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A serious look at solar energy

by Jeff Munson, Record Courier

What once was considered a backwoods lifestyle shared by mountain families and environmental purists may be coming into the mainstream as Nevadans face skyrocketing energy bills with no immediate relief in sight.

Solar power generation for home heating and electricity has earned serious consideration from homeowners, consumer advocates and legislators, who are scrambling for solutions to ease the financial burden of energy rate hikes.

“There is a concern out there, especially from people with low or fixed incomes, that they will not be able to meet their bills,” said Bob Cooper, Senior Regulatory Analyst for the Nevada Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Fueled by the state’s electric and natural gas rate hikes and the continuing utility crisis in California, where millions of customers have been subjected to rolling blackouts, many Nevadans are beginning to look at energy as something they can no longer take for granted, Cooper said.

The push for alternative energy at the state level actually began during the 1997 legislative session when Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, sponsored legislation calling for utility net metering.

The concept allows utility customers to generate their own electricity from renewable resources such as rooftop solar systems or small wind turbines. Energy produced from these models can generate power to reduce the strain on the power grid. People who produce more electricity than they use at a given time can feed the surplus to their local utility grid, thus lowering their electric rate by literally watching their meter roll backward.

But the legislation was met with opposition from the utilities, who fought successfully to cap the number of customers allowed to use the net metering concept. The cap was set at 100 users in Northern Nevada and 100 users in Southern Nevada.

Cooper said concerns over the rate hikes may force the utilities to reconsider the cap.

“Our hope is that we will be able to convince the utilities to lift the cap,” Cooper said. “If not, there will probably be legislation in the forthcoming session.”

Besides lower utility costs, there are added incentives to homeowners who use renewable energy.

During the last legislative session the state established a property tax incentive, which says that any value added by a qualified renewable energy source will be subtracted from the assessed value of a residential, commercial or industrial building for property tax purposes. Also, Nevada has a solar access law that prohibits any restrictions on building solar devices on properties.

The real incentive for rate payers, however, is lower utility rates.

Nevada’s first net-metered customer, Marion Barritt of Minden, installed solar roof tiles at her home in 1997. The set-up cost about $6,000, but the return investment has nearly paid for itself. Since installing the system, Barritt’s electric bill has averaged $85 a year.

“To watch your meter roll backward is really something to see,” Barritt said.

As the president of Sunrise, a 250-member non-profit organization based in Carson Valley that promotes renewable energy, Barritt said the consumer climate is ripe for change.

If utilities continue to raise their rates, they are placing financial hardship on customers, Barritt said.

Because utility prices have remained affordable over the years, people didn’t give much thought to renewable energy, Barritt said. Now, with an awareness that power supplies are limited, customers will see that it is more logical to become more energy efficient and independent.

“Alternative energy wasn’t popular because it was largely subsidized. Energy prices remained very low,” Barritt said. “There are no subsidies for geothermal, wind, solar and biomass – all renewable resources. I think that is going to change.”

Sparks-based Independent Power Corporation is one enterprise that is feeding the growing demand for alternative energy sources. During the past two months the company, which sells home and business solar energy systems, has seen a surge of interest, mainly from homeowners looking to lower their utility bills.

“That backwoods stereotype no longer exists. People want information because they want to save money,” said Grace Caldwell, company president. “We’re hearing from people who are driven by environmental concerns, economic concerns and people who no longer want to be dependent on their utility companies.”

Also, contractors have expressed interest in alternative energy. Many believe it gives an incentive to new home buyers, Caldwell said.

For about $20,000 a 2,000-square-foot home can be equipped with solar panels that would make it independent of a utility company, Caldwell said. Backup batteries and a backup generator ensure that even if the sun doesn’t shine for up to a week, the home will still have enough power.

“When you have it, you don’t even know it’s there. There’s no brownouts, no spikes when the generator kicks in – it’s all clean power,” she said.

For those who aren’t able to afford a solar transfer system, Independent Power offers solar devices for hot water heater systems, as well as home heating devices that use radiated heat generated through solar power.

“We’re finding that a lot of people who can’t afford a home system want to implement what they can one thing at a time,” Caldwell said. “For some it is a hot water heater. For others, it’s something besides electricity to heat their swimming pools.”

Public awareness is key to getting more people to use renewable energy, Cooper said. Several conservation groups, including Sunrise, plan to lobby state legislators to push for alternative energy legislation.

But as long as utilities see alternative energy as a threat to their profits, don’t expect Sierra Pacific to push net metering on its ratepayers, advocates say.

“Sierra Pacific has not been receptive in the past, but that may change if enough people express an interest,” Barritt said.

At the legislative level, Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, is working on legislation that would provide innovative ways for the state to take a more proactive approach to conservation.

Townsend, who is attending an energy summit in Portland, Ore., along with Gov. Kenny Guinn, has expressed a desire to sponsor legislation that would give utility companies rebates if they provide consumers credit for energy saved, Cooper said.

During the upcoming session, which begins Monday, Cooper suggested the lawmakers create a special fund for low income customers, as 22 states have done during the past three years. Nevada currently ranks 49 out of 50 states in the amount of low-income energy assistance it receives from the federal government, Cooper said.

“We’re hopeful they will work very hard to create a consumer safety net for this session,” Cooper said.

Brkouts:

n For net metering information, contact Sierra Pacific contract administrator Rod Sloan, (775) 834-3572 or Colin Duncan, senior engineer (775) 834-4417.

n For information on the Carson Valley non-profit alternative energy group Sunrise, contact Marion Barritt at (775) 782-7353.

n For the state’s low energy assistance program, call (800) 992-0900 ext. 4420.

n For home solar energy products contact Independent Power Corporation at (775) 331-0228.

Looking to reduce your energy bills? Try these conservation measures:

n Check your furnace to make sure it is operating efficiently and safely. Change your furnace filter monthly.

n Caulk and weather-strip windows and doors. Also check the exterior of the home for places where caulking has deteriorated and re-caulk any gaps.

n Add insulation to attics and crawl spaces. Heating ducts and hot water pipes can also be wrapped with insulation. Wrap your water heater with an insulation blanket.

n Set your thermostat at the lowest comfortable setting – 65 to 68 degrees is comfortable for most people. At night, set the thermostat to a lower temperature.

n Use a programmable thermostat to change settings so that you can heat your home only when it is occupied. For example, if no one is home during the day, a setting of 62 degrees can be programmed, then a setting of 68 in the evening and 64 degrees overnight.

n During the day keep shades up and draperies open on the sunny side of the house. Remember to close the shades at night.

n Keep hot water use to a minimum by washing only full loads in washers and dishwashers.

n Set hot water heaters to the lowest comfortable setting.