Kevin Dunleavy, an environmentally conscious roofing contractor, was anxious to start installing a new solar array on a hill in his Chester County yard.
He meticulously researched solar panels, took an online certification course, and, with an electrician, crafted detailed plans, down to the font size of lettering on the electrical service panel.
But there was one thing he didn’t anticipate: a $45,000 estimate from Peco to hook into the utility grid. That connection is crucial, because on sunny days, the system could generate excess power that would go to the grid. Conversely, on cloudy days, Dunleavy might need power from the grid.
In essence, the power company told him the distribution system near his home was too small to handle the amount of energy his backyard array might kick back into the grid. Equipment would have to be upgraded not only along the rolling road he lives off in the Marshallton section of West Bradford Township, but farther down the road as well.
“I never expected that they would not be able to take my energy,” Dunleavy said. “I was blown away by that. I invested a lot of time and passion.” In fact, he is hoping to make solar part of his business, if he can succeed with his own setup.
Besides, he said, he simply can’t afford it. He’s already sunk more than $6,000 into planning his array, tree work, the online course, permitting, and deposits. That doesn’t include an additional $18,000 for the solar panels themselves.
Peco gave him until mid-September to come up with a $4,500 nonrefundable deposit. He’s scrambling now for an answer. Dunleavy said that he believes the utility has tried to work with him, but that he’s being asked to shoulder a burden for upgrades that will benefit other customers who might install solar in the future.
He sees his as a cautionary tale to others looking to install ground-level solar arrays. Homeowners who install rooftop solar panels have seen charges from utilities for hookups. But those charges often run a few thousand dollars at most — not tens of thousands.
Dunleavy, 49, whose family has been in the roofing business for four generations, chose not to install solar on his rooftop. “I’m a roofer who doesn’t want rooftop solar,” he said, explaining that he didn’t want to have to remove the array when the roof reached its life expectancy.
So, Dunleavy said, he found a plot with good southern exposure on his 1.6 acre lot on Sugars Bridge Road. His plan was to run underground conduit from there and connect to a two-way meter that would be installed at his home. Any electricity he wasn’t using would be fed back into the grid, reducing his monthly power bill.
His design calls for 48 solar panels. The array would connect to two inverters, which change direct current produced from the panels into alternating current that can be used in his home. He got township approval.
Trouble is, the grid near his home is based on an older Peco 4,000-volt distribution circuit, and the utility has been upgrading to 13,000 -volt circuits.
Dunleavy knew Peco would have to upgrade a nearby transformer to accommodate the power from his array, and he’s willing to pay for that. But, he believes he’s also going to pay for upgrades on Sugars Bridge and Clayton Roads that aren’t just for him, but also could be for future growth.
Peco’s engineering study found six upgrades that had to be made. That included changes to transformers, capacitors on poles, upgrading a buried line, and work at a nearby substation.
Contrary to what some believe, Peco spokesman Doug Oliver said, the utility encourages solar. But it needs time to get the distribution system caught up. Oliver said Peco has received 5,500 requests for solar installations across its entire system and more than 93 percent have been approved.
“It’s popular, and we recognize it’s something our customers are trying to do,” he said. “We want to be responsive as possible.”
But, he said, the utility has to ensure the safety of the system.
“When someone connects a solar system, they’re putting voltage into our system,” Oliver said. “On our 4,000-volt system there’s much less room for additional voltage. So in some scenarios people on a 4,000-volt system will have no problem connecting. But with each new customer, you’re pushing closer to what the limits are.”
He said Peco is continually upgrading its distribution system, so the issue should be addressed over time. For now, though, he said it isn’t fair to pass the cost of one customer’s solar needs onto others.
“We spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out how to be the utility of the future, how to be your grandchildren’s utility, rather than your grandfather’s,” Oliver said. “And that means anticipating what your customers want. We recognize there’s a shift there. The goal is to make sure that everyone that wants access to solar gets it.”
Dunleavy’s problem comes as Pennsylvania is seeking to generate 10 percent of all electricity in the state through solar by 2030. Currently, less than 1 percent of electricity is solar-generated, far less than in many other states. Pennsylvania is ranked 27th in the number of homes powered by solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
So the state has launched the Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future initiative with a $550,000 grant from U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative. The state Department of Environmental Protection has hosted meetings with more than 100 people from state and local governments, consumer groups, and utilities, as well as solar experts and academics, regarding the 30-month project. But a draft plan isn’t expected until 2018.
Deborah Klenotic, a DEP spokeswoman, said the agency is “aware of the challenge these costs can pose for homeowners eager to install solar arrays.” She said it’s a point of discussion within the solar initiative.
But Dunleavy believes the future is now.
“I see solar just beyond the cusp,” Dunleavy says. “Why can’t I have it now? I’m willing to invest in it. I’m passionate about it.”