Solar on the Ranch

In May of 2016 we had a 20 kWh solar array installed on the roof of our barn. From there we back fed the power to our house and excess power going back to the grid. This is a summery of system performance and some thoughts….

Before I get into the costs and payback there are a few things regulated in the State of Wisconsin. First if you install a system 20 kWh or less the power company is required by law to buy back the power at retail price. Also the State of Wisconsin and Utility reviews and approves all systems to be installed.

At the time of installation 2 incentives existed a Focus on Energy “reward”, basically cash back, and a Federal Tax credit.

In late February 2016 about 2 months before we installed the solar system we took delivery on a Tesla Model S electric vehicle. I had to account for the increase in electricity in my usage numbers, which turned out to be quite easy because like a traditional car tracks mileage, tesla tracks kWh usage. We charge the Tesla in our Garage each night. On average we use 303 kWh or $30.23 of power to charge each month.

As you read the following please keep in mind this information applies to our installation located in Manitowoc Wisconsin.


By the numbers

Estimated Performance of System

24098 kWh (11 year ave.)

$2860 $ saving (11 year ave.)

15.5 year payback without incentives

11 year payback with State and Federal incentives

Actual Performance of System (20 month average)

20915 kWh saved

$2085 $ savings / year

22 year payback without incentives

14.3 year payback with State and Federal incentives


As you can see our actual performance lags behind estimated and is disappointing. There are many factors that can effect actual vs. estimated performance; the largest one is weather (sunshine). Our installation has no obstructions but we did learn that the snow does not melt of as quickly as we had hoped and the slope of our barn roof does not help this situation. Last year we had extended periods of snow over the panels. Although I looked for a way to rectify this I found that the snow tends to hit the (warm) panel melt and then freezes. It was impossible to clean them off weather from the ground or from the roof. For our installation cleaning them from the roof is very dangerous and I decided it’s not worth the risk of injury. If you’re contemplating solar installation this is a major consideration if snow coverage is a possibility.

So the million-dollar question, is it worth the investment? Not such an easy one to answer. I know most businesses would like to see less than 1 year payback on capitol equipment purchases so that’s not good. I looked up the average numbers of years a family stays in their home and it’s 7 years. The average person would only have about half of their return back before they sell. Not sure if there are any numbers as to a solar system adding to the value of the property. Like most anything else you most likely only get a percentage back, probably better to remodel that bathroom or kitchen. So it doesn’t make financial sense, how about emotional sense? No doubt folks can justify a lot if it makes them feel good.

Why we did it? We justified we could do it and were marginally happy with an 11 year payback, we expect to be in this house for a long time and are happy paying ourselves vs. the power company. I also use the analogy of antilock breaks and/or airbags, what’s common on all cars now started out on luxury cars. We felt purchasing and installing now helps companies develop future technology lowering costs for the long term for more consumers.

The way I see it now is that Incentives (subsidies) cannot go on indefinitely nor should they. So three things need to happen, electricity costs need to rise significantly (not good for consumer) and / or system costs need to drop significantly or systems become better at producing more power at the same capital cost.

In Wisconsin to get to the 7 year payback window power rates would have to double from 0.0997/kWh to 0.2/kWh with normal inflation this will be around 2037. Or System cost needs to fall over 50%. Or output needs to triple at the same system cost. Most likely a combination of all three will take place over time. If you’re in a state with rates closer to 20 cents vs 10 cents and have more sunny days than Wisconsin it’s worth checking out.

So my opinion: Financial incentives are not there, cost / benefit is questionable. The “saving the planet” argument is also questionable, there are some very damaging chemicals and minerals used to produce solar cells, so how much is the net benefit, I don’t know. I hope in time these questions are answered with suitable solutions for now I’m still up in the air, not convinced about the positives or negatives.

And by the way; Loss of grid power and solar. After installation we had 2 severe storms about 1 month apart. The first time we lost power for about 24 hours the second time we lost power for about 36 hours. Regulation has it that when the grid goes down our inverters also have to shut off supplying power. SO the day after the storm it was sunny and we could be producing our own power but were not. This is for safety reasons so no power goes back while crews are working to repair the grid. This can be fixed but of course it will cost more, to date we have not done it.

Please reply and let me know your thoughts on this blog topic

The following is a video time lapse of the 2 day installation, enjoy

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