So a couple background things related to this story.. One my family lives in Southwest Florida and was recently affected by Irma. They were lucky and only experienced wind damage but if they had gotten the storm surge that was forecasted it would have been devastating. I was down there for the weekend helping to clean up, re-plant palm trees, and do a lot of stucco patching.
Second my father and I are both electricians (one of our many career paths) so naturally this story came up in discussion. This was a story originally posted by the Miami New Times, the article implies that Florida Power & Light, FPL used their lobbying power within the state to make impossible for Florida residents to have what is called a grid independent system. Here is the quote & link they use as proof “Thanks to power-company rules, it’s impossible across Florida to simply buy a solar panel and power your individual home with it. You are instead legally mandated to connect your panels to your local electric grid.” This is the way I was first introduced to the story. To be honest on first reading it seemed plausible to me. The articles prey on the inherent mistrust people have of corporations and their relationships with government. But Electrical systems can be a complex topic, more-so even when you are talking about residential solar installations. Terms like bidirectional metering and DC inversion throw off not just the general public but a large percentage of electricians. But astute readers will see the little difference between the statement by Miami New Times, and the one from ABC9.
What the New Times describes is that the state of Florida legally requires any solar installation you have to be a “grid coupled” or “grid tied” system which means you need DC to AC inverters and a bidirectional electric meter so excess power can be sold back to the grid. This can get expensive quickly because the 24vdc power produced by your solar panels is vastly different than the 120/208vac you get from the power company. I won’t try to explain AC theory here but say you tried to connect the two without the expensive inverter you would instantly do a lot of damage to your panels, your home and probably yourself. The inverter is required whenever you want to use solar electric to power any device that would otherwise need a standard wall outlet. Not only that but to have a grid tied system you need a special inverter along with a bi-directional electric meter that will essentially synchronize the timing of your power with that of the grid. The downside to this kind of system is that without even more expensive equipment (a transfer switch and a battery network) you cannot use this for emergency power. The upside is that you can now sell your solar power back to the power company and hopefully pay for all this equipment with the proceeds. Without that bidirectional meter and special grid-tied inverter the only one doing the paying is going to be you. So you see the sentence about it being impossible for you to simply buy a solar panel and power your home from it is a limitation of physics not the power company. This all takes special equipment that will make the cost of the panels seem like a drop in the bucket. There IS a cheap way but more on that later.
Now FPL requires that all auxiliary power systems be disconnected from the grid before line crews can work on the lines. The entire net metering guidelines can be read HERE. In this case it applies to solar but it is important to note that it would be just as true if we were referring to a gas generator or wind turbine or anything that could potentially back feed onto the grid and get people hurt. This should be obvious to most people but maybe the fact that I have done plenty of electrical work makes me sensitive to this point. Do you really want to kill the guy in his bucket truck outside your house who is trying to get you reconnected because you didn’t know an important detail? Of course not, and FPL rightly so does not leave it up to you. They require you to have equipment installed to protect the lineworkers not to mention your expensive inverters. So this other new piece of equipment is called an Automatic Transfer Switch and what it does is to monitor the incoming power from the grid for blackouts. When it senses one it automatically disconnects the line power and connects the emergency power, most will also do things like start up your generator and handle its operation because typically that is the application for ATS’s like these.
So say you want to have a grid tied system that will also function as an emergency power source, well ok, you asked for it. Let’s start listing expenses..
- The panels.. Roughly $300 each per 300Watts
- The inverters.. $2000 per 4000Watts
- The batteries.. $500 per 500 amp hours
- The battery chargers.. $300 each
- The battery charge controller.. $500-1000 (and if you think you don’t need one see the above price of batteries)
- The automatic transfer switch.. $700-1200
- The monitoring equipment.. $200-$800 (not strictly necessary but are you really going to cheap out after you’ve come this far?)
It adds up quick. You will be lucky if you can get a 5kw array for $20k in just equipment costs. Now say you do not want to have a grid tied system. If you read the FPL guidelines I linked to above you probably noted rule #5 which states..
“Operation of the renewable generation system, except for testing and inspection, prior to the new bi-directional meter being installed by FPL is strictly prohibited. Operating your renewable system without the bi-directional meter can result in an inaccurate meter reading causing your bill to increase.”
So no bi-directional meter = no grid independent systems right? Not so fast. Pay attention to the title of the document. “Customer-Owned Renewable Generation Grid Interconnections (FAC-6.065)” These are guidelines for grid interconnected systems. If you can prove that your installation has physically no chance of ever being connected to the grid and otherwise adheres to NFPA-70, the National Electric Code. What legal recourse does FPL have to enforce these rules on you? That would be like saying that FPL can dictate your battery powered solar patio lights. No connection to FPL = no legal recourse to tell you what to do with it. Just install an ATS that physically can only allow connection to the solar array or the grid, NOT both. Now guaranteed if you try to claim exception from these rules on these grounds you should be prepared to fight it in court. But as far as I see it FPL is a private corporation and can only dictate how you access and use its corporate assets. Again no connection = no grounds to sue… The thing is that no one ever does this because the cost of a home solar array is so high why would you ever want a system that cannot sell power back to the power company? The system would only ever generate power when you were in emergency mode.
So right about here you may be recalling the ABC7 article and thinking “wait a minute didn’t they say that the town would pull your CO? (Certificate of Occupancy) if you tried to go grid independent?” and you would be right it did say something to that effect but I want to make a point here on media spin. Let’s look at that quote a little bit closer.
“If Tarr were to stop paying his electric bill, he said Leesburg would shut off his power. City officials could also revoke his certificate of occupancy for not being hooked up to the system. “
Both statements are true. But they are not really related. Having your power shut off does not mean you are physically disconnected to the system. I would argue that the infrastructure still allows for power to be turned back on at any instance. Of course this is an argument that would likely need to be made in court. Something you likely cannot afford after the pricey solar installation but assuming you could afford to fight it I think there is a very good chance you could gain legal exemption from these rules. And once one person does so a legal precedent is set that would make it easier for other people to gain the same exemptions. That is simply how our system works.
Maybe you agree with these points maybe you don’t but if you are an average person most of these solutions are way out of your price range. Inverters and transfer switches then all the rules associated with grid interconnections are a big turn off to the whole idea. Likely you just want to charge your phone, laptop, and have some lighting. You could install a 24vdc power system in your house and keep it totally separate from all your other house wiring. You could charge car batteries directly from your solar panels and then use that power to control lights and other low voltage equipment. This is pretty standard in motor and modular homes. There is also a lot of low voltage lighting equipment around that would work perfectly for this kind of install. You are exempt from FPL’s interconnection guidelines for the same reason as above. No interconnection.
There are some gotcha’s here though. First of all as always everything needs to follow NFPA-70 to the letter. If you’re not an licensed electrician you should certainly have one doing it for you. Even long time electricians will have to read over the codebook again for non-standard installations like this. You will have to use what’s called Class 1 wiring practices because I doubt any of this power generation equipment will be marked as approved for Class 2 use (more lenient wiring rules.) There IS such a thing as a class 2 current limiter that would allow you to use the class 2 rules FYI but they are uncommon. Anyway you also should make sure that the 24v wiring is separate and clearly marked, this includes not using any kind of standard outlet that is not specifically made and marked for 24v use. Remember you will probably have to prove to an inspector that it is a clean code compliant installation and that inspector has every right to tell you it isn’t because he is the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) and just says so, and even if he does rubber stamp it if FPL wants to make a stink over it you could still find yourself in the sort of legal battle talked about above. But all that being said this has been done by people before in very clean and legal ways. Take a look at this install for example.
I don’t have a source for these photos so I have no idea where this was installed nor under what circumstances. Credit to you if this is your house though, I like it. These should be taken as loose examples of a clean residential low-voltage installation. So it is possible to have this sort of thing relatively cheap but if you insist on having your cake and eating it too I.E. a grid connected system capable of providing auxiliary power in emergencies. Prepare to shell out lots of cash.
Also it should be noted that the question of whether or not FPL is trying to screw over solar power users is not a flat out no. There was bill passed in Florida in 2016 that stated “Electricity consumers have the right to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.” Sounds great right? problem is the second part of it has language that allows FPL to charge users with solar installations an additional premium “State and local govs shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety, and welfare, and to ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do. (Emphasis added)” This is not totally unwarranted. The sun doesn’t shine 24/7 and when it doesn’t FPL is expected to pick up the slack. This can be expensive. Is it really expensive enough to warrant charging extra for having a Solar install? I have a feeling only FPL knows for sure.
Now disclaimers, you are legally responsible for your own property and the safety of everyone in it. Not me, you. Everything in this article is my opinion. I like to think it is a good opinion and it is based on many years of field experience but it is just that, an opinion. I hope this provides you all some insight in this topic but I in no way suggest you should read this article alone and run out and act on it without consulting other sources. Don’t take FPL’s word at face value, don’t take the media’s word at face value, and don’t take mine at face value. Have a great day.