Going Solar Part 2

Before we jump back into solar, I’m going to tell you that wherever you see *aig* on an image caption, it means it is an Artificially Intelligence Generated image. Generally using gemini.google.com. Had to dip my toe in the AI thing to help break up the longish paragraphs…

A typical winter day with a 13.6 kWh FranklinWH AC coupled battery, 18 Rec Alpha 410 Watt solar panels (7.36 kW) and Enphase IQ8 microinverters looks like Chart 1, below. Positive values are USAGE and negative values are EXPORTS except for the yellow (solar) production. Just before 8:00 AM you’ll notice a little cyan (house utilization) peak. This was partially offset by solar production (yellow) and part offset by import from the grid (purple). After 3:30 PM another little cyan spike is partially offset by solar, and part battery discharge. See the legend for more details.

Chart 1: A typical winter day production with a battery system.
(1) Insufficient battery so drawing from the grid (purple).
(2) Using energy while the sun shines (cyan)
(3) Riding out the PEAK and night with battery (green)
(4) Charging battery (green) and exporting to the grid (purple)
(5) Battery charge percentage

System Quirks and “Gotcha’s”

There are a number of things that can go wrong or be wrong with your solar setup. Many revolve around what is observable/measured and what is not.
In particular, if your system is unable to see the big-picture consumption it may not behave as you expect, and you might, for example, get surprises from your utility company when they bill you for much more than you thought you’d be billed.

We’ve already thrown around the terms “kilowatts” (kW) and “kilowatt-hours” (kWh) like a pro, but let’s give them quick definitions. A kilowatt is a thousand watts and is a measure of power. An apt analogy to watts is the pressure in a water hose. A kilowatt-hour is a measure of the AMOUNT of that power used in a given time. It is a measure of energy. In our hose analogy it would be the number of gallons or liters that are used from the hose over a given time. And you might also remember that a watt is equal to 1 amp at 1 volt – but that’s not important here.

Excess Energy for Sale

Your utility may reject YOUR solar energy and may in fact try hard to prevent you from installing your own power production. *aig*

Many people, especially those with solar-only systems assume that the best use of the excess energy is to feed it back to the utility company and get credit for it. But that’s less true every day. Typically there is an incentive for exporting excess but as solar energy becomes more prevalent, there is less incentive for a utility to WANT your energy, and they typically will not want to pay you for it. Some utilities won’t pay you for any energy you export as we described in Going Solar Part 1. Some utilities see your energy generation as competitive and are therefore hostile to having to pay anything for that energy (even though every kWh that you export they don’t have to generate and can sell to your neighbor at a hefty profit). In fact, at “grid scale” (very large) solar farms can produce energy at a cost of about $0.0025 per kWh and they’d much rather charge you 33 cents for their 2.5 cent energy! As solar becomes more prevalent, a utility company is much more likely to incent you to send them energy when they are not able to produce it themselves (i.e. when the cheap wind and solar systems are NOT producing).

There are currently four major billing/reimbursement models:

Net Energy Metering – in the early versions of this model there is often a one-to-one correspondence between energy you use and energy you export. But the value of the energy is usually NOT a one-to-one credit, and can vary dramatically.

Net Energy Metering 2.0 – again, the specifics vary from location to location, but generally version 2.0 means you get SOME credit, less “non-bypassable” charges for energy you export. The 2.0 implies that the value of the export is roughly equivalent to the value of energy you import. Some utility companies (with the blessing of state public utility commissions) charge you the full rate for the electricity you consume and only periodically (once annually) credit you for the energy you export. The credit may be dollars or kWh and usually cannot be carried over to the next period.

Net Energy Metering 3.0 – generally this model is similar to 2.0, except it implies that the exported energy is credited at the “wholesale” rate and that rate is typically miniscule. Most 3.0 plans also run on monthly billing cycles, not the protracted cycles of 2.0.

Demand/Response Billing – this is a “wild ride” where the value of energy you consume (import) and the value of the energy you export are driven by current loads, time of day and the market forces. The rate can swing dramatically at 15 minute intervals. And curiously there are some times of day when you can be PAID to consume energy (because there is excess load on the grid and the power needs to go somewhere). This method of billing is not very common for residential customers in the US, but it is “behind the curtain” of all of the utility companies. The California Independent System Operator {CAISO}, for example has fascinating graphs of the costs of energy. I am aware that in the UK Octopus Energy has several plans including a demand/response plan that they call Agile. The US Department of Energy has details on other Demand/Response plans, but I notice the majority of them are only available to large energy-using businesses.

Chart 2: The wild world of wholesale energy pricing. The “LMP” (Local Marginal Prices per Megawatt-hour) can be both positive (e.g. $14 for Kirkwood, and New Spice), and negative as shown here for San Mateo, Curtis and Morgan Hill). I’ve filtered out the higher costs, but at this same time the highest energy costs in this area were $67 for Hollister. The average cost is $10.97 across the region. ($0.011 per kWh!)

Not for-profit utilities will prefer to get their energy at the lowest cost so they can charge a lower cost. There are a few utilities that offer plans to those with batteries that allows them to discharge your battery to the grid to help with load imbalances. These arrangements are referred to as Virtual Power Plants (VPP) and as battery adoption and capacity ramps up, this strategy could save utilities BILLIONS of dollars in cost – because, well, customers have borne the cost of the batteries themselves. OhmConnect was formed to be a VPP of a different sort. I participated aggressively with them until my solar system made it impractical. OhmConnect is a large base of people who agree to reduce energy usage at specific times in order to gain incentives (like cash and prizes). A utility that can coax the batteries of hundreds or thousands of customers into helping them out is a powerful tool. Of course such plans usually come with monetary incentives, too, below is one example.

Enrolled battery systems will be directed to discharge every day from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the months of August through October, a critical window when energy needs are highest in California. In exchange, customers will receive an upfront payment of $750 and a free smart thermostat for participating. 
~ Sunrun announcement

The utility company taking kilowatts out of your battery 🙂 . *aig*

Would I trust my utility company to use my battery and energy wisely? NO! However some installers, a FEW battery manufactures and a FEW utility companies are adopting VPPs. Tesla, Sunrun, and sonnen are some of the battery manufactures with such arrangements. FranklinWH and Enphase have announced plans, but have not yet rolled out this potentially game changing technology as best I can tell.

Electricity is like apples. Your utility company can only count what you send them, not how many you pick. *aig*

How Do Utilities Determine My Net Usage?

Why doesn’t your utility company credit you for all the energy you generate LESS the amount that you use? Unless you have multiple meters the utility company only sees your exported energy AFTER your house consumes what it wants. The analogy I like is this: you pick a basketful of apples from your tree. You use some of those apples to make pies, some to make applesauce and you give the remaining apples to your neighbor. Your neighbor is grateful for the apples, but doesn’t know how many apples you originally picked, only that they got half a basketful. The utility is like your neighbor, only less friendly – and the apples in this analogy are kilowatt-hours of electricity.

By the way this same “net usage” principle is why a partial backup battery solar system may only see SOME of your usage as we mentioned in Quirks, above.

The Kilowatts are Stacked Against You

The ratios may be stacked against you. *aig*

Before assuming that selling electricity back to the utility is your best option, pay attention to the rates. In Northern California and many areas of the country your electricity cost has at least two components: the cost of generation of the energy (free in the case of solar – discounting amortization and maintenance of the equipment), and the cost of distributing that energy over the poles and towers, under the ground, through the transformers and wires that comprise the grid. As explained earlier, some utilities will give a FULL credit for what you export, some will give full credit less “Non-bypassable” charges – including “minimum delivery charges”. Unpopular plans, like NEM (Net Energy Metering) 3.0 in California mean that excess energy is reimbursed at a paltry $0.05 per kilowatt hour. But the minimum cost to import that energy is about $0.35 per kWh. Under NEM 3.0 to break even you have to export 6 to 12 times as much energy as you import. Ah, but it is costly and not allowed by most utilities to generate that much EXTRA energy, and nor is it practical to do so, especially in the winter. It’s also worth noting that if you are connected to the grid there is some cost to maintain that grid and the utility needs to recoup that cost in order to provide you a service.

These factors create a problem just as with roadways that are funded with gasoline taxes. Less gasoline consumption equals less road funding = deteriorating roads for all drivers. Less electric energy consumption from the utility results in less funds for maintenance of the grid. It’s also a bit unfair to those in apartments or with insufficient income to afford their own solar generation – because those folks are “left behind” to pay for those grid maintenance costs.

The one thing I will leave you with in this discussion, however, is that you almost always will get more value out of USING that energy than it sending it back to the utility. Some ways to do that are described in “Energy Hacks”, below.

Battery Or No Battery?

Chart 1 again…

A close look at Chart 1, you’ll notice that the battery system (green graph) is providing all of the energy to run the house after the sun gives out around 3:30 PM in the winter.
Moreover, the battery is being charged from about 8:20 AM until the battery is fully charged at about 1 PM. Thereafter excess energy is then sent back to the grid. You can even tell from the graph that the energy sent back to the grid on this relatively productive winter day is less than the amount of energy imported in the morning (1).
Another take away – the battery didn’t discharge from midnight on because it was set to maintain a minimum 25% charge for emergencies. In this case setting that minimum lower (e.g. 5%) may have avoided ALL of the grid imports on this day!

One obvious takeaway is that the battery is charged “for free” and is used to cover the cost of energy from 3 PM through midnight. Indeed for our home system that energy will generally last until about 2:30 PM the following day. That means for this winter cycle we use ALMOST *NO* energy from the utility at all! One reason energy was imported (other than the 25% reserve) is that the prior day production was low. Notice how the battery level at the end of this day was 60%, but it was only 25% in the morning.

Even if you have a great energy export rate, a well sized battery can prevent almost all import costs!

Some assume that with JUST a battery they can MAKE money by buying it at off-peak rates and selling it back at peak rates (provided that option exists). And yes, that CAN work, but usually won’t unless these things are true:

  1. The rate differential is at least 15% (charging and discharging the battery incurs an average 11 to 14% LOSS). Don’t believe the 6% or 11% figures – those are under IDEAL conditions.
  2. You can actually GET a higher export value for exported energy (or a higher value than the import cost).
  3. You do not have to then also IMPORT energy during the peak period, or a significant amount of off-peak energy.
  4. You are able to export energy while also supplying your home. Remember the apple analogy? If your home load is high, both the battery discharge capacity, and the home load consumption will prevent you from discharging. For example, if your battery discharge rate is 5 kW and you’re running a 4 kW oven, the MOST you’ll be able to discharge is 1 kW.

Let’s do some quick math on the these points to make it clear. Let’s divide the day up between off-peak, generation time (the sun is shining and producing ample energy to supply the home), and peak (non-generation) periods a typical home may use 10 kWh during generation time (all of which is offset by solar production), 7 kWh during PEAK non-generation time, and another 10 kWh during the remaining time (which is usually also off-peak like late night and early morning where there is no generation). Let’s further assume peak rates are $0.50, off peak $0.30. The energy you would need for the non-generation period totals 17 kWh: $3.50 is peak, $3.00 is off peak.

We have these three choices:

(A) Use the energy in self consumption mode only (don’t discharge to the grid unless the battery is fully charged);
(B) FULLY (as much as possible) discharge the battery to the grid during the peak and earn per kWh exported;
(C) Limit exports so that you only discharge as much energy to the grid as is NOT needed to offset off-peak usage.

The last strategy isn’t easy to implement, because we have to guess how much energy will be required through the peak and off peak periods until generation resumes. The best strategy depends on the USABLE battery size and the export rate.

If the export rate is less than the off peak import rate, exporting energy only makes sense after there is no non solar peak or off-peak energy to offset.

Compare Table 1 with a favorable export rate and Table 2 with an unfavorable export rate below. Both are daily comparisons at different battery sizes, utilization and rates. Two obvious takeaways are that a battery CAN save if there is a good export rate (Table 1). The size of the battery relative to non-solar use dictates how much savings are possible. In both cases the maximum savings/earnings are achieved if there is sufficient battery to cover all PEAK and off peak usage. In Table 1, Exporting All possible energy during Peak is clearly the winner, but a Limited Export strategy also works – but no strategy has a positive cashflow unless the battery is > 18 kWh. That’s not to say a smaller battery is of no help, compare the 0 sized battery to the others and all battery options reduce the net cost by about $2 to $5 per day.

Usable Battery SizeSelf ConsumeExport ALL PeakLIMIT Export
0-6.50-6.50-6.50
5-4.30-4.30-4.30
10-2.46-1.92-2.46
2003.360.36
Table 1: Battery Usage Options at $0.60 Export rate;
7 kWh @ 0.50 peak and 10 kWh @$0.30 off peak

If the export rate is unfavorable (e.g. $0.05 in the case of NEM 3.0), then limited export or self consumption are the best choice, – if the battery is sufficiently large. Trying to export energy is a money losing strategy. However as in the prior case ANY battery will reduce the costs!

Usable Battery SizeSelf ConsumeExport AllLimit Export
0 -4.90 -4.90 -4.90
5 -2.70 -2.70 -2.70
10 -1.26 -2.21 -1.26
20 0 -1.77 0.23
Table 2: NEM 3.0 ($0.05 Export rate);
5 kWh @$0.50 peak and 8 kWh @ $0.30 off

Partial Or Full Backup?

When installing a battery system there are a number of constraints. Most them were described in Part 1, but briefly: there are three important specifications: total capacity in kWh, peak discharge rate in kW, and sustained discharge rate in kW. Because of these limitations, it’s often recommended to install a PARTIAL back up system where some number of circuits (essential circuits) are covered by the battery should the grid go down, and the other (non-essential) circuits lose power. The reasons to NOT backup things include: a very high starting or sustained energy draw (e.g. an AC, Heat Pump or pool pump motor) vs a desire to protect things like refrigerators, lights and comfort power like TVs, routers and commonly used lights.



But there is an often UNDOCUMENTED sinister side to this arrangement. Specifically a battery system can normally see all the solar inputs, the battery charge and discharge and the use of the essential circuits. But unless monitoring devices called “CTs” (current transformers) are installed, the system cannot see the rest of the circuits. This creates three problems:

1. Your system won’t know how much energy you are actually using… so what your system says you imported or exported from the grid is NOT what the utility company sees and this can be confusing. If you refer to Chart 3 below, you can see that energy coming from the grid that does NOT go through the solar/battery panel isn’t observable by the components that come after the solar/battery breaker.
2. Normally battery systems are configured to charge the battery with excess solar production (meaning energy would flow back to the grid). However because the system doesn’t see the non-essential consumption, it may elect to charge the battery instead of using the solar energy to run your air conditioner or space heater.
3. You won’t be able to know how much energy you are using at any given time with the system app. This makes it harder to chase down energy hogs.

Chart 3: A Line diagram of a solar system with a battery backup that can run when the grid is down.
1. The main meter/grid power.
2. The breaker that ties the grid to the solar/battery system. Other breakers/circuits in this panel are NOT backed up.
3. The internal disconnect. If there is no power coming in, the FranklinWH aGate (brains) throws a “switch” disconnecting the solar and battery from the grid.
4. The “essential loads” panel which is backed up and will continue to run if there is solar power OR battery power (or both).
5. The solar panel “combiner” box – attaches to the panels on the roof.
6. The FranklinWH aPower (battery).
NOTE: I elected NOT to connect the AC to a smart circuit and instead plan to connect an EV charger.

In my home system we elected to NOT include a radiant under-tile floor heater, the AC and 8 or so other circuits, unfortunately including what we thought was an “unused” bathroom plug that is the source of the power to our security cameras. One take away here… make sure you know what ALL your circuits control before making choices for a
partial backup system.

As you might guess, the floor heating system uses some significant power when it’s running for 5-6 hours a day and 850 watts per hour is up to 5.1 kWh per day or 153 kWh per month ($51 at the best off-peak rates)! It was more than a little disappointing when we got our electricity bill for the first full month and saw a LOT more imported energy than we expected. Mind you the bill was about 10% of what we had paid the previous year, so we weren’t complaining much. We plan to move this circuit to the backup panel to avoid the “gotcha” since we clearly have sufficient battery to make it possible.

However the other catch to this situation is that WHEN one uses power matters. (See Energy Hacks, below).

Energy Hacks

I see lots of commercials about doing your laundry, running your dishwasher and charging your EV at late night or morning. That makes sense if you have to pay to import energy because it moves those activities to the lower rate period. However the LOWEST rate period for a solar system is when it’s producing enough energy to cover the consumption… that is DURING DAYLIGHT hours. So that proverb about making hay while the sun shines, applies also to electricity usage.

If you have solar energy… use it while you have it! *aig*

The MOST cost effective way to use generated energy is use it when it’s sufficient to run your appliancesMost of the time that will be from about 11:30 AM to about 2:30 PM and even later in the summer months. You’ll have no conversion losses (except from the DC power on the roof to the AC power for your house). However its a good idea to make sure there is sufficient energy to also charge the battery system in case you need it for an emergency outage, and to avoid the peak rates which start right about sunset. For a bigger battery, it’s optimal to gain enough charge to see your home through all the peak and off peak hours until generation begins again. Another trick is to stage your heavy appliance usage such as doing the washer and dryer loads before or after you may need that power for your air conditioner. Indeed, tracking when you have excess solar production can be quite helpful to saving energy.

When Do I Have Excess Solar?

Ideally there would be an easy to use automation that does useful things like charge the EV, run the AC, and more WHEN there is more energy available from the sun than is needed. Figuring that out manually is doable IF you can see the actual energy from the viewpoint of your utility in real time. I ended up using Emporia Utility Connect, and Emporia VUE energy monitors to supplement my monitoring regimen because my partial-backup FranklinWH system doesn’t see the full picture. Either or both of those tools paired with Emporia Smart Plugs allow me to do some automation. One of those is a “Greener Hack” I describe below.

Optimizing Payback (Getting Paid for Excess)

We touched on the “export” option, but the gist is pretty simple. Unless you can export energy at a greater profit than the cost to import it, it doesn’t make sense to try to export energy to offset your bill. Under NEM 3.0 a strategy of extreme self consumption is usually most cost effective, and the least prone to rate changes.

Getting a Little Greener

Our house has a natural gas furnace. It is not “green” by any means, but it runs well, and because our blower/thermostat IS battery backed up, we can heat our home even if there is no grid power. However watching electricity flowing back to the utility made me realize I could do even better!

I bought three 750/1000W space heaters with mechanical thermostats and NO remote control. Notice the maximum energy usage is 1000 Watts which is 8.3 amps at 120 Volts. I paired each of them with Emporia Smart Plugs that have a maximum sustained usage of 10 amps (1200 Watts). Why mechanical thermostats? Because most of the fancy heaters these days – especially those with remote controls will NOT come on when the power comes on. Those with mechanical thermostats can be set up so that when the power is on, they will run and produce heat up to the maximum mechanical thermostat setting WITHOUT needing intervention.

*aig*

IMPORTANT Safety NOTE: Your smart plugs generally can NOT handle a typical space heater load. Nor should you use extension cords or power strips. The typical extension cord and power strip is undersized for the current used by a space heater and may overheat and catch fire.
BEWARE!

Using the Emporia App, I set up those smart plugs in the “Excess Solar” option. I’m not entirely sure how their algorithm works, and I had a few surprises, but mostly it seems to work.

Here are some screenshots from the Emporia app.

A smart plug configured to turn on when there is excess solar. Notice the Cyan color indicating it’s on. This smart plug just turns a lamp on to let us know when we have energy to “burn” on things like laundry and space heater.

The configuration of “Excess Solar Management” looks like this. It is under the “Connect” device which watches what our meter is reporting to our utility company in real time.

This is how the smart plugs are configured. “Excess Solar Indicator” is turned on if there is excess solar followed by each of the items listed and “on”. It can also change the living room thermostat.
The “meter” status with one of the space heater plugs overlaid on it. The app, unfortunately doesn’t let you plot more than one thing at a time.

Time of Use Plans and Battery Systems

Curiously, my experience is that most systems (FranklinWH, Enphase, and more) don’t take FULL advantage of rates. In the FranklinWH system for example, I had to set up a plan to force my system to NOT import during the off-peak time and instead import during a “super-off-peak time” which I created. This rate doesn’t actually exist, but the problem is that off-peak is Midnight to 3 PM. But charging the battery at midnight means burning money by importing from the grid. However if I force it to wait until noon, then my solar system gets a crack at charging the battery for FREE before the Time of Use plan drinks costly juice from my utility. And if the sun has been insufficient to the task, it makes sense to spend a couple of hours charging the battery before the “Mid Peak” and “Peak” rates kick in and drain more from my wallet. But this is true for me because my off-peak rate is $0.334 but the summer peak rate is an appalling $0.724 – that’s more than enough difference in rates to make up for the roundtrip losses using the battery. Setting this up in the current FranklinWH app is a bit too tedious to explain, unfortunately. I’d point you to Reddit where it’s been discussed. When you switch between modes or edit the Time of Use schedule and rates watch it carefully! I made a mistake and instead of playing out my battery at off-peak, it elected to import from the grid to cover my household use instead. My utility company netted an extra $2 a day from me due to that mistake!

Questions To Ask

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering… what questions should I ask my installer, and what things should I try to discover for myself.

  1. How long have you been in business? When did you do your first residential solar panel installation? When did you do your first do a solar + battery system? How many total installations have you done to date? Is residential or commercial solar systems your primary company focus?
  2. Are you the company that will do the installation? Or are you a broker, or reseller, or sales organization? If the installer, do you have a C-10 Electrical contractors license?
  3. Do you stock equipment like solar panels, inverters and batteries?
  4. What is a typical work-start to system-completion timeframe, currently? What causes the bulk of that time to pass?
  5. Do you do warranty repairs, or monitoring of the systems you install?
  6. Is the crew you use your employees, or do you contract out some or all of the work?
  7. Are your skilled workers paid competitive rates?
    > Why this question? An increasing number of utilities (e.g. Pacific Gas and Electric) will not certify/allow interconnect if the workers are not paid “competitively”.
  8. Can you quote me systems that optimize my return on investment? Please be sure to include the expected total cost over 5, 10, 15 and 20 years. (This is especially important if you are thinking of getting a lease, a Power Purchase Agreement, or financing the purchase with a loan).
  9. Do your estimates and financial models include degradation of components like solar panels, batteries and inverters? What annual energy cost increase (or decrease) is assumed in the model?
    > A model that assumes NO cost increases may be conservative, but might also be more accurate than one that outrageously assumes cost increases.
  10. Tell me how you affix racks and panels to my roof. What methods do you use and what guarantees do you have regarding roof penetrations and roof leaks.
  11. Does the system you propose have tools that will make it easy for me to monitor and track my daily and monthly energy consumption? I.e. can I expect the system to agree with my utility company to within, say 5%?
  12. Why did you propose these panels, inverters (and batteries) over others?
    > It may be familiarity, cost, or availability that leads them in one direction or another. And it might be profit.
  13. Do you have any reference accounts for a system similar to the one you are proposing that I can compare daily and monthly costs with my own? Preferably another house in the same area or neighborhood?

If any of those questions make your proposer/installer hesitate, I’d suggest treating them with circumspection. Also, it’s rather useful to get more than one estimate from more than one installer because two estimates sometimes reveal things you may not think about. For example one estimate might include a larger battery and a smaller number of panels or vice versa.

Finally my $0.02 on the cost: it’s unwise to try to pay the “lowest possible cost”. If you want your installer to stay in business to support you and do repairs under warranty, you need to pay them enough to make a profit that keeps them in business.

Disclaimer of Warranty and Stuff

If you’ve got general questions, I’m a night photography guy who is nerdy enough to dig into the minutia of things like this. I’m not making myself available to answer every (or any) question you may have. But I can recommend some resources worth looking into.

* Reddit subgroups [Solar, FranklinWH, Enphase, Electrical, EmporiaEnergy]
* YouTube Channels: [Gary Does Solar some very practical advice from a Brit, Solar Time with Martyna – some interesting comparisons of panels and the effects of shading)

Related Topics:
* Tech Connections: My Furnace is Too Big; Your HOUSE can Store Energy, too

If you want to ask, feel free to ask. If I see enough interest in a direction I’d like to go, there might be a third article in this series!

Going Solar – Part 1

PHOTO 1: Award Winning Solar Photo by the Author (click for more information)

This is NOT about photographing the sun, at all. In particular it’s not about the upcoming total solar eclipse visible from the central to North East! This is a public service column about the good, the bad and the ugly of using solar panels and/or battery systems.

Being the engineering geek that I am, I have invested a lot of effort into researching, cost modeling and using a photo voltaic solar panels + battery system. In this column I hope to provide some thoughtful comments and insights into the benefits, and pitfalls of having such a system. Let me however give a bit of background so you understand the context.

Photo 2: Our modest (18 panel) solar system. Note the chimney shadow from late afternoon and how they avoided placing panels where they would be shaded.

Why Did I Go Solar (+Battery)?

A desire to avoid taxes. My father passed away 5 years ago and I inherited a portion of his IRA. Contributions to a 401K are tax deductible but withdrawals from such an account are taxable. I was required to take a full distribution so it was the primary impetus for my solar journey. I had been paying attention to, but not dipping my toe into solar – frankly because our electricity costs for our modest house were relatively low… that is until some brutal summers kept us indoors with massive use of an air conditioner. But the 30% Federal Tax Credit was hanging there before my eyes so by investing in a solar system from my inheritance, the taxes would be covered almost entirely AND I get an energy production system and emergency standby power during a grid outage as a side benefit. I really needed for the system to be completed by the end of 2023 for the finances to make sense otherwise I’d be paying for the system in after tax dollars. Fortunately my installer: Cinnamon Energy Systems of Los Gatos, California delivered for me! My situation is unique here since most people will be paying for a system out-of-pocket in after-tax dollars.

Chart 1: PGE Electricity Rates (cents per kWh). This does NOT include minimum monthly bill or natural gas charges or other miscellaneous charges on the utility bill. That’s a 79% increase in 5 years.

Steep, ongoing increases in electricity rates. I live on the West Coast in Pacific Gas and Electric territory. PG&E (together with Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric) are the largest utilities in the United States. They are FOR PROFIT companies. Coincidentally PGE and SDGE have the most expensive electricity rates in the United States with one exception: rates in Hawaii are slightly higher. In 2022, for example, the national average was $0.1504 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). My PGE charges in November, 2022 were $0.3779 / kWh – TWO AND A HALF times as much as the national average. And it’s gotten worse. From 2019 to 2024 PGE rates went up by 79% in total. And they are asking for 4% increases each of the next 3 years. In January, 2024 my rate is $0.4323 per kWh (and that’s actually a reduction from what it would have been because with solar self-production, I was able to stay in the lowest tier rather than paying $0.4728 per kWh). With the current sky rocketing rates, the system pays for itself a LOT faster than it will if energy rates were lower. Our utility bill on the current trajectory will become the single LARGEST recurring cost after health care insurance and ahead of real estate taxes! As we approach retirement, retiring the electric bill will make for a more affordable post-work period.

Being Green. This is actually the least of the reasons. I’m pro-planet, pro-environment but I also know that it will take about 2-3 years of energy production from my system to become “carbon neutral”. Carbon Neutral means that the CO2 produced during the manufacture, transportation and installation of this system will be offset by the CO2 saved. But three years is not a long payback period! An Electric Vehicle is inevitable in California… and again, even though EVs require more energy to build than conventional internal combustion engine cars, I can fill my eventual EV with 100% non-polluting FREE energy. I intend to use my EV as a big mobile battery to backup my home as well as provide transportation. Will I replace my natural gas furnace + AC system with a heat pump? Eventually, yes. Will I replace our natural gas dryer, cooktop and water heater? Eventually, yes. And when I do, most of the energy those require will come from *free* power generated on our roof and squirreled away in our batteries for those rainy days that do come.

So in short, I’m saving money for the long term, helping the planet, and enhancing the value of my home. What’s not to love?

Is Solar All They Say It Is?

There is not a single answer to this question. It depends. The POTENTIAL cost savings and clean energy benefits are clear, but does it make financial sense for everyone? Probably not. Where we live we have 4 significant factors in our favor:

  • 1. Our home has an unshaded back-of-the-house roof that faces SOUTH (the ideal direction for maximal solar power generation)
    • 2. Our climate is mild (cooler temperatures are more conducive to energy generation). Heat both reduces production and takes a toll on the materials. A mild climate also helps moderate the need for energy for heating and cooling.
      • 3. Due to our climate we have more “clear sky days” than much of the rest of the country. But its worth noting that even dreary, dismal rainy days can produce energy, too!
        • 4. Our electricity costs are extremely HIGH and increasing much faster than inflation.

Beware the Charlatans and Scam Artists.

Many solar companies are struggling due to regulatory and non-sensical billing policies established by Public Utilities Commissions – I’m not talking about those, however there are rampant problems with the Solar industry. It’s rife with charlatans, scams, and lies. I cringe every time an add pops up saying “If you live in (STATE) the state HAS to give you FREE solar panels”. Every word of that is a lie. While a “lease” or “Power purchase agreement” MIGHT make sense for some people, I would generally offer that you should avoid them. Why? Because no one is giving you free solar panels! You’ll pay for them via the long term power purchase or lease agreement and in both of those cases you actually own nothing. Those installers ARE making money because the gross cost for those arrangements will always be more than the cash cost for you to buy the system and own it. Another reason I cringe is that the lies told to lure customers in include everything from saying that the Federal Tax credit can be used to cover a re-roof (they can’t), that the Federal Tax credit is a rebate (it’s not, and not everyone will be eligible), that if you don’t lease or use a PPA that your maintenance costs will be very high (solar panels are among the most reliable components typically with 25 year manufacturer warranties, batteries and inverters are less reliable, but are more reliable than most of your appliances!).

The good news is that some solar companies are going out of business (ADT, Vivint) because they rushed in to take advantage of a “market” with a bad business structure, did a poor job or ran out of people to scam or, worse, they closed shop under one name and opened back up under a new name.

Why Local Clean Energy Production is a Great Goal.

Ultimately it’s clear that local production of energy (with local storage) is good for creating a more resilient power grid. The more energy is produced locally, the less stress there is on the grid, and the less there is a need to build costly power plants and infrastructure, the more resilient it is, and the cleaner the overall energy mix becomes. Utilities SHOULD be prioritizing cleaner, lower cost energy to move away from using polluting, limited resource fossil fuels. But of course those for-profit companies don’t share that sentiment because it undercuts their money making ability.

Why Utilities Need to Be Public and Not for Profit.

Unfortunately Pacific Gas and Electric is a poster child for what happens when a shareholder-owned, profit-driven company seeks to maximize profits. It has managed to blow up a gas pipeline destroying homes and killing 8 people, burn down at least 4 California towns killing more than 95 people in the process. In fact it’s the only utility company I know of that has been convicted of manslaughter and has filed for bankruptcy twice. Ok, got that off my chest, but it is really another inducement to produce my own energy. By the way it’s also why some communities have created public utilities for example Silicon Valley Power is Santa Clara’s not-for-profit energy source. Their rate is 0.166 / kWh. San Jose is exploring going public, as well as others. And there are options in some communities to use different power generation. For example Silicon Valley Clean Energy can provide power to residents on the San Francisco Peninsula from Mountain View down to Gilroy, but PG&E delivers that electricity and the delivery charge is MORE than the national average total charge for power.

Common Myths and Misconceptions About Solar

Chart 2: at (1) the battery ran out and energy came from the grid (2). By the end of the day (3) the battery supplied all the house energy needed up to midnight. This was also a low electricity usage day for the house.

If you have enough solar generation to cover your monthly usage, that is enough.

Untrue! Here are a few of the reasons

  1. In winter, there is less daylight (so less production), typically more cloudy weather (compare Chart 2 above, with Chart 3 below), and a lower sun-angle. You would need to design a system to generate all the energy you need in WINTER… but
  2. In summer, the longer hours of daylight and often clearer skies mean you may produce three times as much energy as you do in the winter. Unless you consume it all, you are producing “excess” energy. Extra energy is of great value, sometimes, but often not (see #6, below).
  3. Your solar system only produces energy when there is sufficient light. It doesn’t have to be direct, clear-sky sunlight, but it needs to be strong enough to generate a reasonable amount of energy. Even on overcast days our system generally produces enough energy to meet the needs of the house… though as you notice in Chart 2 sometimes it’s a struggle to do so.
  4. Most people consume energy 24 hours a day. And your daily usage no doubt is different day-to-day. For example if one day of the week you do the laundry you will use more energy on that day than most others – especially if that day also turns out to be unseasonably warm or cold requiring more heat or cooling. For example, our Christmas dinner saw us using 4 hours of oven time – the 16 kWh we used in those 4 hours just running our oven was about same amount of energy we use in a full DAY! So capacity needed varies from day to day and month to month. Oh, and most of that energy was used AFTER sunset!
  5. Producing energy is not the only criteria. For example if you want to run your Air Conditioner, it’s not enough to provide the 12 amps (2.7 kW) or so of energy you need to keep it running, you also need for your system to provide (for a time) the 60 amps of energy it takes to get that AC started! This is called peak load. Many appliances have this number printed on them even though they do not continuously use that much energy. The grid is a good source for those short-bursts of extra peak-load energy, though you CAN install enough battery peak load capacity to provide that energy. If you happen to be baking something, heating water, have a fridge in a defrost cycle all while trying to run your AC you may have to overprovision your system to meet that peak load.
  6. Unfortunately everywhere in the US (and the world) is a bit different about what happens with any extra energy you create. In some areas you can ship that excess energy to the utility company and they will pay you for it (and sell it to your neighbors at a marked up price). But what you are paid can be anywhere from equal to or MORE than what you’re charged to import energy to something as small as 1/10th of the cost of import. Indeed, some utilities will not allow you to export energy at all (or will not pay for it) because export of energy can overtax the grid! And to make matters MORE complicated, the rules are changing constantly. Any paybacks you rely on may disappear in 1 to 10 years due rate changes, additional charges, etc. “Net Energy Metering” (NEM) is different everywhere.
  7. You might NOT be able to produce enough energy to meet your peak and capacity needs! You need sufficient unshaded roof or ground space to install the needed panels. For example there is one tall tree about 100 meters (340 feet) away in the late afternoon path of the winter sun that causes our production to dip for about an hour even on clear-sky days. See the Chart 3, below, which captures a “good” winter solar production day. Also compare with Chart 2 which was a not great production day. About 4 weeks later, the sun remains higher in the sky so we don’t see a production dip at all after mid January. The takeaway on this is that your own trees, neighbors trees, power poles or other objects might put an unexpected dent in your production. Clearly the loss in this particular example is miniscule.
Chart 3: A good day of energy production
1. Importing from the grid
2. Charging the battery
3. Clear day generation.
4. Shading from a tree.
5. Battery charged now exporting to the grid
6. Running at night on batteries.

If I get solar and battery I can go off-grid and keep the power company out of my pocket.

It would be lovely if this was true. The answer to this is nuanced. Some municipalities by law require homes to be attached to the utility grid. This is generally a requirement of “habitability” (that is, a house would be considered unlivable if it didn’t have energy), but if you read through the previous misconception (it’s enough to have solar panels) you’ll see that there are plenty of times where not having the grid means your house will have to “brown out” (insufficient energy compared to demand) or black out (no energy at all). Also read above because having batteries may also not be sufficient.
And even if you CAN produce enough energy you will definitely have to change your energy usage habits significantly from what you’re probably used to (or spend a kings sum on a huge system) to go truly and completely off grid. In short, you’ll likely have a least a minimum monthly bill and as much as I’ve revealed my distaste of for profit utility companies, the truth is they are USEFUL and it costs money to maintain them and the wiring to and from your house.

Solar Panels are All I Need

What many people don’t know (I didn’t know) is if you have a solar panel system that is “grid tied” (meaning connected to your utility to back-feed that extra power that you produce as well as supply power to your house when there is insufficient solar production)… IF THE GRID GOES OUT your SOLAR SYSTEM SHUTS DOWN. It doesn’t matter if it’s noon and the sun is creating 4 times as much energy as you need. The reason is safety. If the grid goes down, a worker trying to repair a downed line could literally be electrocuted if the sun comes out and sends energy back through your house into the grid. Stated another way, if your HOUSE is producing energy, there is no way for a worker to insure safety because they can’t turn off the sun and therefore all grid attachments require electronics to automatically shut off back feeds if there is no grid power and the simplest way to do that is to make the solar system shut down completely.

Does that mean I can’t have solar if there is no grid? No. You can still have solar, but you need “islanding” capabilities. That is, your system must DISCONNECT from the utility grid and form your own “private grid” if there is no power on the utility grid. Such systems are often paired with battery systems so that a battery can supply the backup power… but it costs more to have such components.

It is also true that different systems handle shade differently. In some systems something as small as a single leaf on a solar panel can reduce the panel production by 33%. Indeed the shadow of a powerline across a panel can make a panel produce ZERO power if it happens to shade each of the separate zones in the panel.

If I Have a Battery or Battery System I Can Be Independent!

Chart 4: Using the grid for only 4% of household energy needs. Total imports were 4.4 kWh**

This is mostly true! We’ve already discussed some of the many complications of having sufficient total generation as well as enough peak power (see number 5 above).

However Chart 4 shows our electricity utilization for a week in December.
Note that “aPower” is the name of the battery system by FranklinWH.

We still needed grid power – but we only imported 4%** of our energy. The rest came from the sun directly (the yellow pie), or from the sun through the battery (the green pie). This also underscores the earlier point that almost half of our energy use was when the sun wasn’t shining, or was insufficient to meet the household energy demand.

**This graph states that we imported 4.4 kWh, but the actual number is about 7 kWh. That’s a fairly trivial difference in THIS case. Chart 4 does NOT show how much energy we exported during that week (it was significant – 47.6 kWh). In Part 2 of this article I’ll spell out why why the stated export and import amounts don’t agree with our power company and why that might matter a LOT.

Indeed there was a much worse week where we had to import almost 30% of our power because the weather was dark and bleak. By using 94% (or 70%) less electricity, we clearly have that much of a reduction on the electricity charges for our utility bill. And it’s a good thing because PG&E had not yet started processing our “Permission to Operate” so we got paid zero for the 100s of kWh we sent to the grid until it was approved.

Having a battery that has sufficient peak load isn’t sufficient to be independent. There is also a matter of capacity. We have weathered two utility power outages due to violent winds – each less than an hour for us, though it lasted in some cases DAYS for our area neighbors, and it isn’t because our battery would have seen us through the days of outage. It is because we are in a critical power area. The power lines that feed our house also feed a nearby hospital, and 4 emergency response bases (fire and police stations). Indeed two years ago we had about 4 total hours of outage over 3 days. Our across-the-street neighbors had NO power for 40 hours because they are served by different (non-critical) feeder lines!

Our current system has enough battery capacity for about 20 hours of normal load – that’s enough for us to get well into the next day for sunlight to provide energy, but as you can see from Chart 2… a bad day of production may mean the battery won’t last through a longer outage / or until the sun can provide all the household needs.

What Do I Really Want in A Solar System?

This article has already become wordy, but here are some of my recommendations. I will publish a second article on “things that go wrong“, energy hacks, and more.

But assuming you are thinking about solar for yourself, here are my recommendations.

  1. Before you consider solar, take a look at the current status of your roof, and the energy efficiency of your house. It might be wise to spend money first on resolving air leaks, insulation inefficiencies and attic and roof repairs.
  2. Take a look at your electric service (or be sure any bid you get has considered what you have). It can get pricey to upgrade electrical panels or home wiring systems to meet code requirements.
  3. Understand your tax situation if a Federal or State credit, rebate or incentive is what you’re seeking. The 30% Federal Tax credit is planned to be around for 5 years, but to get that money you have to file your taxes, AND be paying as much tax as your credit will net you. If you are on a low fixed-income you may never be able to recoup the credit by doing a purchase. This is one area where a lease (to own) may make more sense because of a quirk in the law that allows the lessor to claim the credit and pass it on to you even if you would not have a sufficient tax liability to recoup the credit yourself.
  4. Seek out bids from reputable, well established solar + battery businesses. If they haven’t been in business for at least 4 years, and don’t have good marks on the normal review sites avoid them. If your neighbors have solar – ask them. Of my surrounding neighbors 4 have solar. One used a national company that used a contractor from out of the area to do the install. The contractor and the national company went out of business. One used the same company I did (though I didn’t know it at the time), and another used a large regional company that as of this writing is still in business, but getting hammered pretty hard by the latest rate changes and high interest rates.
  5. Do some investigation on the components, methods and limitations of any system you consider. Not all estimators/installers appreciate the complete landscape. They tend to stick to what they know (if indeed they know!). In part 2 I will provide a list of question I suggest you ask.
Chart 5: December and January Production. The thick horizontal Red line is our average household load. The solar panels were turned on on December 7th. Notice December 18th through 24th only ONE day (December 23rd) exceeded our average household load. Once the system was turned on, we didn’t need ANY grid energy for the first full week

Photographing Aurorae with a Night Capable Camera

Photo 1: Jupiter and diffuse, but bright aurora on our first night. f/3.5, 5 sec, ISO 4000, 20mm

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on observing and photographing an Aurora. Please read Aurora: The Bewitching Glow for background information including information about what an aurora is, when, how and where it can be seen, and photographs from Aurorae we observed near Fairbanks, Alaska.

So I Have to Get Lucky?

Before we jump into the details and the 3 keys for getting a good aurora photo, I think it is wise to set expectations about how likely you are to see a truly astounding aurora. Photo 1, above is one of the first captures I got on the first night on site (December 14). It was unexpected because the weather had been completely overcast all day. On December 17, the display was ASTOUNDING. I asked staff at Borealis Basecamp – which caters to aurora goers – as well as locals in Fairbanks, and I poured over the data to determine just how lucky we were to see the jaw dropping display we observed. The short answer is… “luck comes over time”. We used the Book and Hope method described in the first article to observe the aurora, arriving on December 14, 2023 and departing on December 18th – that is 4 nights onsite. But because we didn’t use the Monitor and Go method what we couldn’t have foreknown is how much the sun would cooperate with our aurorae dreams.

Diagram 1: M and X class solar flares in December, 2023.

Take a glance at Diagram 1, above from the SpaceWeatherLive.com archive. Fortuitously the most energetic solar flare (category X) in the preceding SIX YEARS occurred on the first day we arrived (and on New Years eve). The solar wind travels at over a million miles an hour (1.6 million kilometers per hour). But the sun is 92 million miles (147 million kilometers) away, so the effect of the flare on aurora production may occur in as little as 36 hours or as many as 4 days later. Even during a solar maximum events of this magnitude only occur infrequently. December 2023 saw two X class flares in one month – there were zero X class flares in the prior 5 months at all! The Kp Index exceeded 5 a total of 16 times in the 4 month period which means an exceptional once a week event might be a reasonable expectation during this part of the solar cycle.

Eli Fox, the chief photographer at Borealis Basecamp and the man who runs much of the Borealis Basecamp social media [Instagram] [Facebook] told me that exceptional aurora events occur on average about once a month or less.

A solid plan and good luck go hand in hand. But do not let that dissuade you. The displays we saw on two other nights were very pleasing and still produced great pictures.

Can I Get a Good Photo with ANY Camera?

Photographing aurorae is not different from the night photography we cover extensively on this site. If your camera is able to take acceptable Milky Way photos, it’s a good candidate – the aurora is generally much brighter than the brightest portions of the Milky Way.

Photo 2: Looking up. Bright fast moving aurora. Notice The big dipper at the left.
f/2.8, 2 sec, ISO 6400, 18 mm

While these articles are now starting to show their age, the principles still apply:

  1. High performing cameras (or see Which Camera is Better for Night Photography?)
  2. What to Look For in a Night Photography Lens

Surprisingly, some cell phones can do a respectable job and we will cover using cellphones in the next article in the series.

For any night photography the following minimums are recommended:

It also helps to become very familiar with the settings and controls for your camera and tripod – familiar enough that you can operate them in the dark with little or no additional light. That level of familiarity comes with practice… so if you are out of the habit, we strongly suggest practicing in your back yard (or in a dark closet). Practice while wearing the gloves that you intend to use! I discovered that merino wool glove liners were sufficient to keep my dominant hand warm even when the temperature dipped to -20F – but there was no wind and I avoided allowing any snow to remain on my glove liner – preferring to use my gloved hand or jacket sleeve when brushing away snow. Snow on my glove liner would have melted due to my body heat and made me miserable. I carried a pair of outer gloves with me, in fact, I kept a glove on my non-dominant hand at all times while my dominant hand had only the glove liner. The other outer glove remained in my pocked with a chemical hand warmer activated should my hand get cold!

Additional Photo Gear for Dealing with Excessive Cold

I brought quite a lot of gear to prepare for the affects of extreme cold on my person and my camera equipment. The camera equipment I brought included:

1. Five power banks – these were used to power “dew heaters” (aka lens warmers), as well as heated clothing.
2. Four of the powerbanks also were hand-warmers, most have built in lights.
3. Pouches in which I could keep the powerbanks, chemical handwarmers, as well as cables.
4. A large sealable plastic bag that can hold the entire camera and lens.
5. Carabiners to hold the pouches to my tripod.
6. And my standard practice of affixing velcro to key places near the top of my tripod with the mating velcro on the back of my intervalometer(s). This keeps the intervalometer in a usable place and prevents it from falling or catching the wind.

The pouches had operational electric hand warmers or chemical hand warmers to keep the power bank in them warm. I thought about, but did not use external batteries for my camera. Conceptually using external batteries permits using a larger battery (or using plug-in power) as well as keeping the camera batteries warm without warming the camera. The extreme cold is GOOD for your images. Deep sky astrophotographers typically use super-cooled sensors for their work, and your camera benefits from the cold, too, in the form of less noise.

If you use chemical hand warmers (charcoal, salt and iron filings), they need some airflow to keep generating heat – so don’t put them in a bag with no airflow. Indeed, if you want to reuse them, you can put them in as small a possible plastic bag to extend their life.

However I did keep spare batteries in my interior pockets where my body heat would keep them warm should I need to swap batteries. With the power banks, I also brought extra cables, an extension cord, and a 7 station USB charger. Of course all the regular stuff is needed, too… battery chargers for your camera batteries, cables, lens cloths and more. Another item I strongly recommend is gaffers tape which you can use to seal viewfinders, and lock down focus settings. And a large Ziplock bag. I also like to use a lens band (basically a large rubber band) to prevent focus or zoom settings from changing unexpectedly.

What Can Go Wrong?

Several aurora photographers wondered why I brought dew-heaters (lens warmers). These devices wrap around the end of the lens and via a power bank keep the lens warmer than the surrounding air to prevent dew (condensation) or frost from forming on the lens. Those with more experience than me typically did not use such devices because in the extreme cold dew is not typically a problem. BUT I did have complications I didn’t anticipate. In warmer, more humid climates, dew heaters can be the difference between getting a shot of “lens fog” and getting a great night shot.
The lens warmer is attached by cable to a power bank. More than once the pouch containing the power bank got bumped off my tripod yanking down on the lens ring which, unfortunately, altered either the zoom or the focus of the lens. In part for that reason I stopped using the lens warmer. But I did notice that more than once my breath crystalized on the outer lens surface. The take away here: in the extreme cold, keep your breath away from the camera as much as possible! And if you do use a lens warmer, find a secure way to attach it to your tripod so it can not yank on your lens.

From time to time I would use the viewfinder to frame my shot. But on my Sony Alpha 7R III camera, the frost from my breath condensed on the viewfinder resulting in two problems. The moist air from my breath froze on and made the viewfinder cloudy and I couldn’t see through it, and the sensor that turns off the back LCD when your eye is at the sensor got confused and refused to turn the LCD on. Effectively I was unable to use the LCD or the viewfinder to make adjustments. Fortunately this happened as the aurora was quiescing so I put my camera in a SEALABLE plastic bag, and brought it indoors.

Bag Your Camera! And Other Tips…

Why bag your camera? If you take your very cold camera indoors it will almost immediately form frost and condensation in the warmer more humid air – much like your iced drink glass forms condensation. Unfortunately condensation can occur INSIDE the lens and INSIDE the camera (e.g. on the sensor). Whenever I move the camera from a cold environment to a warmer one I bag and seal it and keep it in the bag until it has warmed to room temperature (about 1 to 3 hours). I can take it back out to a cold environment immediately if I wish. Keeping desiccant in the bag is not a bad idea, either! Oh, and you may find it advisable to remove your memory card and battery from the camera before bagging it so that you can examine the contents of the card or charge the battery while you have the bagged camera in a warmer environment.

Another unanticipated problem was that the extreme cold made the intervalometer cord quite stiff. It behaved more like a coat hanger than a wire. I strongly recommend using either a corded, or cordless intervalometer – you need it as a shutter release. The reason for the shutter release is to keep from adding any shake or wobble to the process of taking a photo – which occurs just by pressing the shutter button. A shutter release locked in “on mode” also allows you to take endless shots unattended which if you wish, you can assemble into a star trail like the photo below.

Photo 6: Applying Comet style star trails (with a satellite) (97) 6-second exposures. (each f/3.5, ISO 4000, 19mm) Total 9 min 42 secs.

Finally, I had difficulty adjusting the settings using the top dial on my camera – I believe also due to frost from my breath. I say “I believe” because it occurs to me that with my lightly gloved hand I may have been trying to rotate the function knob instead of the upper adjustment wheel. REMINDER: Get familiar with your camera before you get into the exciting environment where you may easily forget a step or two while gawking at the sky.

The Three Most Important Aurora Tips

Once you have all your gear, have a solid tripod (which you set up properly and securely) and are ready to begin photographing the amazing aurora… there are three very important things to NOT skimp on doing and double checking.

  1. Confirm (check) focus frequently especially after any bumps or changes in zoom.
  2. Do NOT judge the quality of the exposure by the display on the LCD. The only way to insure a good exposure is to look at the histogram (separate RGB channels is best).
  3. Adjust your exposure as needed to meet the circumstance. Aurora can go from dim to very bright and very bright to dim. They can move hardly at all, and they can dance about in the sky at a dizzying pace. So this means not only should you pay attention to those exposures, but you might want to avoid fixating on one area of the sky.

Tip 1: Checking and Setting Focus

The best way to check focus is to shoot an image and zoom in and check for the sharpness of any stars on the LCD. The best way to get focus right is to pre-focus at infinity when there is sufficient light (e.g. using a streetlight, the moon or a very bright star). While cameras can SOMETIMES successfully self focus most of the time they cannot without bright, motionless light in the distance. One way to get a good focus is to use live view, zoom in and hand adjust focus until a star is as compact as possible. But do not stop there… TURN OFF auto focus! You can set some lenses to “MF” or “Manual Focus”, but another strategy – perhaps easier – is to set your camera to do focus only when you press a separate focus button. Typically a camera is set to focus as you press the shutter – and that’s definitely NOT what you want.
If you’re not sure where to focus, we recommend either focusing on stars or if that seems difficult, you can focus on anything that is more than 50 feet away from you and that will be sufficient for wide-angle lenses.

Then take an exposure and confirm the focus is spot on. I took a whole sequence of exposures with lovely snow flocked trees in the foreground, but I made the mistake of not confirming my focus was spot on! It is also worth noting that the aurora may be diffuse and therefore not have a clear focus point… so don’t judge by the aurora! By the way, we also strongly recommend that you set a fixed White Balance (e.g. cloudy or daylight), disable long exposure noise reduction, and turn on high ISO noise reduction.

Some cameras have a “focus peaking” setting that you can enable. Focus peaking colors those areas of the image that are in focus (red is easier to distinguish in a night shot). This tip comes from Eli Fox, and is something I did not know is present on my Sony!

One last tip, focus MAY change as the lens gets colder or warmer – so do check periodically.

Tip 2: Verify Proper Exposure using the Histogram Feature

Diagram 2: An aurora photo with over exposed elements (see red pointers). The histogram (top right) shows a spike at the right – brightest end – of the range.

My modus operandi when shooting is to hand shoot a few images doing the focus check AND a histogram check before I set the camera up to take continuous exposures. I then periodically stop the exposures to double check the histogram. One additional help here is to turn on over exposure highlighting if your camera supplies it. With that feature on, over exposed areas will generally blink where there are overexposed pixels to let you know what areas are over. Overexposure is very difficult to recover from. The goal is to minimize the overexposures but get the images as “bright” as possible to capture the most information. I then usually shoot a shot with the lens cap on (or my hand covering the lens) so I can tell that I’ve changed settings or adjusted the field of view. Elements at the “bright” end of the spectrum by themselves don’t mean there are over exposures. By the way this is also why we strongly recommend you shoot your photos in RAW – or like we do RAW plus the smallest JPEGs.

Tip 3: Do Not Fixate

This tip has two parts. Do not forget to recheck at LEAST your exposure histograms periodically, and do not fail to look around in the sky. While you might have the perfect foreground, the aurora behind you or above you may be the most spectacular thing you will ever see. If you do not get a photo, it may as well have never happened! And while we are on this subject, do you notice how GREEN the snow appears in the right side of the photo below (as well as earlier photos)? They are reflecting the predominate color (557.7 nano meters wavelength) coming from the aurora. This is one of the possible problems with obtaining natural looking aurora photos.

Photo 5: The recorded color (right) gives an eerie green, but the left is hand desaturated in post processing.

As noted in Aurora: The Bewitching Glow (part one of this series), there are other colors as well. This can have the affect of making the landscape look “eerie”. Eerie landscapse can be combatted in two ways. One way is to be thankful for and take advantage of light pollution (or some moonlight), and the other is to post process the photo to desaturate the areas that look unnatural e.g. as is done above in photo 5. All the other rules of good photo composition apply as well. If the photo would look pleasing without an aurora, then it will be even better if there is an aurora. But if the scene is chaotic or not well framed, it will take an incredibly amazing aurora to save it. I think the main take away here is: experiment with different compositions, directions and settings.

One last point. The aurora can move very slowly or surprisingly rapidly. If you take a long exposure for a fast moving aurora it will “smear”. But a dim, slow moving aurora may require a longer exposure or a higher ISO or both. Consider the examples below. At the left is an approximation of one ten second, ISO-6400 exposure (f/2.8, 18 mm) created by combining 5 2-second exposures and the second is a single 2 second exposure. The “eye” of the aurora is overexposed and much of the swirly detail is lost. However even if the ISO had been dialed down or the aperture stopped down to prevent overexposure, the capture over the longer time interval would lose some of the fine detail – in much the way that a moving flashlight or a moving camera would create a smear. But do notice that more stars are visible in the longer exposure because 10 seconds is sufficiently short for an 18mm shot that the stars themselves are not smeared (much). To understand this a bit better, the best resource we know of is
described in our article: 600 Rule?

In fact, if you’d like to get an idea how fast an aurora CAN move in real time, here is a video sequence – not a timelapse – from Eli Fox

VIDEO: Real Time aurora used by permission from Eli Fox.

Well, that’s it for how to use a “night capable camera” to take aurora photos. But stay tuned, we have at least two more articles on the subject coming soon including:

How to Take Aurora Photos with a Cell Phone

All about Borealis Basecamp

As always, feel free to ask questions using the comments below. Thanks for the gift of your time reading this… and if you’ve found value in it, please do share the link with those you know who would appreciate it.

Aurora: The Bewitching Glow

First published 06-Jan-2024. Last revised 07-Jan-2024

Who doesn’t want a photo of a curvaceous near-earth phenomenon called an Aurora? Not you? Well if not, you need not read on. But if you’re thinking that sounds interesting then you’ve found a good place to hone up on aurora and aurora photography. We’ll address what aurora are, how to plan for them, equipment, and photography methods including how to get decent photos from night capable cameras and typical current generation cell phones. In many ways aurora photography is similar to trying to catch meteors – see: Coaxing a Meteor into Smiling for your Camera – only aurora are easier!

Until recently, photo 3, below was the only aurora photo I was ever able to capture, and it was in 2011 while travelling back by plane from the Royal Observatory in London where I had won Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010. While flying over Canada, I noticed an odd glow that seemed to be moving unexpectedly. Suspecting it might be an aurora borealis, I covered the window up as best I could with a dark coat while simultaneously holding my camera against the window for a 4 second exposure on a bumpy flight. The camera immediately registered the tell-tale green color which wasn’t visible to my eye.

Photo 3: Window Seat Aurora Borealis

What IS an Aurora? and What Does it Look like “In Person”?

An aurora (which is named after the Roman goddess of Dawn) occurs when the sun ejects charged particles toward the earth. Those charged particles are warped by our earth’s magnetosphere which concentrates them like a lens and they then collide with components of our atmosphere (in the ionosphere and thermosphere) as high up as 1000 miles to as low as 30 miles above the earth. Note that the magnetosphere is centered around the earth’s magnetic poles, not the geographic poles. The north magnetic pole continuously moves and is presently near 81°18′N 110°48′W which is Ellsmere Island, Canada NOT at the geographic north pole (90°N). The location of the north magnetic pole within the North American continent is fortuitous for those of us who live in the extreme northern United States especially for those in Alaska, and Canada. Though the band of possible aurora sighting locations is broad and includes other northern countries and continents it favors Northern North America. Aurorae (the plural of Aurora) that occur in the Northern hemisphere are called Aurora Borealis from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. Those in the Southern hemisphere are named after the Greek god of the southern wind: Auster and are called Aurora Australis.

Other interesting places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis include the northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Lapland, Iceland, Greenland and Finland as well as the Siberian region of Russia. In the south, Aurora can sometimes be seen in New Zealand, the Southern tip of Chile (e.g. Tierra del Fuego) or the Falklands. In the south, however the best place would be on the continent of Antarctica.

All you really need to see an aurora is a reasonably dark sky and sufficient solar wind to produce a strong aurora. Aurora have no seasonality. The anticipated strength (brightness) of the aurora is forecast by the “Kp Index“. Unlike the apparent magnitude scale used by astronomers in which the smaller the number the brighter the object, the Kp scale goes from 1 to 9 with 9 being the brightest and MOST likely to produce aurora. During our sojourn in the Fairbanks area, the scale ran from 2 Kp to 5 Kp – and as I note below that 5 Kp event on December 17th was awe inspiring.

But what does an aurora look like in person?

Blurry cellphone photo of an Aurora:
f/1.8, ISO-3200, 4 sec
Photo 4: Aurora as it might appear to the eye. (Taken with a cell phone)

Most aurora will appear gray to the human eye which is poor at discerning color in dim light. A camera can capture the true color, and that color is generally predominately green due to the interaction of the charged particles with oxygen in the atmosphere. In Photo 4 you can see a peculiar diagonal glow that IS a diffuse aurora partially obscured by clouds and it is close to what it looked like to the naked eye – though the whole scene was dimmer in person.

What an aurora actually looks like depends on the overall sky darkness, the cloud cover, and the strength of the aurora. Just as seeing the true majesty of the Milky Way requires dark skies, the beauty and shape of the aurora is easier to spot in dark skies. A dim aurora might look exactly like the amorphous cloud in photo 4, above. In fact, many people who first notice aurora think they ARE clouds illuminated by moonlight or some distant city lights. A stronger, brighter aurora might have discernable hints of green, red or blue. And the aurora may also move quickly and chaotically about the sky in a display that can only be described as mesmerizing, and evocative. We got very lucky. Of the 4 nights we spent seeking the aurora we saw aurora on 3 of those nights, and the fourth night literally had this author in tears over the sheer beauty of what he saw. Don’t let this meager photo dissuade you… we’ll discuss in a bit how to get much better photos and show you much more delicious examples. We were fortunate in that there were two very large solar flares (class X) that occurred on December 14th

But here is a timelapse from the most energetic of the nights we watched. It zips along at about 15 times the actual speed.

Dance of the Northern Sky: December 17, 2023


Where can you See an Aurora? and WHEN?

Photo 5: Samsung cellphone Capture of Aurora at Borealis Basecamp, Fairbanks, Alaska

The short answer to the question is literally ANYWHERE with great good luck, but the the more accurate answer is near (about 20 degrees from) the north or south magnetic poles when the sky is dark and there is significant solar activity. The sun goes through an 11-year cycle from a quiet period (solar minimum) to lots of sunspots (solar maximum) and back to a quiet period. The sunspots are generally where the charged particles come from Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). The next solar maximum is in 2024 and the previous maximum was 2013 but the years on either side of the maximum can be just as good as the year of the maximum -> so now you know why we went in 2023!

A more detailed explanation of WHERE includes these criteria:

  1. A place with non light-polluted skies
  2. near the arctic or antarctic magnetic poles but preferably not at the poles. The farther you are away from the magnetic poles, the less likely you are to see any aurora activity
  3. generally favorable weather (meaning at least some clear skies).
  4. a season when there is true night/darkness. For example August in Alaska would be a bad choice because it never gets truly dark – which is why it’s called the “Land of the Midnight Sun”. In late December through January Fairbanks and farther north could aptly be called the “Land of Perpetual Midnight”. The more dark, the better the chances!
  5. travel distance and cost,
  6. availability and cost of lodging,
  7. and if you’re looking for that primo shot, consideration of the foreground for your shot (a flat field may not be as compelling as a snow flocked forest with a mountain poking out in the distance).
  8. time on site. Aurora are a “Space Weather” phenomenon and that is apt in the sense that you might confidently book a one-night stay in Seattle, Washington and expect it to rain because it frequently does so, but the longer you stay at a site, the more likely you are to observe the Space Weather you’re interested in and hopefully the less likely that the snow, rain, clouds or fog are to completely blot out your aurora experience. The first night we were on site at Borealis Basecamp it had snowed all day and was a gloomy overcast, foreboding night. We thought it would be a bust and we could catch up on sleep, but at 2:00 AM it cleared enough that the Aurora was pretty awesome.
Photo 6: The first night after heavy cloud cover an aurora broke out. Orion is at the right, Gemini in the middle

One strategy is to book a place and hope that while you’re there you get an aurora. I call this tactic “Book and Hope“. But there is another tactic you can try, too.

Monitor and Go

Another approach is to pick where to go based on monitoring the Space Weather reports for strong solar events and correlating the aurora predictions with weather forecasts. You can immediately arrange travel to an accessible location in the US or Canada at the last minute since there are often 2 to 3 days between the observed solar activity (CMEs) and the increase in aurora activity. The Monitor and Go approach may cost more and require more flexibility. You may find that some of the best locations and tours are booked seasons in advance for those who took the book and hope approach. We are strong proponents of Having a Plan C – which means having alternatives pre-investigated in advance of any possible opportunity to see the aurora.

If not above latitude 45 or so the aurora will be low in the northern horizon. But the closer you get to the magnetic pole, the higher in the sky the phenomenon will occur. In fact, one driver in Fairbanks told me “we don’t call them the Northern Lights here we just call them The LIGHTS because for us they are usually overhead and seldom only in the north.”

If you don’t live in Alaska or Canada, but are lucky enough to live in the northern-most portions of the northern US the chances of seeing an aurora are pretty good on as many as 5 or 6 nights a year when there is significant space weather (Kp index forecast is greater than 5). It may just be a matter of figuring out what nearby location has the darkest skies toward the north. Some of my photo buddies in New England, Washington, and Idaho have managed several times through a year to get captures of an aurora when the activity level is high. See the Viewing the Aurora link, in the resource list below for a better understanding of Kp.

Aurora from New England captured by Brian Drourr
Brian Drourr captured this image near his home in Burlington, VT (used by permission) Click the image to visit Brian’s Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/brian.drourr

Where Did StarCircleAcademy Go?

For nearly all the reasons cited above, we chose to go during the winter to the area near Fairbanks, Alaska, and specifically to Borealis Basecamp which is located about 20 miles north of Fairbanks. We chose December for it’s longer nights and snowy environment (better for interesting foregrounds) even though December in Fairbanks has more cloud cover than say March. We’ll describe more about Borealis Basecamp in the next article, including features of the “igloo” accommodations offered, as well as weather considerations.

Gray, overcast skies at the Borealis Basecamp north of Fairbanks, Alaska, with a cheeky self portrait and a not-live  Grizzly bear.
Photo 7: Borealis Basecamp accommodations. The grizzly bear wasn’t really there 🙂 This was created by combining a panorama with a photo from the Fairbanks Airport all in the Samsung cell phone. The panorama makes the igloo appear squashed (smaller) than it actually is. The model inside is the author’s wife.
Photo 8: The author in a Borealis Basecamp “Igloo” in pre-dawn hours with stars and multi-colored Aurora visible.

There is a downside to Fairbanks, Alaska. By going in Winter… there are only 4 or 5 hours of daylight, and the average high temperature hovers near zero Farenheit (-17 Celsius). Borealis Basecamp is 800 feet higher in altitude than Fairbanks, so is usually a few degrees warmer (cold air sinks and settles in low areas). Borealis Basecamp is situated north of Fairbanks which helps because the light pollution from Fairbanks only affects the southern skies. There are other areas worth considering in the vicinity of Fairbanks as well, like Chena Hot Springs, Chatanika Lodge, Aurora Borealis Lodge north east of Fox, and many more. You can also opt to stay in Fairbanks and charter expeditions that ferry you by van to the best available spots for photography. Or if you are accustomed to driving on ice and snow you can be brave and rent a car. Beware that locals don’t call them “roundabouts” they call them “slide-abouts”. The upside to residing in Fairbanks is that you can avail yourself of the variety of restaurants and amenities in Fairbanks and also get aurora photos. The disadvantage is that the aurora can pop up at any time so generally you’d want to be out from say 10 pm until 3 am to have a good chance of catching what does occur. In our case at the Borealis Basecamp (as is true at nearly ALL aurora oriented accommodations), they notified us by phone when an aurora was visible and it was a matter of looking through the windows to decide if it was worth donning all the layers of clothing and heading out of doors or just staying in bed and observing in comfort. Plus we had the advantage of retreating indoors for breaks or to rewarm as needed. Indeed, one morning the aurora display was dim but really awesome at 8 am!

Photo 9: Multicolor Aurora at Basecamp Igloo 301 – Glow from on site restaurant.

Resources and Links


Parts 2 and 3 of this Series:

2 Aurora Photography with A Night Capable Camera
   + What is a “Night capable” camera?
   + Equipment (Camera, Tripod, warmers, dew heaters, …) 
   + Aurora aspects that dictate settings.
   + Adapting to conditions – both of the Aurora and the weather.
+ What to pay attention to to get the best results (there are 3 keys!)
   + Batteries, camera controls and tripods.
   + Aurora photography goals and considerations for getting a better picture.
+ Preparing for Winter in Alaska
+ Is -20 F survivable? (Short answer, yes!)
+ What should I bring / how should I dress?
+ What is Borealis Basecamp like?
+ Tips from Borealis Basecamp staff.

3. Aurora and Night Photography with a Cell Phone COMING SOON
   + Cellphone cameras – are they usable for aurora photos?
+ Stablizing a cell phone for better photos (both hardware and posture!)
   + iPhone settings – “Night” and “Pro” mode
   + Android phone settings “Night” and “Pro” mode
   + Handheld or stabilized? 
+ How to hold a cellphone if you DO NOT have a tripod/stable base
   + Hands free photos (e.g. tripod plus voice command or bluetooth trigger)