Installing Solar in the Winter: Q&A with Insource Renewables President Vaughan Woodruff
As Mainers settle into winter, for many it is a time for sitting in front of wood stoves, curling up with a good book, and waiting for the longer days to return. We’re also out and about skiing, snowmobiling, following our kids to basketball games and wrestling matches, and setting up our ice shacks on the ponds and lakes of Maine. As we get into February and March, some escape to faraway places for the promise of sunshine and warm days.
At Insource Renewables, the winter is a time for training, taking care of internal tasks that get pushed down the line through our busy end-of-year work schedule, and installing heat pumps and — wait for it — rooftop solar systems.
People are often astonished that we are out in January, February, and March installing solar panels across Maine. It typically prompts a number of questions. In this blog post, we pose common questions about installing solar in Maine in the winter with Insource Renewables president Vaughan Woodruff, who discusses the benefits to Maine homeowners and businesses of installing solar after the New Year.
Q: Isn’t it too cold to install solar in the winter?
A: In the winter, we pick our days. When the wind is whipping and outdoor temperatures are cold or there’s a possibility that the roads will be dangerous, we don’t send our crews out into the field. Most winters, these types of days are in the minority.
Installing residential solar in the winter is preferable on many days to installing solar panels in the middle of the summer. Those of us who spend time recreating in the outdoors during the winter recognize that the hardest thing to do is get going in the morning. Once the body gets moving, the day rolls along. In the winter, you can always add layers. In the summer, there are fewer options. During stretches in the summer, we start our days extremely early and take long breaks during the middle of the day when possible. This past July, we had rooftop solar energy projects being installed on metal roofs and asphalt shingled roofs with midday temperatures of 90 degrees F and high humidity. There’s nowhere to run from that type of heat, and we have to plan accordingly.
If the younger me — the one who used to get on roofs and get his hands dirty — was given the choice to be on a roof on a sunny day in January or a sunny day in July, he’d take the roof in January every time.
Q: Is it more dangerous to install solar in the winter?
A: The most dangerous work that we do is working on roofs and driving vehicles. Driving can definitely be more dangerous in the winter due to snow and ice. As a result, we are very sensitive to weather conditions and call off work if the driving conditions could be poor. If a storm comes in that is unexpected, our project managers are trained to get the crews back home as soon as possible. The presence of frost is the only thing that increases risk related to our roof work. Since most of our outside work in the winter is on sunny days and we are on roofs that are favorable for sun, the frost typically burns off by mid morning, and we plan accordingly.
Since the days are shorter, our crews get shorter work days. This minimizes fatigue and provides a good change of pace compared to our work schedule in the summer, fall, and early winter.
As a NABCEP Accredited PV Installation Company, we have a demonstrated commitment to safety. None of the work we do is without risk, and we support our workers throughout the year by providing continued safety training and assessing any site conditions that could affect employee health and safety. In the winter, we trade the issues associated with heat for those associated with cold and plan accordingly.
Q: What happens if it snows in the middle of a solar project?
A: I can’t emphasize enough how attuned to the weather we are. Our operations manager manages our scheduling and weekly logistics. Throughout the week, he checks weather reports repeatedly to anticipate how rain, extreme temperatures, and snowfall might affect our solar installations. In the winter, he is particularly attentive to snow accumulation and how it will impact our roof work. We rarely, if ever, leave a roof in the winter with the mounting rails installed without the solar modules attached to them. If we did, and the snow came, the rails would act as snow guards to trap the snow on the roof.
Customers often raise the concern about additional costs if we have to come back to shovel snow off their roof to finish our work. There’s no need to worry. We consider roof shoveling a cost of doing solar business in Maine in the winter.
Where else in Maine can you go to get someone to shovel snow off your roof for free?
Q: What if my roof is covered in snow when my solar system is scheduled to be installed?
A: As mentioned in the previous question, we consider roof shoveling a cost of doing business in Maine in the winter. Winter requires us to send a crew out to shovel a roof once in a while, and it is considered a free service to our customers.
We definitely target favorable roofs for our winter solar work and are upfront with customers whose roofs pose winter challenges, such as a commercial solar customer with a flat roof. The only time we charge more money to install solar in the winter is if a client has a strict deadline in the middle of the winter and a roof that requires significant snow clearing. In those rare cases, we build the extra cost of shoveling into the initial contract. We will never issue a change order on a solar installation project we have scheduled for the winter at the time of contract signing.
Q: If I install solar in the early part of the year, won’t I have to wait for a while to recapture my federal tax credit?
A: If you are paying cash, then you will indeed have a longer window between the time when your final solar project payment is due and when you can recapture your federal solar tax credit. For businesses, there are also depreciation benefits that can be recaptured when you file your income tax return. If you install your solar energy system in February 2019, then you will have to wait until early 2020 to recapture those benefits.
If you are a homeowner financing your purchase with a Mosaic loan through Insource Renewables, this longer window is irrelevant. With Mosaic financing, you have up to 18 months to make a lump sum payment worth 30% of project payment. In simpler terms, you can make a payment equal to the value of your tax credit — assuming you have enough tax liability to claim it in a single year — within 18 months without a penalty. Unless you file your taxes realllllllllllllly late, this arrangement gives you a wide window to avoid any concerns about the delayed value of the tax credit.
For businesses that are financing a solar project, we can work with CEI or your traditional lender on similar loan structures that will help maintain strong cashflow and allay any concerns about waiting a few extra months to receive tax benefits.
Q: If I am paying cash for my project or paying for it through a home equity loan, what are the benefits of installing solar this winter?
A: We have a term that we use in the industry called the “solar coaster”, which describes the ebb and flow of demand based on arbitrary policy decisions. The end of 2019 is likely to see a very fast ride on the solar coaster, as the federal tax credit for solar is slated to step down from 30% to 26%. This policy change is likely to drive demand for residential solar during the last half of 2019. Under similar circumstances in the past, we have seen this rush lead to long backlogs. In 2017, most solar installers in Maine had filled their schedule by early September. This resulted in a number of disappointed solar buyers who had to wait until 2018 to install their project. Securing a project in early 2019 can make sure that you get on the books with your project before the rush starts.
Q: Isn’t solar production poor in the winter?
A: December, January, and February are the months when solar energy production is the lowest. March and April are often two of the months with the highest system output. It may seem crazy, but the power output of a solar module depends upon temperature. Cooler solar cells generate more power. As a result, systems have their highest power output on cold, sunny days. In March and April we see the length of day increase rapidly, which leads to great solar production days.
Q: What are the immediate benefits of generating solar power in March and April?
A: March or April also represent the months of the year where the electricity balance in a home with solar energy tends to “flip”. As we get into the early winter, electricity demand often increases while solar production decreases, resulting in the home using more energy than it generates. During the winter months, solar homes and businesses are typically using energy credits that they accumulate during the late spring, summer, and early fall. March and April often represent the time of year when the home begins to once again generate as much energy as it consumes.
If your system begins generating power when the energy balance flips, it allows the homeowner to maintain a better cashflow in the following winter.
Let’s say we have a homeowner in Orono who waits and installs their system in October. October represents the time of year when the energy balance flips the other way. If the homeowner finances their solar system, they will be making payments on their loan that compare favorably to the average monthly savings from their solar photovoltaic (PV) system. The reality of that first winter is that their monthly bills are likely higher in the winter, and the production during the winter months is less than average. As a result, those first few months will result in higher energy costs between the loan payment and the homeowner’s electricity bill with Emera Maine.
Let’s then look at a business in Brunswick who installs solar in February. If the system offsets all the business’s electricity usage in March, their Central Maine Power bills will start out low and the customer will build credits through the spring and fall that can be used to offset consumption through the following winter. In this case, the customer sees the most consistent cashflow throughout the life of the system, including immediately after the solar installation.
Q: If I want to install a ground-mounted solar system, I don’t really have a choice in the winter, do I?
A: Installing ground-mounted solar systems in the winter pose issues due to frozen earth. There are two ways to deal with this if you are hoping to install a ground mounted system in the winter.
With enough lead time, we can coordinate the earthwork into late November. This includes installing the foundation for the solar array and the conduit from the ground-mounted array to the electrical service. We can then return anytime in the winter to install the solar equipment. We enjoy these projects, as they are far less susceptible to weather concerns in the winter.
We also have a unique ground-mounted project that is ideal for winter construction. In early 2017, we began a collaboration with Backyard Buildings, an Amish-owned construction company in Unity. From this collaboration has grown our Maine Solar Structures line of solar sheds that often cost less than a traditional ground-mounted systems. We build these structures in controlled conditions in Unity, which allows us to deliver them as soon as roads and ground are ready in the spring.
Due to the favorability of construction for our crews in the winter, we also offer a $500 discount on Solar Sheds that are contracted to be built in January, February, and March for a spring delivery.