Solar REBATE Arrives!

by Ben N on September 11, 2017

I was pretty excited today. When I went to my mailbox, not only did I get my latest issue of HOME POWER magazine, I also got an envelope from Focus On Energy. Just above my name and address, I could make out the words “PAY TO THE ORDER OF”…

One major consideration of installing a photovoltaic (PV) solar electric system is the upfront costs. To help with those costs, and to encourage renewable energy production, the federal government, along with local governments and power utilities, offers financial incentives to help make renewable energy more affordable.

When I originally decided to install my own solar system, I estimated the cost to be around $10,000. Because I would be building a new garage, I was planning on wrapping the funding into the cost of the building through either a Home Equity Line of Credit or (what I actually did,) a new mortgage. That at least took out the sting of needing $10,000 up front! With the money from my loan, I was able to purchase the solar panels, the racking, all the other components, as well as things like the electric permit and hiring an electrician and roofer. (And because it’s a home mortgage, that also means that the interest on my loan is tax deductible. I also lowered my interest rated vs my previous loan.)

The Federal government offers a 30% tax incentive. That’s pretty straight-forward. It’s a one page form that I will fill out with this year’s income tax filing. It will give me a 30% tax credit on the cost of my system. Of course, I have to wait until April 15th for that!

IMG_5467As for state and local incentives in my area… Unfortunately, there are none. In fact, the State of Wisconsin hasn’t even passed the current budget (which is at least two months over-due!) The state also wants to add an EXTRA special tax just on electric and hybrid cars, rather than promote them though incentives or tax breaks! That only leaves Utility Incentives as the last funding source. In my area, Focus on Energy is a state-wide program through the various power utilities. The utilities need to provide a tiny percent of their profits as a fund to promote energy efficiency. In the past, this money has been used to reduce the cost of CFL and then LED light bulbs, provide a rebate for people turning in old appliances for newer, more efficient ones, and provides incentives for renewable energy.

Unfortunately, funding for this program has decreased the past several years. In fact, the money never even makes it to the end of the year. People in my area installing solar panels are advised to install them and apply for the rebate right away, as the cash often runs out by October or so. (EDIT: I checked, and BUSINESS incentives are already used up for 2017 as of Sept. 4th, 2017!) It’s also now required to submit TWO rounds of paperwork – one to reserve a rebate, and another to actually apply for it! We also never know if the program will be renewed for the next year!

In a nut-shell, Focus on Energy provides a rebate of 12%, up to a total of $2,000, for residential photovoltaic systems. My total system cost (including hiring labor,) was $10,590.48, so my rebate came to $1,270.86!

That’s an actual check written out to me – not a tax deduction or tax credit.

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After subtracting the Focus on Energy Rebate AND then 30% federal tax credit, my total cost will be $6,523.73.
The faceplate value of my solar is 6240 watts. So, in the end, my total out of pocket cost will be $1.05 per watt installed. (Knowing what I know now, I could have done the system for EVEN LESS money!)

Estimates predict that my solar array will produce about $1,000 worth of electricity per year, so a simple calculation says that it will pay for itself in about 6 to 6.5 years. I’ve also crunched numbers several different ways including using electricity I make myself to power a vehicle instead of purchasing gasoline. Taking that into consideration, the simple economic R.O.I. can be as short as 3.5 years! Solar and Electric cars are a fantastic match! PV+EV for the win!

Do you want to install solar or other renewable energy? Make sure you check for what rebates are out there at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency web page: http://www.dsireusa.org

Until next time, stay charged up! I’m going to the bank!

-Ben

 

PS: I’ll also add one caveat for the Do-It-Yourselfer… Before I purchased any solar components, I contacted Focus on Energy to make sure I would be doing things correctly for the rebate. The rebate form is worded in such a way so as to encourage people to hire a company to install solar for them. The cost of that total bill from that single supplier is then submitted for the rebate. Because I did everything myself, I needed to make sure I kept a copy of every single receipt for every nut and bolt on the project. Even after submitting that paper-work, Focus on Energy nit-picked it to death. They questioned my numbers and requested additional information, which of course I provided…. about two months ago. And I hadn’t heard from them since…. Until actually getting my rebate check in the mail today! If you are a DIYer, make sure to keep good records!

 

 

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St. Paul Energy Fair

by Ben N on September 11, 2017

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We had a great time this last weekend at the NEW Energy Fair in St. Paul, Minnesota!

I’ve been going to the MREA (Midwest Renewable Energy Association) Fair in Custer, Wisconsin for about 10 years now. It’s always a great event, and something to look forward to.

This year, the MREA hosted the new fair at Harriet Island Park, just off the river in St. Paul. It was a beautiful venue, and has plenty of room for expansion. The weather was great – sunny and cool. Perfect weather for the solar panels that were powering all the electricity on the site! There were plenty of exhibitors including solar installers, composting toilets, tiny houses, a tool lending library, electric motorcycle kits, non-profits, and more. There were only a few food vendors, but I loved the solar-powered coffee-mobile!

At the other end of the park, we were hosting a Clean Car Show, which included some test drives. Cars there ranged from Teslas, BMW i3, Chevy Volt and Bolt, Electric Cooper Mini, and more! On Sunday, I even saw an electric scooter and had a great conversation with a fellow Mitsubishi iMiEV owner. For carpooling, an electric bus was available to bring people from the union depot down to the park.

Sunday is also when I gave my DIY SOLAR GARAGE presentation. I had a great crowd in the tent and tried to get out as much DIY solar information as I can. If you missed the presentation, or were there but want to know more, I made a slide-show-based video covering the topic. You can watch that RIGHT HERE, or on my YouTube page.

The new St. Paul Fair was a fantastic first time event. I look forward to going back next year!

-Ben

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Amazing-E EVSE Review and Opening

by Ben N on September 2, 2017

A few days ago, I purchased an Amazing-E EVSE.

I already had a Level 2 (240V) EVSE permanently mounted in my garage, but I was really looking for a portable 240V electric car charging cord. Ideally, that portable EVSE could run on 120V as well. The Amazing-E appears identical to the Gen. 2 Chevy Volt EVSE, which has been found to be 120/240 volt compatible.

Was it possible that this EVSE was not only inexpensive, but also dual voltage? I’d have to give it a try to find out.

But first, lets take a look at the Amazing-E before breaking it…

To start with, it is a 16A portable unit. It’s compact and has a thinner, lighter cable going to the J1772 cable. There’s just a simple Velcro tie to use when coiling up the cable. The EVSE also came with three bright green tote bags. Use one to carry the EVSE, and the other two for groceries.

IMG_7501At the wall plug end of the EVSE is a NEMA 14-30 plug. This is a solid connector with nice molding and strain relief built in. Personally, I would have preferred a NEMA 14-50, as there seem to be many more of those electric outlets at RV parks, state park campgrounds, and other places a person might encounter 240V power in public. Also, I already have 3 14-50s in my garage! Oh well. A new outlet was about $8 at the big box home improvement store, and it was easy to swap out. It would also be possible for a person to build a plug-in adapter from 14-30 to other 240V outlet styles. Interestingly, the ONLY difference between the NEMA 14-30 and NEMA 14-50 is the shape of the neutral blade. 240V EVSEs typically do NOT use the neutral, and in the instruction manuals of this one it’s specifically stated that the neutral is NOT used. Because of that, a person could actually CUT OFF the neutral pin and then have a plug compatible with both 14-30 and 14-50 outlets!

IMG_6347On the back of the box are two keyhole connections that mount on screw heads. The instruction manual also specifically states the distance between the two screws, making it easy to lay them out. I put to screws into my garage wall and hung the EVSE on it. The EVSE hangs pretty well, but could be knocked off fairly easily. I guess that’s one disadvantage of a “portable” unit. It would be easy to add a zip-tie, Velcro, or some other simple attachment to make the connection to the wall more secure.

I plugged in the unit and turned on the circuit breaker. The green power light comes on and the red fault light blinks once as part of a quick boot up sequence. After that, it’s ready to go. I plugged the J1772 connector into my Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car, and charging went great!.

CRACKING IT OPEN
The next step was to look inside the EVSE. I got out my “Tinkerer’s Toolkit”, a set of bits for tamper-resistant screws. If you want to void warranties, this is the tool set for you! The body of the EVSE is held together by 8 screw which have a star shape with a dot in the middle. I found that my VT10 bit was the correct one, and set to work removing the screws.

IMG_7508Inside, we see that the main circuit board is manufactured by Clipper Creek – a well known EVSE manufacturer with a good reputation. The label on the board states “CLIPPER CREEK, INC. 25 AUG 2016 PCS Gen2 V5.1 P/N 1007-0068″
All visible components inside are rated for at least 240VAC. I looked to see if there were any components that appeared to be designed for 120V AC ONLY, but didn’t immediately recognize any.

IMG_7511On the power input end of the board, the wires from the 14-30 plug are soldered in to the PCB. The black, red, and green wires are soldered directly in, but the white wire (the neutral) is simply cut off and then sealed with a piece of heat shrink. So there you have it, the neutral is NOT used at all. It’s literally hooked up to nothing! The black and red wires go to holes marked “Line_1 In” and “Line_2/N In”. The N of the line 2 implies that the same connection on the board could be used for Neutral in a 120V system. I’ve seen photos of the Volt EVSE, and the white neutral wire does indeed go to that hole.

IMG_7521Further to the right, still on the bottom of the board, there are two unused holes referencing Therm1 and Therm2. Those are used on the Volt EVSE for a thermal sensor imbedded in the right-angle NEMA 5-15 plug. Volt EVSEs seem to have a history of poor quality, and running high current all night through a plain household wall outlet is a great way to create some heat. It’s good to see that the Volt EVSE now has this thermal safety. On the Amazing-E, running at 16 amps with that nice solid 30A connector, there’s no worries at all about heat. It’s overbuilt in a good way.

Another nice thing about this unit is that it features a simple gasket inside the cover. By using tamper resistant screws, the manufacturer can use a reusable gasket, instead of a permanent glue. For example, twice now, I’ve fixed generation 1 Chevy Volt EVSEs. The case literally has to be broken open, and a hole has to be drilled through the case to access the last screw of the circuit board. Then the whole thing has to be glued back together after the repair! It’s not easy to work on and the case never looks as good after the repair.

CAN IT RUN ON 120V?
But can this unit run on 120V power? To find out, I’d need an adapter to be able to plug it in to a standard 120V wall outlet. After looking at what it would take to do for just one simple test, I thought it much easier to just instead rewire the 240V outlet to a 120V outlet. This is accomplished by pulling out the red wire, and screwing the white wire in its place. I tested with my volt meter, and sure enough, it read 120V between the two main blades the power plug. (The ground wire was left in place, and the red (Hot 2) wire was capped off with a wire nut.) I closed up the box, plugged in the Amazing-E, and went to the breaker panel.
I turned on the breaker and…. drum-roll please……
Well, at least the EVSE didn’t blow up.

Instead of anything like the charger working on 120V or so dramatic as letting out the magic smoke, the EVSE simply blinked the red error light, indicating a fault. The software of the circuit board correctly identifies the voltage as being out of range for a 240V system, turns on the error light, and simply doesn’t let you charge.

So, the answer is NO, you can’t use this as a Level 1 EVSE.

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PROS AND CONS
Here are the pros and cons of this unit as I see them.
Pros:

  • Inexpensive – This is the least expensive Level 2 EVSE I’ve seen. I paid $221 through Amazon.com
  • Portable – It’s a nice size, compact. They even give you a tote bag to carry it in.
  • Full Power – It’s full power/full speed for cars with 3.XkW chargers such as the Volt, older Leafs, and almost all plug-in hybrids. (Level 1 chargers are typically limited to 12A at 120V.)
  • Good Quality Components – The cord is solid, the strain relief looks good. Clipper Creek makes the circuit board and they have one of the best reputations in EVSEs

NEMA 14-30 Connector – The plug on this unit is either a pro or a con, depending on how you look at it. If you don’t already have this style outlet, you will need to install one. In my experience, the 14-50 outlet is much more common in my area where I might want to use this in public. The upside is that the neutral blade of this unit could easily be cut off to make the unit compatible with both 30 and 50 amp connections.

Cons:

  • Minimal Cable Management – To deal with the cable, there’s only a Velcro tie included. The EVSE does also come with a couple of tote bags, which is probably exactly what I would have used anyways. Some EVSE, including portable ones, feature a way to wrap the cord around the unit when not in use. When hanging on a wall, there’s no place to hang the cord. A user with this unit more or less permanently mounted on a garage wall will want to screw a hook to the wall to have a place to loop up and hang the cord.
  • Fine, but not great mounting – Using two screws to mount the unit to the wall works well enough, but still feels like I’m going to know it off. Users might want to add some Velcro, a zip tie, or some additional way to make sure it’s secure to the wall.
  • Doesn’t work with 120v – I have to say I’m a little disappointed in the lack of 120V charging ability. I was really hoping, as this unit looks so similar, inside and out, to the Volt EVSE which CAN do both 120 AND 240V charging. If anyone knows of a hack to make this unit capable of 120V, please let me know!

CONCLUSION
Overall, the Amazing-E EVSE is a great little unit. It’s inexpensive, portable, and well-built. Unfortunately, it does NOT also run on 240V power. If your car has a high power charger or you also NEED 120V compatibility, you are probably best looking at some other (more expensive) units.
For a practical, affordable, Level 2 EVSE, the Amazing-E is a great choice.

Until next time, stay charged up! (On level 2 only in this case!)
-Ben

PS: Full Disclosure. I am not paid in any way for this review. Nobody sent me a free EVSE or a check in the mail. I purchased this product to see how I liked it. If I blew it up, I’d have to eat that expense. I do these things to help promote clean transportation and educate the public about electric vehicles.

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First SOLAR Electric Bill

by Ben N on August 4, 2017

I was pretty excited today to get my electric bill.

No, I’m not usually excited to get bills in the mail, but this one was different. This will be the first electric bill with a FULL MONTH of solar production on it.

Last month’s bill, which included about two weeks worth of solar power, was substantially lower than the previous month, but I still had no idea how much savings I would earn.

So, my electric bill was…. (drum-roll please……)

NEGATIVE $40.54!

The power company owes me!

Two months ago, my electric bill was over $90. This month, it’s negative $40! I’m liking this!

Of course, solar production will be less in the winter, so I can’t expect these types of numbers every month. Still, I planned the system so that it would average out over the year to produce right around the same amount of power which we consume. On average, we will have NET ZERO electrical energy use!

Since I now have a full month of solar data, I can also start comparing the real-world numbers against my original estimates. I pulled up my original PV Watts estimate and compared it to how much I actually produced. Production was 5% ABOVE the estimate! I love that I’m above the estimate, but also glad to see I’m not too far off. Estimates are only really handy if they are at least close!

We’ll see what next month brings, but for now, I’d say that solar is off to a GREAT start!

That’s money in my pocket, and coal left in the ground!

Until next time, stay charged up!

-Ben

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Bye-Bye, iMiEV

by Ben N on July 30, 2017

This weekend, I said good-bye to the iMiEV.

Nope, not the white one, but the old purple one, which you probably haven’t heard about in a while…

If you’ll recall, a few years back I purchased an iMiEV through an auto salvage auction. I was really hoping to be able to fix it and get a great deal on an electric car. Long story short, the car was shot, with the Atlantic Ocean literally falling out of the battery pack. The upside is that I later purchased my daily driver, the white iMiEV, and would then have a source of parts for it.

IMG_5836In fact, I already pulled the mirror off the purple car when I smashed off my passenger side mirror in the parking lot of the Milwaukee Makerspace. (That is NO PLACE for a telephone pole!) I’ve also sold off the rims and tires and a few interior parts of the car, which helped recoup some of the money I spent on it. (Although it still was a money pit!)

So, earlier this summer, I met “Pdon” (just like Don, only with a P at the begining) who was interested in purchasing the purple car in entirety, as he has TWO Mitsubishi iMiEVs and his brother has a third. We made arrangements, and finally had a date where both of us could get together to make the sale and get the car out of my driveway.

IMG_5813The day before, I cleaned out the inside of the car, which had become defacto storage space. The Little Girl also gave me a hand washing it. After the quick car wash, it was looking brand new again, and was sort of making me regret losing the car, but I haven’t been making use of it, and I’d love to get the space back in my driveway. I did a little bit more work on the car, such as reinstalling the fender plastic liners. While I was doing that, the Little Girl decided that she would also be an electric car mechanic and set to work on her Solar PowerWheels Jeep. (We are now in Generation 2 of the Solar Power Wheels. See how we built the original one HERE.)

I had also agreed to purchase from a friend his entire lot of ElecTrak electric lawn and garden equipment. The guy was clearing out his barn and wanted it all gone. That left me needing to make a trip out with my iMiEV pulling the 12-foot cargo trailer and loading it up in the guys’ barn before trying to get home in time (and making it on one charge!) to sell the purple iMiEV.

IMG_5831On my way back, I saw some electric cars that I recognized. The Watertown High School Electrathon team was holding a fund-raiser, selling bratwurst, at the local meat market. I stopped in to say hello to the instructor, Jesse, and see what the students were up to. A few years ago, leant a hand to the team by doing some consulting and loaning out some equipment to the team. The students showed me their latest car, a fully-enclosed fiberglassed three-wheeler, which looked fantastic. The students also had some great comments and questions on instrumentation and telemetry about their project. In return, I showed them my electric car and the electric tractor and equipment up on the trailer.

After that, I was quickly on my way back to sell the purple iMiEV

When Pdon showed up, we lined up some heavy wood planks to his trailer. The iMiEV unfortunately can NOT steer. I was able to bust loose the ignition, but the steering still felt locked; perhaps because the electric power steering wasn’t powered up? Ahead of time, I had already put the front wheels of the car on a pair of furniture dollies, which allowed me to move the car’s steering end. The car was also in neutral, but still difficult to roll. I think that the drum brakes in the back are probably rusted up. I was able to move the car, but only by pulling it with a tow strap attached to my electric tractor.

IMG_5841Once we had the car all lined up with the ramps and trailer, we used a combination of an electric winch and chain hoist to pull the iMiEV up on to the trailer.

After exchanging money and the salvage title, Pdon was on the road, and I got to wave goodbye to the purple iMiEV.

The next day, I had one more run back past Watertown to get the rest of the ElecTrak parts, motors, battery charger, wheel-weights, and some other parts which I could fit without bringing a trailer. I backed all the way up into the barn and loaded all the gear into the back. Once packed, I said goodbye to the seller, Chris, and pulled forward out of the barn. As I did – KABAM! The car came to an instant dead stop! I backed it up a foot, then pulled forward again with the steering turned different. Theres a big concrete ledge going in to the barn, followed by a steep drop to the gravel driveway.

Sticking my head under the car, I could see what had happened. The car had dropped just exactly wrong with the concrete lip of the barn catching the underside of the car. The exact point at which it happened was the leading edge of the battery pack. Right there is a steel bracket which sticks down farther than the rest of the pack. That bracket slammed into the concrete, denting it, but otherwise causing no damage. Of any part of the car to absolutely SMASH into concrete, that was probably the best part, other than my teeth still chattering from the sudden stop.

I drove back home with no issues and the car seems fine.

IMG_5878Finally now THIS morning, I get a call out of the blue from a California phone number. It was a woman who got my phone number through PlugShare. She was traveling from Chicago to Minneapolis in a Tesla Model X and had stayed at a local hotel last night, but was only about to charge from a 120V outlet. That wasn’t enough juice to get her to the next SuperCharger (in Madison, WI.) The vehicle was also still very new to her, so she didn’t have much experience with what to expect for charge times, 120 vs 240V, or know too much about the various power adapters. I gave her directions to my place, and not too long later, a bright red X pulled up.

IMG_5880We hooked her up to my NEMA 14-50 outlet with the Model X charging at 40 amps. While the car charged, we chatted and I gave her the quick tour of the garage and the solar system.  The car charged for a little over an hour. Although 40 amps is a whole lot more power than my solar panels can produce, the solar is making power all day. Two hours of solar today should completely cover charging the Tesla.

So, there you have it. Just a typical weekend of electric cars at my house; Transporting Electric Tractors, meeting High School Electric Car Builders, loading disabled parts cars onto trailers, smashing my car, and solar-powering Teslas!

We’ll see what the afternoon brings!

Until next time, stay charged up!

-Ben

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