December 31, 2020

At the beginning of the year, I said: we’re going green. Drop a car and add trees and solar panels. For realz. It’s so easy to hit a certain status quo of treading water and not actually do the things you really, really want to do. In January 2020 I said: not this year. We’re doing it!!!

Well, we did it. And it was a lot harder than I thought it would be.

I hate to admit it, but the pandemic probably helped us lose one of our two cars. Certainly, we weren’t going anywhere. But even when wife was commuting, her car spent all day in the North Berkeley BART parking lot. Rationally, in a post-pandemic world, I can usually drive her there and pick her up and use the car the rest of the day. Occasionally, I may have a conflicting class to teach or other obligation, but in those rare cases, wife can use a Lyft. So we stopped leasing our newer car and just bought it. We said goodbye to my 2007 Prius that has served me so well since I moved back from the U.K. And, uh, its engine died. The dealer gave us $500 for it.

I planted an apple tree in our yard. I arranged for the City of Benicia to plant a memorial tree for my father (who died in 2019). I also planted my own memorial trees for him on his property in Benicia. I did a lot of research about which ones produce the most oxygen and live the longest. And I planted four on the front (and side) of the property so that I could pay a gardener to maintain them without the house renters needing to let them in. I hired a guy to install a water system that meant he or the renters could simply turn it on for maybe 30 minutes a week, and the trees would be fine. And…I drove by in midsummer, and two of the new trees were dying. Hiring a gardener is tricky business! You can’t outsource it to one of the big companies. You go by yelp reviews and which local is actually willing to do it. Well, Shamrock Landscaping kinda let me down.

Also, four enormous pines on my dad’s property began to die. So I had to pay many thousands to remove them. Looking at the year of tree life on the property feels like two steps forward, four steps back. Ugh.

Those thousands were nothing compared to what we had to pay to get solar panels on our house. We had several companies come and give us estimates. No one would work with the current knob-and-tube wiring that the house had had since it was built in 1941. They said that putting solar panels on ancient wiring would be like putting a new car body on a long-failing car engine. Plus, the city and PG&E wouldn’t give us credits.

The solution was to completely re-wire the house. We had meant to do this for years. One reason was our janky fuses, which would knock out our kitchen power and other power from time to time. Another reason was PG&E’s intentional and unintentional blackouts. If Dar doesn’t have access to youtube videos, he is apt to have a major meltdown. Plus, his talker is an iPad that needs to be charged. Actually, we applied to PG&E for a certain disability discount, complete with a letter from his doctor, but they rejected us, on the grounds that the credit is only for people who medically require heating or chilling.

Nonetheless, for the sake of our sanity, we were determined to have no more blackouts. This meant backup batteries – Tesla powerwalls – and it’s cheaper to install these at the same time as solar panels. But this brings us back to requiring rewiring (see what I did there). We finally hired Zalman at Berkeley Electric. I like him a lot and recommend him highly. But…WOW…it wasn’t cheap. The rewiring itself was much, much more than the total cost of the solar panels (even before we get the IRS to give us money back). I don’t really want to put numbers here but…good thing the pandemic eliminated all of this year’s vacation possibilities.

We dithered for quite a while over solar companies. We came very close to hiring Semper Solaris, and I still like that they hire mostly veterans. But in the end, we saved something like $10k by hiring Tesla, a number that doesn’t include the added value of the peace of mind that they won’t be out of business in ten years. Relating this back to tree maintenance, I wound up trimming quite a bit of my neighbor’s branches in order to accommodate the panels. I don’t count this as an environmental no-no. No, in fact, trimming branches probably helps the trees.

Hey! Almost 40 years after Mom bought this house, it’s finally up to code. The electrical main panel is on the outside of the house, near the NE corner where it’s supposed to be. There’s a sub panel in the garage that Zalman specifically set up to accommodate solar connections and powerwall batteries. That sub panel has 25-odd switches, each one labeled, e.g. “master bedroom,” “kitchen,” etc. We never had anything like that before; it’s nice to be able to compartmentalize any electric problems. So let’s just take a minute to appreciate that. Ahhhhh.

We wanted solar panels installed five minutes after Berkeley Electric was done. No company could offer anything like that. They all needed confirmation from the City of Berkeley that the house was truly up to code. Well, the city approved our house in July. I moved heaven and earth to get Tesla ready. I was hoping to have the powerwalls installed before fire season. Tesla told me that their next available date for installation was: November 27. I answered: the day after Thanksgiving?! You’re working that day?! Yes. We took this offer, despite the fact that it was WAY, way after fire season, well into heater season when we would presumably be running up our electric bill again.

Fast forward to November 27. Dar doesn’t love ten Tesla employees running around the roof. He reacts like a nervous cat. Plus, Tesla had to knock out the power for hours. So while you were eating your turkey day leftovers, I was driving Dar all around the East Bay. I kept calling wifey to see if Tesla had turned on the power again. They had arrived at 8:30 that morning. Finally, finally, at about 5:00, the power was on.

Then we had to wait for the City of Berkeley again. Then we had to wait for PG&E again. Finally, finally, last week, we got approved. I turned the big Tesla switch in our garage to ON. And I can watch as the powerwalls hum. I can watch my Tesla app. Eventually – maybe in ten years? – the total investment should pay for itself.

I know there was a lot more going on in 2020. But I want to remember it as a year that I personally took a few concrete steps toward greener living.

It was also a year of pandemic adjustments, fighting to keep Dar from regressing, parenting R, writing three *awesome* scripts that I’m working on turning into productions, teaching, blogging, and building bestlovedfilms(dot)com. It’s a little life of trying to leave things better than I found them. See you for more of it in 2021.