole-mounted array, tilted for deep winter. (Images: Whitchurch)

Greg had been researching tiltable arrays for some time, but when Natosi joined in the search they discovered MT Solar (MTSolar.us/). They also found a sale on 440W bifacial panels that cost almost the same as the 380W panels we’d initially chosen. So Natosi ordered the MT Solar “extra heavy duty” Top-15-Tall mount and its rail kit.

This MT Solar mounting is tiltable, allowing one to easily and quickly adjust the seasonal angle as often as one wishes (at each equinox is most common) to take advantage of the sun’s angle of elevation as it changes during the year. It also allows for all of the assembly to be done at waist height! No need to balance on step ladders, moving them constantly, stretching precariously to reach stuff. The whole thing can easily be moved up or down during assembly of the array. Then, when all the detail work is done, the array is hoisted up and fastened permanently at the top of the pole in just a few minutes. This is faster, safer and encourages more careful workmanship.

Gas-mobile trucks and excavation equipment are huge contributors to climate change, so we avoided idling at the site, and we chose the shortest route to the house for the underground cable. (We looked into an overhead drop for the wiring to save digging and conduit, but it didn’t work out.)

The path toward “greenness” is a minefield of pollution compromises. (Think hybrid cars!) The sustainability contributions of your pro-environment efforts can be set back years by the choices you make on the path toward your goal. Many providers do not seem to care one whit about unnecessary pollution during their work. It’s up to the homeowner to ask for these sorts of considerations.

Metal piles, poles, racking, wiring, conduit and PV modules are recyclable, unlike concrete and fossil fuel emissions. But even when separated and deposited correctly, only some of our recycling actually gets recycled. And the processes required to collect, transport and recycle those materials have their own very substantial environmental insults.

The new finished array is to the left of the Passive House cottage. Note more PV located at the right, on the main house, is not all visible.

As is their custom, Natosi smoothed out their tracks, placed netting on the slopes, and reseeded everything through a blanket of hay. They hid most of the conduit and made everything that shows neat and attractive. They were most courteous, careful (all vaccinated and wearing masks inside), and open to suggestions.

Don’t get too stuck on return on investment and payback period. The sooner you do it – with the higher Federal Tax Credit – and the more PV you put up, the sooner it’ll “pay off” — but also the sooner you can feel more free to continue electrifying your life.

We bought a 16-foot Garant plastic roof snow rake locally and the 22-foot version of the bit.ly/snopro2, which works great! In the deep winter position, snow seldom settles on the panel, but if it does, a whack on the lower I-beam with a two by four produces a cascading snowfall.

Now we have a nice new lawn ornament. A kind of high-tech sunflower that will generate clean energy for many decades to come, once it overcomes the embodied pollution and carbon costs of its manufacture, transportation and installation. Oh, well.

For many years, the Whitchurches have been gradually working toward electrification. They are owners of LEAF and Niro EVs, a net-zero Passive House in Middlesex, Vermont (bit.do/phc-vtbiz2) and are board members of VT Passive House bit.do/mdx-mec-bldg, bit.do/gkw-li.

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