We see quite a few solar panel installations in New Jersey. We’re not 100% sure how many residents just use it for (promised) energy savings – or whether they’re truly trying to reduce dependency on the grid.

However, a new trend in solar panels appears to be troubling for some people.

They’re now making (and peddling) solar panels that actually require power from the electric company in order to work (to convert to 110 volts, etc.) And it seems that the people being sold these gadgets are never seeing their “ROI” as promised. Solar companies have what appears to be a bad track record of staying in business.

If you are considering solar – do extensive research to ensure it can stand on its own. And ideally, choose to do it for sufficiency, and not money.

Blinded by the Light

By Tom Lewis

I remember clearly the horror I felt when the truth about the new-generation solar panels was revealed to me. It was a field day of sorts, at a farm, during which we  were learning about a massive solar installation, sufficient to power not only the house and barns but an array of commercial freezers and refrigerators. Older solar panels required thick cables to route their 12-volt output to an inverter that changed the voltage to 110. But these new panels, we were told, each contained its own inverter and so yielded 110 volts without the need for thick cables or an external device.

It was only later, and tangentially, that the downside of this new development was revealed. Someone said something about how nice it must be to live without fear of the grid going down. The response was that well, actually, if the grid went down this enormous solar array would stop producing electricity because the solar panel’s inverters required an external power source to function.

This makes perfect sense, apparently, to most of the people who have installed or considered installing solar panels over the last several decades. The essential question they asked was how much money can I save, typically “How long will it take me to get my investment back?” No one ever asks this about a car, or a washing machine, but for some reason it became imperative for solar power installations, no doubt because salespeople found that it was far easier to motivate their customers to save money than to save themselves (from the fragility and pollution of the grid).

(I fully understand why people offered a substantial reduction in their cost of living would find the prospect attractive. But I believe they fundamentally misunderstand the true value of solar power.)

The approach has been industrialized in the US by national go-go companies such as Vivint Solar, Sunnova and the faded former juggernaut, Solar City. It spread to other industrialized countries as well, notably the United Kingdom, where by the summer of 2017 Britons were congratulating themselves on producing fully one-quarter of the electricity they consumed via solar panels.

The bloom is well off that rose. The BBC is reporting this week that “thousands” of solar-panel customers are complaining to financial-services regulators that they have not realized the savings they were promised when they bought to panels. Most took out loans to do so, but were assured that the reduced cost of their electricity would not only pay off the loan but pay them substantial cash dividends as well.

Two of the top-selling purveyors of the well-financed solar panel arrays, PV Solar UK and MyPlanet, were out of business by 2017.

With all due respect to the people who were fast-talked — both in the UK and here in the US where the chickens have not yet come home to roost — any scam requires people willing to be scammed, and to be blunt, you asked for it. You told them what you cared about most was money, so they told you what you wanted to hear and you bought it. Now you haven’t had your investment returned, but you do have a reliable source of free electricity on your roof, which is going to be incredibly valuable when the grid goes down next. Unless of course you have the new generation panels that don’t work if the grid is down,in which case you are just totally screwed.

I have always maintained that the real value of solar power is its insurance value, the ability it conveys to live without fear of a catastrophic loss of electricity. If your house does not burn down, do you complain bitterly about not recovering what you’ve spent on fire insurance?

Industrializing and commoditizing has done to solar power what it has done to everything else — just about destroyed it. The real value of solar panels is realized when they provide off-the-grid electricity to individual homes and businesses, either in the absence of grid power or as backup for the eventuality of grid failure.

About the author


NJroute22 (site admin) is an avid traveler along NJ Route 22 (and almost all of central New Jersey!) Family man, pet lover, and property owner who has a natural curiosity for everything around.