Just before the pandemic, we bought a house in rural California. We were five people, an elderly husky mix, and varying numbers of—theoretically outdoor—chickens. The 1950s sprawling wooden hobbit hole of a home we bought needed a lot of work, but the yard was amazing, with mature fruit trees, a deep well with tasty water, and a little creek fed by Sierra snowmelt. We had a limited time window to find a house in a market with fewer than five remotely suitable properties on the market at any one time, and we felt lucky to find such a pleasant place.
The house had potential in other ways too. It was located on an acre lot, with high-desert, year-round sun. If we added solar and replaced the house’s existing propane-fueled appliances, we could completely convert the house to renewable energy.
Easier said than done.
Installing solar wasn’t without hiccups. Problem number one: Solar panels need to face south to capitalize on sunlight throughout the year. But our south-facing rooftop was shaded by a tree in the neighbor’s yard. In my experience, neighbors dislike anyone messing with their trees, but once we screwed up our courage to knock on our retiree neighbor’s door in the throes of pandemic isolation, he was absolutely delightful. He called it a “weed tree” and wanted nothing in exchange for allowing us to prune it, so that was lucky. My partner was able to climb the tree and do the work himself, saving on hiring an arborist.
Problem number two: Our roof was covered in wood shake, and the solar company wouldn’t install onto shake. We replaced the wood shingles with asphalt shingles ourselves. This first meant so many wheelbarrow trips of filthy, tar-encrusted shingles and nails to a rented dumpster, with us bribing the older kid with Minecraft to help.
With the panels working, it was now possible to sell more electricity than we were using. In 2021, our 16 panels produced more than 10,000 kilowatt-hours, while we only used roughly 3,400 kWh. By the end of the year, our utility, Southern California Edison, would pay us hundreds of dollars for the power we were generating.
We began using the Sunpower app, offered by the solar panel company, which told us how much electricity we were producing and using in real-time. This was immediately followed by the discovery that our new electric clothes dryer—which we brought with us because it’s hard to buy appliances out here—used a shocking amount of energy. We have the space and climate to hang our clothes out to dry, which is a good, if annoyingly …….