The Great Solar Panel Rip-off: Part 1

dsc_0002-1The year 2011 will be remembered in New Jersey for things like Hurricane Irene, Jersey Shore and the great solar panel on a pole project.  Although some might disagree on which is the greatest disaster to hit New Jersey this year, my vote would be for the solar panels since it is a direct rip-off of monies from the citizens of New Jersey.  In this five part post, I will walk you through on why the project will never deliver what was promised.  The New Jersey Assemblyman who has been the primary sponsor of all the legislative bills that force projects like this on New Jersey.  The company and its CEO who has benefited with the awarding of close to $1 billion of no-bid contracts for this and other projects like it.  Finally a summation of the facts and the questions that need to be answered, but first, lets take a look at just what is happening right now with this program.

As everyone knows these solar panels are being affixed to utility poles across the state.  These panels are 2.5 feet by 5 feet and are permanently mounted at a 45% angle.  PSE&G is in the process of installing 220,000 of these panels across the state.  PSE&G claims that all of these panels combined will produce 40 Megawatts of power.  These claims have been driving me crazy since they just don’t add up, so I ran some calculation and here are my results.  Please bear with me as I walk you through them.

Since each panel is 2.5 feet by 5 feet, the square footage of a single panel is 12.5 feet squared (ft2).  Scientific calculations are carried out in the metric system, the conversion would result in a single panel being 1.16 meters square (m2).  One reference which offers an excellent explanation of just how a solar cell works is “Chemistry Explained”.  According to them, the efficiency of a solar cell is 10% for the most common ones.  Using this efficiency calculation, a square meter of solar panels will produce 100 watts per square meter.  Therefore, the solar panels being installed on the poles would generate 116 watts each, at maximum efficiency.  PSE&G claims that each panel will produce 220 watts per panel.  If this claim is true, then the efficiency of these solar panels will be 19%.  This is a very high number for solar panels since this would require the use of very exotic materials in their manufacturing, but let us say that the PSE&G numbers are correct.  At this time I want to introduce one other factor; the wattage generated is Direct Current (DC).  You will see soon why this is important.

PSE&G’s plan is to install 220,000 of these panels across the state.  So if we multiply 1.16 meters by 220,000 panels we get 255,200 m2.  Multiplying 255,200 by 220 watts we get 48,400,000 watts produced from all of the panels, if they are producing at 100% efficiency.  We have to do another conversion here and that is to convert watts to megawatts output.  Doing this we obtain 48 Megawatts (MW) for the total project.  This is a little over what PSE&G is claiming the project can be expected to produce.  PSE&G is projecting an output of 40 MW when all of the panels are installed.  This difference can also be explained.

I told you to keep in mind that the electricity generated by the solar panels is Direct Current or as better known; DC.  The electricity entering your home though is Alternating Current which is known as AC.  Because of this, the DC current must be “converted” into AC.  There if also one other little problem, the voltage must be “upped” to 120 Volts for it to be compatible with the current entering your home.  Without going into details, this is done by putting the individual solar cells that make up the panel in series and then using a device called an “inverter” to convert the DC to AC electricity.  This is the exact opposite of what a transformer does when it converts your home electricity to the current that can be accepted by any of your electronic devices like a computer, cell phone or I-Pad.  It also has the same inherent problem, just like everything in the real world there is a price to be paid for changing something, and in this case it is a loss of energy.  To do all of this converting and lose 20% is not out of the question and this would explain the difference of the calculated 48 Megawatts (MW) and the projected 40 Megawatts (MW) that is being claimed by PSE&G. 

Let’s use PSE&G’s numbers for this exercise, but please keep another word in mind and that is the word, “inverter”.  Trust me; it will come up later in this series.  Tomorrow we will take a look at the installation of these solar panels and how they might affect the electrical generation claims that have been made for the program.

The Great Solar Panel Rip-off: Part 2

The Great Solar Panel Rip-off: Part 3

The Great Solar Panel Rip-off: Part 4

The Great Solar Panel Rip-off: Part 5

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12 Comments

  1. Keith Jensen says:

    I do not think global warming is true and I could not be happier that NJ has exited RGGI. That being said and my position now qualified, I have been outspoken with respect to these solar panels.

    (Not to take away from future articles, sorry Rich and Ed)

    The straw that broke the camels back is when one of these panels was installed in front of my parents’ bay window, about 15′ from their glass, smack dab in the middle of their view.

    Several things to consider:
    1. Efficiency. At best each panel will power 2 light bulbs a day. Thats for one house, not for every house in the area of that panel.
    2. Value. Cost of each panel will take more than 10 years+ to recoup itself; excluding the cost for upkeep, installation and maintenance. Sending two men to install it is expensive, if they only power two lightbulbs, and thats only when the sun is out.
    3. Aesthetics. They just don’t look good, but thats opinion and hard to argue.
    4. Safety. Notwithstanding parked cars, but those installed close to schools. They are set at a perfect angle for a sheet of ice and snow pack to eventually build and slide ride off on a child, traffic or parked car.

    I put myself on the Record at a Ft. Lee Mayor and Council meeting asking for them to speak out against the solar panels, and all they had to say was that they can not do anything about it.

    Sad. I hope everyone speaks out against this fleecing of NJ.

  2. JasonRabbit75 says:

    I believe that PSE&G is buying SunWave’s from Petra Solar. Their technical specifications are located here and here, though the panels appear to be larger than the ones PSE&G is installing. I believe the “CEC efficiency” relates to inverter performance–that may help you get more accurate numbers.

  3. JasonRabbit75:

    You are right, Petra Solar is the supplier of these panels. The efficiency is not only the conversion of DC to AC, but it is also the step-up to match the line voltage. I will have more on Petra later.

  4. Nora Brower says:

    Richard, Thanks for investigating yet another taxpayer scam at the hands of the PC crowd. I just hope you’re including in your series the little scam Woodbridge pulled on taxpayers, installing these panels on schools and government buildings (which need to be re-roofed whether they needed it or not because panel installation destroys the roofing material). The mayor ballyhoo’d his favorite catchphrase - that all this “saves money” and was completed “at no cost to the taxpayers” — but where does he think the state and federal government get money for “grants”???? Who does he think is on the hook for municipal bonds? Does he think we’re that stupid? I’m sure this same story played out in other NJ towns. Thanks again for your reporting

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  6. Sim says:

    It would be difficult to find a more costly,… And co2 consuming installation than this pole-mounted setup. My only conclusion is that this is a public jobs Program, not an energy program.

    Every pole must be visited by a gas guzzling bucket truck, to install a single panel on a galvanized steel frame, each with a separate inverter, and step up transformer, with equally difficult inspection, monitoring and maintenance.

    I don’t know if it is still true, but the old saw was that solar panels consumed more energy to create than they would ever deliver in their lifetime. With this setup, there is no economies of scale found with field or roof top installations.

    The cost of the project to install 200,000 panels is $773 million to deliver 40 megawatts or $19million per megawatt. A google search finds little cost/benefit information ( not surprising) but here is a list of what I could find:
    Gila Bend: $1.45b 280 MW. $5.1M/MW
    Excelon. $60M. 10mw. $6M/MW
    Meadowlands $18M. 3MW. $6M/MW

    So this installation is FOUR times more expensive than other solar installations!!!!

  7. Zeus says:

    Congratulations on vastly misrepresenting the facts. You cite “Chemistry Explained” but completely misstate the expected production of solar materials. “According to them, the efficiency of a solar cell is 10% for the most common ones.” This is not what they say. “When converted by a solar cell of 10 percent efficiency (presently reached or exceeded by most commercially available solar panels), …. However, where surface areas are at a premium…more efficient solar cells… are available from carefully engineered Si cells or from GaAs, reaching efficiencies close to 25 percent.” Considering you base your entire analysis on the 10% value, which is not correct, the remainder of your analysis is significantly devalued. In fact most Tier I panels available today are between 14% and 16% efficient. I don’t know whether this is from a lack of understanding on on your part or a deliberate misrepresentation, but the effect is the same.

    Furthermore, you fail to understand or reveal the relationship between kilowatts and kilowatt hours. Kilowatts are a measure of the efficiency of the panels (e.g., PSE&G says their panels produce 220W). This represents what the panels will produce under ITC (Ideal Test Conditions, generally 1000W/sq m at a constant temp) and is not meant to represent reality. Ideal Test Conditions do not exist outside a lab. No one is contending they do. Essentially the Kilowatt rating of the panels is akin to a measure of how fast a car can go at top speed. Kilowatt hours are the actual measure of energy produced and used (e.g., how many miles the car actually drove). Many people are confused by the fact that Kilowatt terminology reverses the placement of the word “hours” relative to other relationship measurements with which they are familiar. For the purposes of this article you have ignored all such distinctions. This suggests that you do not want your audience to understand the issue, you simply want a chorus of “Amen” from the choir. I understand the impulse, I like to have people agree with me and tell me I’m right too,

    To establish the relationship between rated kW and kWh (i.e., the production of the panes over time) there are easily available tools designed by very intelligent people far more steeped in the precise physics of solar production. One of the best simple calculators available is PVWatts . (Feel free to use version 2 if you prefer). This web calculator bakes in 50+ years of climatological data and other factors to help us quickly establish how much energy a system of X size will produce over the course of a year depending on where it is and which way it points. According to PVWatts 1kW of solar panels in Newark, NJ (the weather station location in Northern NJ, feel free to use Atlantic City if you prefer, the differences will be negligible) will produce 1173kWh of energy over the course of a year assuming an orientation of 180 degrees (due South) and a tilt of 45 degrees. Thus to simply convert kW to kWh for a system of any size (since the scaling is linear) we can use a multiplier of 117%.

    Please also note that this is AC production. One of the factors I have used is what is called the Derate factor. This measures the loss between the panel and what is output by the inverter. I set that value to 0.77, or a 23% loss, which you have promised to devote another whole post to. Don’t spend so much time on it. Again, smarter heads than you or me have already accounted for many of these factors. In practice within the solar industry it is generally accepted that due to the increased efficiency of modern inverters derate values of 80% (0.80) or better are standard. I base most of my solar predictions on a Derate of 0.82, but for today’s argument let’s stick with your number of 0.77.

    PSE&G will install 220,000 220W panels for a total of 48,400,000W or 48.4MW of panels. At 180 degrees and a a 45 degree tilt, with a derate of 0.77 these panels can be expected to produce 57,262,000wH or 57.262MWh of power. If the panels are installed at 165 degrees (establishing a +/- 15 degree margin of error) the system will produce 57.01mWh. PSE&G’s prediction of 40mWh of power likely considerably understates the expected production. In fact it allows approximately 30% in penalties for things that lie outside the design of the system including things like shade, poor installation and bureaucratic incompetence. To me it sounds like they are underpromising with the expectation of overdelivering in the end.

    For anyone who has reached the end of this comment, thanks for sticking with it. Even if you disagree I acknowledge your commitment to reasoned discourse. For the purposes of full disclosure I will state that I consider myself a left-of-center moderate politically and I work within the solar industry. There are many issues regarding solar power that lie outside the scope of this comment and the above blog post. It is also possible to spend a great deal of time arguing about how efficient solar panels are and obscure the issue in technical sounding mumbo jumbo. At the end of the day, however, we can simply look to the large installed base of solar systems to validate tools like PVWatts and other predictive systems. They work.

  8. Keith Jensen says:

    Don’t feel so bad. It happens every where else. Just look at this article:

    http://campaign2012.washingtonexaminer.com/article/firm-sells-solar-panels-itself-taxpayers-pay/434251

    Mr. Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner points out the same fleecing and questionable deals at the highest levels of our government.

    Perhaps, he’d be interested in New Jersey as a case study?

  9. Donald MacLeay says:

    Time to send the trucks out to clean the 220,000 solar panels mounted on 220,000 telephone poles. That can’t cost much, can it?

  10. Rob Eichmann says:

    That’s our “stimulus” money and the jobs it “created”.

  11. Francis Adolf says:

    Here’s my letter to the editor exposing these lousy solar panels. http://www.nj.com/gloucester/voices/index.ssf/2011/05/payback_slow_for_states_solar.html
    Here’s a typical liberal response to my letter that in the end proves my point.
    http://www.nj.com/gloucester/voices/index.ssf/2011/05/pole-mounted_solar_not_such_a.html

  12. Francis:

    You can’t argue with stupid people.