Local architect looks down solar energy path - The Explorer: Fall Home & Garden

Local architect looks down solar energy path

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Posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 4:00 am

It was a number of years, and many blueprints ago when architect Kevin Howard was given the opportunity to design his first house, and it was then he had an epiphany that forever changed the direction of his career.

As he began designing the home, Howard found himself in a mental war, weighing his own creative aspirations with his client’s practical limitations.

“I found myself designing this fairly ordinary house, thinking there wasn’t really time there to truly express myself, and I stopped, and I thought, everything I do will define my career. What I do right now, today, if I design this ordinary house, the next one will be ordinary, and the next one after that,” he said. “I threw it away, and I designed this big, curved house, and I gave it to the client, and they said, ‘Wow,’ and they went with it.”

Now, Howard’s career is anything but ordinary, and his architectural work can be found on a number of elaborate residential and commercial properties throughout Tucson. 

With 20 years of experience in designing energy-sustainable residential and commercial properties, Howard took his career aspirations to a new level in 2009 when he opened Solar Path in Oro Valley.

Initially, Howard planned to operate the business as only an architectural firm, while contracting out a solar energy company to install solar panels on the building. That idea soon evolved into something else.

“During that process, it occurred to me that I could probably do a better job of designing and installing the (solar panel) system myself, which then evolved into ‘I’m going into this business, this is the right place to be,’” said Howard. “Our first project was doing the system on our own building.”

Howard enjoyed designing the energy-sustainable building so much that he then installed a system on his own house, and subsequently began calling up his former clients (about 300) to let them know he had entered the business of solar energy.

“My past clients were more interested in it than I realized, and that blossomed into a thriving business, and now we are installing solar systems all over the city,” said Howard.

Howard’s work can be seen at Tucson Racquet Club, White Stallion Ranch, Madden Publishing, several doctor and dentists offices, and throughout homes in Arizona. 

So, what’s the benefit of solar energy?

In the example of the Solar Path building, it has completely eliminated a utility bill. Howard and his team aim to find similar results for businesses and residents who choose to invest in solar – be that simply adding solar panels to an existing location, or building a solar home or business from the ground up. First, research is conducted to minimize each customer’s future utility bill by analyzing past utility bills, or, in the case of a new customer, designing the structure to make best use of the sun’s energy.

“We look to take as big of a chunk out of the utility bill as possible,” said Howard. “Businesses often have very large utility bills, and it’s ideal because they’re usually only open from eight to five, and not on weekends, and they’re burning electricity when the sun is shining. Because solar customers receive a credit from Tucson Electric Power, Howard said the time it takes a business to make up its investment is usually significantly shorter than in a residence, though solar greatly benefits homes as well.

“Homes are fine too, because if you’re out working all day, and you’re kids are out at school and there is nobody home all day, that sun is shining, and you’re collecting credits during the day that can be used at night.”

Those credits come as a result of a solar structure producing more energy than it puts out, meaning a customer’s energy meter will literally run backwards until they begin using power again.

“Tucson Electric Power and Trico charge you a one to one ratio,” said Howard. “They’re buying the power back from you for the same price they sell it to you for. The difference at the end of the day is all you get charged for. It’s a great system.”

Though it seems solar energy could negatively affect the profit of electric companies, they have been forced, and in some cases, incentivized, to comply with sustainable energy for a few reasons. 

“TEP is under some mandates, and 15 percent of their grid has to be from sustainable energy by 2025,” said Howard. “If not, they’re under some serious carbon taxation.”

Howard said that because California buys much of its power from Arizona, and pays more for it than Arizonans do, companies like Tucson Electric Power are backing solar energy locally.

“TEP loves selling power to California,” said Howard. “However, the political body known as the Arizona Corporation Commission regulates utilities, including TEP, and they require TEP to sell it to us first before they sell it to California. If they can get a lot of us on solar, they can sell more to California.”

Howard said as TEP incentivizes solar energy, it also reduces its own expenses in that it doesn’t have to build expensive coal burning factories.

“The relation between consumer and power company – it’s a win-win,” said Howard.

As a result, the solar industry has become more stabilized, and more affordable, despite what Howard said are “rumors that solar incentives are decreasing.”

Howard said while TEP’s credit is now only 20 cents per watt as opposed to previous years where the company offered $3 per watt, the cost of solar equipment has also decreased.

“The price of solar panels is going down, which shows to me that the industry is stabilizing and will be here for the long term,” said Howard. “Buying a solar system is affordable when you consider the cost of utilities.”

Better news for those looking to go solar – financing options are available, and often loans are easy to come by.

“You can use a loan from equity in your home, but because a lot of people don’t have equity in their home with the economy, the solar system itself, if you have good credit, has value that some banks are willing to evaluate for the loan,” said Howard. “Lenders look at it as if this isn’t a new expense, it’s an expense you already have. You’re just transferring from paying TEP to paying them, so they know you’re not stretching your current income.” 

Solar Path has had a lot of success in dealing with lenders such as National Bank of Arizona and Pima Federal Credit Union to get customers approved for solar loans. 

For more information on solar energy, or to contact Solar Path, visit solarpathaz.com or call 322-6801.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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