Looking for a way out of the energy crisis facing our nation? Look to the skies, my friend. Looking for a renewable energy source to help us reverse the global warming that has gripped Planet …
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Looking for a way out of the energy crisis facing our nation? Look to the skies, my friend. Looking for a renewable energy source to help us reverse the global warming that has gripped Planet Earth over the past couple of decades? Look to the skies. Looking to stop the bleeding from your utility budget, and actually reverse the flow? That’s right, folks, look to the skies.
The sun that so graciously bestows its warmth upon the earth from an impressive 93 million miles away drops enough energy upon the surface of our planet each and every day to more than meet the energy needs of every man, woman and child from sea to shining sea.
The solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and landmasses is roughly 3,850 zettajoules per year. In layman’s terms, that amounts to more energy generated by the sun in one hour than the world uses in one year. The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will ever be obtained from all of the Earth’s non-renewable resources: oil, coal, natural gas, etc.
How to collect that energy and convert it into a usable power source has been the challenge for engineers and scientists since Charles Fritts constructed the first photovoltaic (PV) cell in the mid 1880s. A PV cell converts sunlight into power that can run your toaster, refrigerator, stereo, vacuum cleaner or other electric device. Today’s technology has advanced to the point where your home can be covered with solar-energy capturing shingles, though the price is out of the reach of most homeowners. More frequently seen is an array of interconnected 3-foot x 5-foot PV panels assembled on rooftops or garages.
Colorado’s legendary bounty of available sunlight, coupled with a variety of incentives that can cut the cost of installing a solar system by more than half, has local homeowners, businesses and governments singing “Here Comes The Sun,” as they cash in on the benefits.
Nick Bottinelli and his wife, Stasi, have made a variety of improvements and additions to their charming S. Pearl St. bungalow during their 11 years in the Platt Park neighborhood.
“I guess you could say we’re environmentalists,” said Nick. “We try to be as green as possible. We were doing other work on the house and saw the rebates that were available (for solar installations) and it made good sense. In this economy, installing solar is probably a much better deal than buying stock.”
Prompted by Amendment 37, passed in 2004 by Colorado voters, Xcel Energy has increased its commitment toward alternative sources of energy as a part of its power production mix. Amendment 37 is the first U.S. energy standards legislation passed by voters rather than a state legislature. It directs Xcel to increase its commitment to renewable energy in a number of ways. As an overriding directive, by 2015 the utility is required to obtain 10 percent of its electricity from renewable energy resources. Since the amendment’s passage, the Colorado Renewable Energy Standard has raised the bar, requiring a 20 percent renewables contribution by 2020. Giving a particular nod to solar initiatives, Amendment 37 mandated at least 4 percent of the new renewable power must come from solar panels installed on homes and businesses throughout the state.
With that in mind, Xcel has encouraged a shift toward solar by offering rebates toward the cost of installation of PV systems. The size of the rebate is based on the size of the system installed. Systems of .5-10 kilowatts (the average Colorado residential system runs 4-5 kilowatts), situated to take advantage of maximum available sunlight, qualify for an up-front payment of $3.50/watt of system capacity. The amount of the rebate is reduced for installations unable to capture maximum sunlight due to environmental limitations.
The Bottinellis contracted with Louis-ville-based Vibrant Solar to place an array of three dozen Evergreen 190-watt PV panels (a total of 6,840 watts) on the roof of their home and garage. “Our house consumes about 13,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity every year,” said Nick. “Our system should come in just about that level, 13,000-14,000 kWh.” The Bottinellis’ solar system went live in early September. “We had no bill in September and October, and before that we were paying $80-$90 per month on electricity.”
The system installed by Vibrant Solar came at a total cost of $48,000. “After everything, our out-of-pocket cost was $17,000. Xcel covered $30,500; we got a federal tax credit for $2,000; and the state waived $600-$700 in sales tax. (Since the Bottinellis’ system was installed, the federal tax credit amount has been increased, and Xcel’s contribution has been reduced. The net benefit to the property owner remains much the same.)
Until Jan. 1 of this year, the federal government provided a 30 percent Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar systems, with a cap on residential installations of $2,000. That cap has been removed, leaving home-owners the opportunity of receiving the full 30 percent ITC. Virtually simultaneously, Xcel reduced the amount it pays out for newly installed systems under 10 kilowatts from $4.50 per watt to $3.50.
In addition to the installation rebate program, Xcel has established a standard net metering system for homeowners that calculates how much energy is generated by their solar system, and how much is used in their home. If a PV system contributes more electricity to the Xcel grid than is used by the homeowner during the year, the system owner receives a check from Xcel for the difference.
While ground-breaking, Colorado’s solar-promoting legislation is not as far-reaching as some other bills sponsored by legislatures across the country. New Mexico, for example, requires 10 percent renewable electricity by 2011, four years ahead of Colorado’s schedule. Nevada requires 15 percent renewable electricity by 2013. New York state recently mandated that 25 percent of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2013.
Not far from the Bottinellis’ front door, Hank Saipe caught the solar bug, and installed a similar PV setup at his business, Broadway & Mexico Self Storage, 1699 S. Broadway.
SolSource, a Denver-based solar system design and installation firm, blanketed the Broadway & Mexico facility with 58 Sharp 170 panels for a total power rating of 9860 watts. “The total system came in at about $70,000,” said Saipe. “Xcel’s rebate offset about $44,000 of that cost. I looked at things a few years ago, and it looked like about 10 years to earn back the cost of the system. Now it’s more like four or five.”
Saipe’s system is expected to generate 13,367 kWh of electricity annually, “which according to Xcel’s statistics is like burning a 100-watt light bulb for 140,000 hours,” said Saipe. “It’s like taking a car off the road for 30,200 miles each year.”
Jeff Scott is president of SolSource, and past president of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. Scott explained that Amendment 37 limits the rebate requirements to solar PV installations that generate electricity, excluding thermal hot-water heating modules. “At the time we were trying to get Amendment 37 passed, people struggled with bad memories of early problems with thermal systems from 20 years ago that had left the industry with a bit of a black eye. We had to be satisfied with the PV system rebates.”
According to Scott, the savings generated by thermal hot water heating systems make them similarly affordable to PV setups, even without any rebate offsets. “There’s a level playing field here. Natural gas prices have increased a lot, so the payback on solar thermal is much easier (than PV). We estimate 7-9 years payback on both types of installations.”
Scott also notes that for many of Denver’s older neighborhoods, solar thermal is the only real choice. “In areas like Wash Park, there are so many trees, and so little roof space on many homes, solar thermal is often the best option.”
“A two-panel solar thermal system –needing only an 8-foot by 8-foot patch of roof space – will produce enough domestic hot water to supply showers, dishwashers, washing machines, etc. for the average two- to three-person family,” said Scott. Such a system would cost around $7,500 installed. Less the 30 percent federal tax credit, the net cost to the homeowner is around $5,250.
From an environmental standpoint, both solar options make sense. Xcel’s website (www.xcelenergy.com) states that, “Installing one kilowatt of solar power is equivalent to planting 50 trees each year. For each one kilowatt of installed solar generation compared to fossil fuel generation, our environment will see 1,911 fewer pounds per year of carbon dioxide, and six fewer pounds of nitrogen.
Xcel spokesperson Joe Fuentes told The Profile that, “We are committed to increasing solar power in our communities. Our goal is to add approximately 20-25 megawatts (one megawatt equals 1000 kilowatts) of solar generation by 2011, with 10-12 megawatts located at homes or businesses, rather than centralized PV generating facilities owned by us.” Fuentes explained that as of June 2008, more than $37 million had been paid out to offset installation costs of systems under 10 kilowatts.
It’s not only the private sector that has jumped on the green bandwagon. Governor Bill Ritter has announced his goal of reducing the environmental impact of state operations by cutting energy use 20 percent by 2012. Intent on setting a positive example, the governor has installed PV systems at his workplace – the Colorado Capitol building at Lincoln St. and Colfax Ave. – and at home, the Governor’s Mansion at 8th Ave. and Logan St.
Bella Energy installed a 10 kW system last year on the Capitol building roof. Due to the unique challenges of the installation, half the solar panels face south to capture the best of the sun throughout the day, while the other half face west to capture the sun later in the day. The project will be used to gather additional information as to the effect of orientation on solar energy collection.
Bella has also placed a 2.4 kW system on a shed roof adjacent to the carriage house situated just south of the Governor’s Mansion. The sun’s rays are captured by 12 Sanyo 200-watt high-efficiency modules. In addition to the solar system, the Governor’s Mansion recently installed geothermal heat pumps to retrieve air staying a constant 55 degrees from several hundred feet below the ground to assist with heating and cooling costs all year round.
Dwarfing the systems mentioned above in both size and complexity, Bella Energy recently installed 615 kilowatts of solar electric equipment mounted on eight Boulder County buildings, which are expected to generate enough power to offset more than 6 percent of Boulder County’s current electricity demand. The system was paid for and installed by a third party financier who will retain ownership of the system and sell the generated electricity to the county, which has the option to purchase the equipment after seven years.
Perhaps no piece of ground in the metro area receives as much unobstructed sunlight as Denver International Airport. Taking advantage of that geographic anomaly, in early September DIA flipped the switch on a large solar PV installation occupying 7.5 acres – equivalent to the size of seven football fields, just south of the Jeppesen terminal building. The city was able to construct the 2-megawatt system without investing taxpayer dollars by using a third-party financing and power purchase agreement similar to Boulder County’s recent contract.
Under this arrangement, MMA Renewable Ventures owns the PV system and sells electricity to DIA under a multi-year agreement. A well-known PV company, Worldwater & Solar Technologies, designed, built, and now operates the system, which uses more than 9,200 Sharp solar panels. Different from static, rooftop systems, Worldwater assembled ground-mounted solar arrays using a single-axis tracking system that follows the sun during the day for greater efficiency and energy production. The DIA solar plant will generate over three million kWh of electricity annually. This boon of fossil-free power should reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere by more than 6.3 million pounds each year. DIA will have an option to purchase the PV system from MMA in eight years.
In addition to providing rebates, Xcel Energy played a key role in DIA’s power purchase agreement by formally abandoning its authority as a regulated utility to be the sole electricity provider to DIA. Utilities in some states have questioned whether power purchase agreements involving third-party financed PV systems infringe on utility authority. Nevada is going to rule on this issue later in the year.
Obviously, the advantages of solar technology have gotten the attention of all sectors of our society. To investigate whether solar energy might be a wise addition to your power production palette, contact a licensed solar provider in your area, or visit the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association website at www.coseia.org or call 303-333-7342, or the Colorado Renewable Energy Society at www.cres-energy.org, or 303-806-5317.
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