Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Power Grid Failed for a Few Hours on Sunday. Here's What Happened.

On Sunday a little after 2 PM I had taken my daughter out for a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches when my wife texted: "The power just went out."

The power has "blinked" a few times during the night in recent weeks. We notice when certain appliances in the bedroom light up after coming back on. It's annoying, but not so frequent as to rise to a serious problem. I thought this might be another instance of that. It wasn't.

At 2:21 PM our local utility Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. (CenHUD) texted to inform us that "We believe there is an outage" affecting our address. The message estimated that 608 customers were without power at that moment and that it was expected to be restored by 5:30 PM. 

My daughter and I finished our lunch and drove home. My outdoor lights — both at the front porch and outside the garage doors — were lit. And inside, my wife was watching TV as if nothing were amiss. To her nothing was. Yet there was no indication from CenHUD that the power outage had been fixed.

I opened up the SolarEdge monitoring app on my phone and saw the information displayed at the left. It showed that my solar panels were generating 330 watts of power, all of it flowing directly to my house. The TV was working normally as were the cable modem and Wi-Fi routers that supplied it with content. Lights came on normally in the bathrooms and the kitchen. Had I not received the text message from CenHUD, I might have been unaware there was a problem with the power grid at all. 

As far as I could tell, all the power we were using at that moment was coming directly from the roof panels themselves, and nothing was coming from the battery. I explained all this to my wife, who was suddenly rather impressed. In the months before we signed the papers to install the panel-and-battery system I had made myself something of a pest on the subject of solar power. Now it was paying off. As the implications of the moment dawned on her, she slapped me a high five. 

I settled into my office to watch an MLS Playoff game on my iPad. My daughter watched a movie in the family room. Life proceeded as normal. 

While I was watching the game, I kept an eye on the SolarEdge app an outage map that CenHUD had provided. 

The estimated number of affected customers grew to about 1,000 and the estimated time to resolution went from 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM. No explanation for a cause was given, but it was likely routine. A faulty line or a blown transformer. 

But I started to wonder what might happen if the outage dragged on into the night. Saturday was a sunny day that started cold with temps below freezing but ended in the mid-60s. The sun was due to set just before 6 PM. If the outage were not resolved, we'd be running on battery power, something we've yet to experience. 

Fortunately, we didn't have to find out what it's like on battery power. CenHUD corrected its outage on schedule and our connection resumed before sunset. 

I went back into the monitoring app the next day and looked a little more closely at the data. 

It's clear from the data that prior to the grid failure, the panels had been producing substantially more power than the house was consuming at the time. And in fact, had we upped our consumption, say to bake a cake, or had we wanted to turn on the air conditioning, we would have been fine to do so. 

Since it was a sunny and clear day, at the moment of the grid failure, the panels had been generating 6.2 kWh worth of power, and through the inverter, exporting most of that externally to CenHUD. Our consumption at that moment was less than 1.2 kWh. What I think happened is that when the inverter temporarily lost its connection to the grid, it simply stopped sending out that excess power. 

Obviously, we were lucky that this outage happened on a day with sunny conditions. Power grids fail during severe weather events all the time. Part of my calculus in adding the solar panels and the battery has been to hedge against these moments and improve our chances of easily lasting through these moments with an easy source of power plus battery backup. And I don't expect everything to work as it did on Sunday. I've been told that when running on all-battery power during the night, we'll want to be careful with our consumption, and avoid high-consuming activities. But as yet I've no experience against which to gauge that advice. 

Meanwhile, I have an update on October's performance. For the entire month, we produced 811.87 kWh against total consumption of 515.48, leaving us with a production ratio of 1.58, which is both higher than I reported here on Oct. 19 and also higher than the level of 1.25 I recorded for the month of September. I had hoped to finish with that ratio above 1.6, and before some rainy days last week, it had indeed risen above that level, only to settle lower.

I exported 570 kWh or 70 percent of the total amount produced, and that added up to more than twice the 274 kWh I imported from CenHUD's grid. Overall I produced nearly half or 47 percent of the power I consumed and imported 53 percent. And despite Sunday's brief outage, usage of the battery remained at zero. 

I still haven't seen a bill from CenHUD against which to compare these results, though one is expected any day now. That will be the subject of my next post. 

Friday, October 21, 2022

Music on Friday: Let's start with John Prine

I've got a huge collection and I rarely share it. So I thought I'd start posting some of my holdings on Fridays. (The YouTube link is  So here's a nice version of John Prine doing "Souvenirs" which he recorded with Steve Goodman in a much more widely recognized version. It's a great song that gets better and more poignant as the listener gets older. The performance is taken from a DVD of Prine doing the "Sessions at W. 54th" which was a public television series produced from 1997-2000 as an East Coast knock-off of Austin City Limits. I remember Prine was touring that year, but for whatever reason, I missed the opportunity to see him perform. His loss to COVID still stings. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

It's been four months since my solar system was installed. Here's how it's going.

The system went live during the mid-afternoon of June 17, which means that as of this writing, I now have about four months of operational data upon which to draw some early conclusions.

First, let's start with the big numbers. In four months, the system has generated 4.81-megawatt hours of power. During the same period, my house consumed 6.42-megawatt hours. Conclusion: In four months I generated 75 percent of the power I consumed. So far so good. 

But there's more to understand. During the summer months, I was running the air conditioning, and on some days the pool heater. AC use was fairly constant throughout the summer. The all-electric pool heater, I quickly learned from watching the data in the tracking app provided by SolarEdge, the manufacturer of the basement inverter, raised the overall electrical demand significantly when it was in use. Below is the graph for July's consumption (red) and total production from the solar panels (green) and self-consumption (blue). 

As you can see, the pool heater was running full blast all day on July 1 and not as much during the majority of the month. July was hot, and once the water in the pool reached its desired temperature, it didn't require much effort from the heater to keep it there. I also made a determined effort to keep the heater turned off during the month because I was a little surprised at how much power it consumes. All in, during July, I produced a little more than 57 percent of the power my house consumed. In August, that figure rose to nearly 63 percent. 

And then came September. It was cooler than expected and despite several days with temperatures in the mid- to high-80s, the overall need for air conditioning declined, as did the desire for comfortable water in the swimming pool. We had it closed for the season on Sept. 15 and rarely turned on the AC to cool the house. Data from SolarEdge shows that my system produced 1.02 megawatt hours against consumption of 821 kilowatts. In short, I produced 1.25 times the power I consumed. See the graphic below. 

This aligns with an early hope I had for the system before it was installed: That New York's sunny but cooler days of late summer and early fall would work to our advantage. I was right. October has been even better: As of today, the production-to-consumption ratio has risen to 1.55 with more than two weeks to go in the month. 

I'm curious about production during the winter months. For one thing, the days are shorter. The sun hits the panels progressively later in the morning and leaves them earlier in the evening. It's worth comparing a productive day from June to one in October.

This graph is from June 25. The panels first begin to produce at about 5:45 AM, and did so consistently until about 8:15 PM. The pool heater was off, but the AC was cycling on and off, as evident from the red spikes in consumption. This was the most productive day in June, incidentally, and it ended just short of breaking even against overall consumption. For the record, the official sunrise occurred at 5:22 AM while the sunset was at 8:33 PM. 

Now take Oct. 6, which is pretty close to the most productive day I've experienced so far this month. 

As you can see, the system produced more than twice what the house consumed, but its window of production was more than four hours shorter, starting at about 7:15 AM (official sunrise 6:57 AM) and ending shortly after 6 PM (official sunset, 6:29 PM). Obviously what I'll be watching is how the shorter days of winter narrow that production window even further. And then there's snow to consider: Panels that are covered in snow can't produce electricity. 

There are also a few other things I have yet to fully understand: How does exported power affect my utility bill? The green spaces in the graphs indicate when the system is producing more power than the house is consuming. That power is then "exported to the grid," and the numbers on my utility meter run backward. I've been photographing the meter readings several times a week to track the progress and can confirm the numbers are somewhat lower now than they were from their late August peak. But I don't yet fully understand how this affects my bill, in part because I'm now billed on a bi-monthly and not monthly basis. I'll write more about this as the puts and takes clear up. But overall I'm liking what I see. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Money Post: What's Included in my Solar Power System, and What It's Going To Cost

The papers are signed, all the arrangements are made, and the contractors arrive this week to start installing things on my roof, in my basement and on the outside of the house.

This, as they say, is the moment when the rubber meets the road, or in this case, my wallet.

When you start a conversation about getting a solar power syste, the subject turns quickly to overall costs and the break-even point. So let’s start at the top line and with the big number:

What I’m getting:

39 REC Alpha 395 Pure modules: These are the “panels” that will be visible from the roof. They’re rated to produce up to 15,405 kilowatt hours per year, which as I wrote previously, works out to a little more than what I think my average annual electrical consumption is. The end result: I think I’ll have the capacity to produce more power than I use, which is important for reasons I’ll get to later. Each module will have a rack to attach it to the roof.

•Two SolarEdge SE10000H-us inverters: These are central to the system and will be mounted on a wall in the basement near the circuit breaker box. Basically, the panels produce DC power. The inverters convert that DC power to AC. They also optimize consumption, manage the export of excess power produced to the external utility grid, and serve as a connection to the backup battery. It also enables remote monitoring and management, so I can keep track of what’s going on with the panels — Are they producing? Are they damaged? — via a mobile app.

•One LG Chem RESU16H Prime backup battery: Also installed in the basement, this will store power generated by the panels. And when the utility grid fails, as it occasionally does, we’ll have enough power to keep the lights on until either the sun comes up or the grid comes back. The battery adds about $15,000 to my gross up front cost.

In approximate figures, here’s how much it would cost to buy it all: ~$70,000.

Here’s how much I’m getting in tax credits: A rebate worth ~$18,000 or 26 percent from the federal government and another worth $5,000 from the state of New York. The federal rebate declines to 22 percent next year and expires the year after that. 

Plus I’ve applied for block grant incentives from a state based-program called NY-Sun which will offset another ~$7,700 at a rate of 50 cents per watt.

Total in incentives: ~$30,500

All of the incentives will go straight to the vendor, who has handled all of the paperwork and filings. And when I file my taxes next year, I’ll have a few more forms to hand over to the accountant, but that’s about it.

A few details about the financing: I had to join the Clean Energy Federal Credit Union to apply for a loan for the above amount. It’s a 20-year loan, but realistically I’ll pay it off within 18 months. But in order to be eligible for membership in that credit union and apply for the loan, I had to first join the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association which has a $75 membership fee. This was an odd step, but I didn’t mind it.

All in I’ll be paying about ~$39,500 to get the system installed. When it’s installed and running, I’m expecting to pay a fixed fee to my electrical utility for the life of the system, one that is far below my current average monthly electrical bill, which is running about $300 a month, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. It should also remain the same as electrical rates rise which I expect they are likely to do given the volatility in energy markets of late. 

Once the system is running I’ll be watching both the production and utility bills pretty closely for a few months. If my assumptions are right, after you take out the additional cost for the battery, my accountant says I should expect to break even within nine years. By that I mean the amount of money not sent to the local power utility will add up to the same amount I would have paid. I think I can reach that point in seven years. Meanwhile, the investment in the battery is a hedge against grid failures. 

We’ll get a good test of my assumptions right away. Summer is here, and the air conditioner and pool heater will be running from June until late September. Last year’s electrical bills, which were our first since buying this house, came as a bit of a shock compared to those for a city apartment. If the summer is anywhere near as sunny as last year if we might end up seeing a benefit right away.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Repost from 2008: Why I Love Jazz

Note: I wrote this in 2008 and happened to mention the story again on Twitter today. I've edited it a bit but it's more or less the same. I've since seen Charles Lloyd perform live about a half dozen times, and even told him the cold pizza anecdote after introducing myself following a performance in New York. He laughed. -aah

One Friday night 14 years ago I became a jazz fan for life. I was a newspaper reporter in Idaho and was paid so poorly that I supplemented my income by delivering pizza in my pickup truck on weekends.

The good part about this was that I had a good stereo, and could pick up a good public radio station out of Salt Lake City, KUER, which at that time played a lot of jazz.

Someone got a cold pizza one day because of Charles Lloyd. At the time I was just barely learning about jazz and didn’t yet know what I liked, what I didn’t like. Yes I knew that I liked Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” because that’s very often the record that people who are curious about Jazz start out with. Same for Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out.”

So I was making a delivery and was compelled, literally compelled, to pull over. Something about what was playing on the radio had captured my attention, and there was no way I was going to let anything, not even a pizza delivery interfere with it. It was a long tune, and I realized it had been playing awhile and had a distinctive captivating beat, and a lot of interesting things going on with the saxophone, the piano, and the bass.

What had captured my attention so strongly was Charles Lloyd’s live epic from Monterey in 1966, Forest Flower. It was extraordinary. Have a listen: 

I didn’t really know what it was I was hearing, but I knew I was hooked on this thing called Jazz that had been sort of burrowing its way into my psyche off and on since high school. This music became my link to the outside world of culture and art and intelligence and thoughtfulness during a period when I lived in a place that valued none of those things. I loved the spontaneity, and the fact that Jazz is an improvisational art appealed to me. It was never the same thing twice, and it could never be exactly the same for two people.

As I went on to become a Charles Lloyd fan and to collect many of his records, I learned the Forest Flower is, like “Kind Of Blue“ and “Time Out” are for Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, merely an entry point. The song, all 18 minutes of it, is actually two tracks, one entitled “Sunrise,” the other “Sunset.” It was a popular crossover hit in the 1960s with the psychedelic set and sold a million copies, and made Charles Lloyd a celebrity.

Over the years I picked up his other records. From the 1960s there are albums like the poppy “Love In“ and “Dream Weaver,” which includes its own epic tune, the 12-minute “Meditation, Dervish Dance.” Like “Forest Flower” it has own hypnotic piano solos. As such listening to mid-1960s Charles Lloyd albums also provide the service of creating an entry point to the work of pianist Keith Jarrett

But it was Lloyd's later records that went on to capture my imagination as my fandom grew more sophisticated. "Canto" from 1997 had me at the first few notes of the opening track. In 2000 came "The Water is Wide"

I made it my business to learn more about Lloyd, and to see him perform live. I learned that at the height of his fame he stepped away from performing and went into a period of solitude. He played with The Beach Boys. He allegedly played the flute on a few Grateful Dead recordings. And, over the summer he played a concert in New York. I was there, as was a reviewer for The New York Times

It was a transformative experience, the sort of performance that made you want to be a better person, that made you want other people to understand that music shouldn’t always be something you turn on to fill the silence in the background when you do other things, but that it should move you and make you wish for more art and beauty in life. 

He delivered a few monologues on his years here playing in Greenwich Village, in his rapid-fire Tennessee drawl, part beat poet, part minister, part cultural historian. The concert opened with a poetry reading by Charles Simic, then the Poet Laureate of The United States. Obviously once moved by Lloyd’s music as I was, he memorialized his flute-playing in a poem called “Two For Charles Lloyd,” describing “the mystery of this moment, the sudden realization that we have a soul.” 

He ends with the lines: “‘Sweet Georgia,’ I hear someone whispering. ‘Without this music life would be a mistake.’”

After the show, I walked up Central Park West a little speechless. It was a hot summer night, and while it seemed a shame to go home and call it night. The musicianship and artistry of Charles Lloyd was a hard act to follow. I was changed by the warm wail of a saxophone and the delicate breeze of a flute.

I snuck a recorder into the performance, but it didn’t work out. My recording wasn’t very listenable. Fortunately, someone captured a soundboard performance of a July 4 show in Vienna, only three days later, which I obtained from a file-sharing site. I'll add a sample or two tomorrow. For now, here's a YouTube clip from another performance on the same tour. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Solar Power: Let The Sunshine In

Spare a few thousand kWh, Sol?
I've been interested in solar power for a long time. When I was a third-grader in the late 1970s, you couldn't easily escape the phrase "energy crisis" in much the same way we say "supply chain disruption" today. Oil was short, and gas lines were long. And there were occasionally people on TV talking about alternatives to oil, coal, and gas including solar power.

The experiments and PR exercises around solar power from back then have evolved into a meaningful part of the 21st-century energy portfolio.  The US Energy Information Administration has forecast that of the 46 gigawatts of utility-scale power generation that's expected to come online in the U.S. this year, about 22 gigawatts will come from solar. For reference: One gigawatt is enough to power about 750,000 homes.

This is part of a broader trend. In 2020 the EIA said that renewable sources accounted for 21 percent or the second-highest portion of the nation's electrical generating capacity after natural gas and eclipsing coal, which has been on the decline since 2007, for the first time. 

This brings me to my home. I bought this home in Dutchess County, New York last June. And based on my readings of the power bills, my family of three is on track to consume about 14,000 kilowatt-hours this year. 

This would put our consumption above that of the average U.S. home. In 2020 the EIA pegged the average annual electricity consumption of American homes at about 10,700 kWh. The highest average was in Louisiana, while the lowest was in Hawaii. It would also put us well above the average consumption in 2020 for residential customers of our local utility, Cenhud. 

The roof, reimagined.
The bills have been higher than we could have realistically projected after living in New York City apartments for more than two decades. The house is bigger than our apartment, there are more appliances that demand power, and there's more space to cool in the summer. The recent shocks to global energy markets — a world roaring back to pre-pandemic life coupled with the war in Eastern Europe — haven't made projecting our energy budget any easier.

The image at left shows what we plan to do about it. Last week we signed a contract with Kasselman Solar to place solar panels with the capacity to generate more than 15,000 kWh per year on our roof. 

What lies ahead is, I think, going to be an interesting process. Ahead of me, there are financial questions concerning how to pay for it all, plus federal and state tax incentives as well as some state-based grants linked to watts generated. Then there's the obvious question: Will the system work as advertised? Will it save us money on our utility bills? In a series of posts here, I'm going to go down the rabbit hole on all things residential solar, and share the experience in hopes that others will benefit from what I learn along the way. Until then, dream of sunshine.