Experts talk options for going solar
By Candace Krebs
Farmers and ranchers already use solar panels to power electric fences, water wells and tank heaters. But two energy workshops held recently in Northeastern Colorado were designed to provide rural residents with information about how to make solar a bigger part of their energy portfolio.
While wind energy makes up a much larger portion of the state and federal renewable fuels standard so far, going solar is an increasingly popular option in sun-drenched states like Colorado.
“Why all the buzz? It’s creating a lot of jobs here in Colorado,” said Rebecca Cantwell, senior program director for the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association based at Boulder. She spoke at back-to-back meetings in Holyoke and Fort Morgan coordinated by the Colorado State University Extension Service. “The fuel is free. And an aspect that is increasingly important in Colorado is that it doesn’t use any water.”
The commercial market for solar energy grew 127 percent in 2011, she said. When it comes to the installation of photovoltaic solar panels, Colorado ranks fifth nationally while New Mexico is fourth.
In addition, Colorado has some of the best solar thermal potential in the country. One system in the San Luis Valley uses mirrors to heat water that creates steam to run a turbine, she said.
Innovation is lowering costs and making installation quicker and easier, she added.
“I think in five years you’ll be able to go to Home Depot and buy a solar system you can plug in at your house. Well, maybe not completely, but close to it.”
Consider cooperative approach
Bob Mailander, one-time eastern Colorado regional representative with the governor’s energy office and a former cooperative development expert with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union who now raises organic alfalfa near Holyoke, attended the meeting and said it’s hard to get qualified installation contractors to remote rural locations. He and several neighboring farmers had looked into bringing an installer to the area to put up several systems, but the effort eventually fell through.
“If it wasn’t so difficult, we might have done that,” he said.
Tim Edgar, a CSU community energy coordinator based in Sterling, agreed renewable energy was an opportunity for further job training and economic development in rural Colorado. He pointed out that the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment received a federal grant last year to train more green energy entrepreneurs. That program still has 15 open spots.
Jerry Marizza, new energy program coordinator for United Power, a rural electric cooperative in Brighton, had another potential solution to the problem of getting service and installation in rural areas: community-owned solar farms.
“We were the first local utility three years ago to put up a small solar farm,” he said. “We have 30 different owners right now. Our concept is grow-as-you-go.”
Participants get a monthly credit on their utility bill just like they would if the panels were on their own home, but with a lot less hassle. “This way you can do it one panel at a time,” he added. “I believe in the convenience of this.”
His customers do pay a premium for the ease of just writing a check. “It’s still cheaper to put it on your house, but this is an alternative,” he said. His average customer is getting a credit of $45 a year, which allows them to pay back their investment in 16 to 18 years.
Developers have used the REA’s solar program as a way to build and promote green, sustainable homes. Others have bought a panel or two as a donation to a local charity.
Jim Hartman, another speaker, is vice president of strategic development for Clean Energy Collective. His company comes in and provides turnkey solar gardens for interested utilities, complete with easy-to-use billing software and panel purchaser financing at 2 1/4 percent interest rates. The company will even administer the program at no cost to the utility in exchange for capturing a 30 percent federal tax credit that non-profit REAs otherwise wouldn’t qualify for anyway.
“There’s really no downside,” he said, adding, “These things are going to be worth a whole lot more in the future than they are today.”
Plus, it’s a great “PR opportunity” for small communities. He gave the example of Rifle, a town on Colorado’s Western Slope that attracted national attention when it announced plans for establishing a solar garden on a local organic farm.
Mailander liked what he heard.
“Colorado is the birthplace of community solar,” he said at meeting’s end. “I think this is something we should do out in this part of the world. I just love this concept.”
Look for rebates
Property owners who want to pursue individual systems and potentially reap still better returns need to look for incentive programs, an installer said.
Don Parker, owner of Golden Solar located in Golden, Colo., put up a system on his sister’s farm near Sedgwick and used that example to discuss the economics.
Installation and panel prices have plummeted, but he said financial incentives are still critical to making solar energy attractive.
His sister’s 3-kilowatt system, which consists of 14 individual 3-by-5 panels, supplies a little less than 10 percent of the farm’s total energy needs. It saves her $300 to $400 a year, which translates out to a return on investment of about 2 to 3 percent.
“What can make it much better are the grants and rebates,” he said. Roughly $6,000 of the $14,000 installation cost on her farm’s system was covered with a grant from the governor’s energy office. That grant program has since expired. But federal tax credits are available through 2015 that cover 30 percent of the installation cost, and they can be carried over from year to year. Some utilities offer rebate programs as well.
“When you can get one-half to two-thirds of the cost covered, there’s an accelerating rate of return,” Parker said. “The payback can be as little as five years, but it’s more typically seven to 10.”
Parker said wind and hail are more likely to damage a roof than the panels, in which case they need to be removed while a new roof is installed and then remounted. (Some systems, such as his sister’s, are freestanding.)
The primary maintenance cost is the eventual need to replace the electrical inverter, which converts solar power into useable electrical current, he said. Small inverters run about $100. While the efficiency of the panels declines over time, he predicted the systems would continue to generate electricity well beyond 20 years.
Leasing a solar energy system is another option the speakers discussed. More than half of those currently installing solar panels choose that option.
Cary Weiner, a CSU clean energy specialist, demonstrated the university’s online solar lease financial calculator. It can be found on CSU Extension’s Clean and Renewable Energy page at www.ext.colostate.edu/energy under the “solar” tab.
“If you have a lease contract in front of you, this will show you what to expect or allow you to double-check what the company is telling you,” he said.
Other solar resources are also available on the site.
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