Solair Systems & Rockville's Renewable Revolution

By Nicholas Christopher, last updated 5/14/12 03:48pm

  • Solair Systems co-founder Thomas Luginbill holds up a sample solar panel for a residential installation.
    Photo credit: Nicholas Christopher
  • This ambitious commercial solar roof installation has 194 panels on it, each producing 240 Watts--a total output of 46 kiloWatts (kW) per annum--which flow through copper wire to seven inverters, where the direct current (DC) is turned to an alternating current (AC).
    Photo credit: Nicholas Christopher
  • On its journey across the roof, the current of solar power runs through UV-rated wires into several combiner boxes, which combine the current and voltage of the various wires.
    Photo credit: Nicholas Christopher
  • Up close and personal: The coloration of a solar panel.
    Photo credit: Nicholas Christopher
  • This second commercial roof required some ingenuity: Solair's team manually hauled up all 72 panels, weighing around 50 lbs. each, as well as the 600 cinderblocks for the Rapid-Rac ballast system, in a manner that must have resembled the construction of the Great Pyramids.
    Photo credit: Nicholas Christopher
  • At New Market Mini-Storage, all of the power is kept track of in the digital Net Meter, called a "smart meter" because of its ability to measure incoming and outgoing power, whereas traditional meters (obviously) only measure incoming power--the power you are using (and buying) from your local energy company's mostly non-renewable sources.
    Photo credit: Nicholas Christopher

I wanted to learn more about solar power, and get a feel for the emerging solar market in Rockville and its surrounding areas; so I called my good friend, whose Rockville-based renewable energy start-up is growing rapidly behind a sterling reputation for innovation and customer service. Solair Systems, cofounded by father-son partners Steve and Thomas Luginbill, does consultations and installations for commercial and residential renewable energy, primarily focusing on solar power. I went with Thomas to take a look at their latest project, two commercial solar panel systems at New Market Mini-Storage in New Market, MD.

Dynamic designs, innovative installations

This project consisted of two roofs, each with its own unique installation challenges. The first and primary roof has 194 panels on it, each producing 240 Watts--a total output of 46 kiloWatts (kW)--which flow through copper wire to seven inverters, where the direct current (DC) is turned to an alternating current (AC). With solar energy, you are feeding the grid during the day, and consuming during those night-time hours when the solar grid is not producing energy.

For comparison, an average house would have twenty panels, producing five to six kiloWatts annually. One Watt of power generally produces 1.2 to 1.3 kW hours--the unit of electricity in which power bills are measured--so 6 kW, or 6000 watts, produces roughly 7,600 kW hours per year, or 21 kW hours per day. So these grids are designed for high energy returns, more than one house would use itself.

[postcard:2]This commercial installation posed some problems. The owner wanted the panels tilted at a ten-degree angle to increase their efficiency, and the roof was perforated, not flat, making the installation difficult. Solair's solution was to design a custom grid, with a commercial roof rail (UNIRAC), a C channel, L feet (thus called because of their shape), and tilt legs that allowed them to mount the panels with clamps at the desired angle. The entire structure is attached to the roof by an S5 standing seam roof installation. The final result is a sturdy and impressive piece of engineering, with solar panels running to optimum capacity. An installation on a residential, shingle roof is generally much more straightforward.

On a solar grid, the current must run the entire length of the roof to reach an inverter. The current runs through UV-rated wires into several combiner boxes, which combine the current and voltage of the various wires.

The second roof I looked at was a simpler installation: the commercial-grade rubber membrane roof of the second building is "solar heaven, perfect for installation," said Thomas, who explained that the smooth, level, and fortified surface provides no obstructions and allows the engineers to lay the panels however they want.

This second roof had a slightly smaller but no less impressive grid: eighteen panels long by four across, for a total of 72 panels, it produces 17.28 kWs of power.

[postcard:5]Despite the ease of the installation itself, the transportation proved tricky on this particular roof. Thomas's team had to lift and pass 600 - 600!- cinder blocks, as well as each of the 72 panels, weighing approx. 50 pounds each, manually up two sets of ladders, in a system that must have resembled the construction of the Great Pyramids, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. The cinder blocks were part of a Rapid-Rac ballast system, designed to help the grid withstand winds of 120-130 mph: a category three hurricane, essentially. They are held in place with cement glue.

[postcard:6]At New Market Mini-Storage, all of the power is kept track of in the digital Net Meter, called a "smart meter" because of its ability to measure incoming and outgoing power, whereas traditional meters (obviously) only measure incoming power--the power you are using (and buying) from your local energy company's mostly non-renewable sources. If you are producing more power than you are using, which you will be, the outgoing power is power that energy companies will buy from you, and then sell back to their customers.

The environmental and economic benefits

The Internal Revenue Service guarantees that 30% of the initial cost of installing a solar system will come back as a tax credit, which you have five years to write off if you can't afford to write it off the first year. For residential installations, the state also offers $1,000 cash to offset initial costs, while they incentivize commercial installations by paying out 50 cents per Watt. In several states, including Maryland, there is also the added benefit of Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs), part of states' Renewable Portfolio Standards mandates: iniciatives to encourage power companies to invest in renewable sources. Power companies must buy SRECs to offset their usage of non-renewable sources. These mandates are enforced with monetary penalties, and adhere to a "staircase": every two years they require an increase in companies' renewable energy investment. A single house generating 5 kiloWatts of power receives six SRECs annually, which they can then sell on an open market (often with the help of a broker), with a conservative estimate of $200 average per SREC.

The economic benefits of turning annual spending on energy into annual gains is one of the main reason why many businesses and individuals are turning to solar energy. Drastically decreased dependence on non-renewable sources, through installing solar panels, is not only an economic decision worth considering, but an environmental one as well. Solar energy is clean, efficient, and endlessly renewable. If you are interested in getting started, the first thing to do is to learn about and contact companies like Solair Systems, get assessments, and compare their "price per watt" bids to find the best value. Companies like Solair Systems are part of a renewable energy movement that is expanding in popularity as more and more people consider the long-term economics, and the kind of environmental impact they want their property to have.

Filed under Tech & Science, Home & Garden, Renewable energy / energy saving

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