Going solar - Tucson Local Media: Import

Going solar

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Posted: Tuesday, September 19, 2006 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

September 20, 2006 - As a child, Dennis Dahler respected the sun.

It warmed his bath water to keep him from shivering and made the water from the kitchen faucet steamy for washing dishes.

As an adult, Dahler wanted to use the sun as more than a water heater - he wanted to harness it for electricity.

This summer, he got the chance.

The state of Arizona chipped in a $1,000 tax credit for a two-kilowatt solar panel, as it has done for years. Trico Electric Cooperative threw in an $8,000 rebate - an incentive it has offered members for about two years. And new this year, the federal government topped it all off with a tax credit of $2,000.

Dahler and his wife got a $16,000 solar setup for $5,000.

As a lover of back-to-the-Earth living, Dahler relished the idea of harnessing sunlight in a desert region where the sun shines 300 days or more a year.

"I guess if I was living on top of a live volcano, I'd probably find a way to do geothermal," he said.

In an age of global warming and reliance on oil from nations hostile to the United States, federal and state governments are looking for ways to decrease the country's need for fossil fuels. Governments offer tax credits for solar equipment to increase the market for it, which, in turn, drives research to improve its efficiency. Electrical companies offer rebates because of a mandate from the Arizona Corporation Commission that they produce a certain amount of their electricity each year from the sun.

Despite the biggest financial incentives in about three decades for using photovoltaic technology, not many have yet joined Dahler in taking the solar panel plunge. Only one other Trico household in the Marana area has installed panels since the $8,000 rebate went into effect, said Eddie Williams, marketing executive at Trico. However, Northwest residents are busy making solar investments in less costly equipment that pays for itself more quickly, including pool heaters and tubular skylights.

"Solar energy is still very expensive compared to nuclear or fossil fuel generation," said Paul Portney, the dean of the Eller College of Business at University of Arizona and former president of a national think tank that focused on solar energy.

Anyone who lives in the Northwest long enough will probably stumble across solar panels. A Tucson water facility near the intersection of Thornydale and Tangerine roads sports solar panels provided through Trico that produce 40 kilowatts of electricity to pump water to Dove Mountain golf courses - enough to power about eight homes. When completed, it will produce 100 kilowatts.

The Mason Audubon Center and Tohono Chul Park sport panels provided through Tucson Electric Power Co. that produce 1.35 and 2.8 kilowatts, respectively, and help offset their electricity costs.

A new solar trough, unveiled this spring just north of Marana in Red Rock, will generate 1.3 megawatts for Arizona Public Service, Arizona's biggest utility, which serves Bisbee, Douglas, Ajo and sections of Pinal and Maricopa counties. That's enough to meet the energy demands of about 200 homes.

Some homeowners use solar panels as well, including those who live on and off the grid in the Dancing Rocks Permaculture Community in Marana.

But most solar efforts in the Northwest focus on natural lights and swimming pools.

Three years ago, Bruce and Marilyn Sawin of Oro Valley invested in a solar heating system for their pool.

Although they like to do what they can to conserve the Earth's resources, their decision to harness the sun's power for springtime dips was largely economical - they're retired and on a fixed income.

When their pool company gave them their options of gas, electric or solar heating systems, the sun-powered system stood out as their obvious choice.

"It's cheaper in the long run, so the bills are smaller," Bruce Sawin said. "When it comes down to it, it's about money."

Pool companies in Southern Arizona often recommend solar pool heating for people who have a place to put it and a bit of extra cash to put down upfront.

Arizona offers a 25-percent tax credit on the systems, which brings the cost of a system for an average-size pool to about $3,500, which is about $500 more than the cost to install a gas heater, said David Johnson, owner of Integra Pools and Spas. With 65-percent savings on energy bills from the start, the system generally pays for itself within two or three years.

Johnson, who sells pools in the Northwest, said about 20 percent of his clients who put in pools without spas go with the solar option. Others have tiny lots or inadequate roofs, or they don't have the extra upfront money.

"Not enough people are using solar heating for their pools," he said.

Tubular skylighting is another smaller solar investment that has begun to hit the mainstream.

Five years ago, the solar tube supplier Highlight Enterprises had no business from major builders, said Heather Wright, a co-owner of the 13-year-old supplier near the intersection of Thornydale and Ina roads. Now, 40 percent of its business comes from them.

"It's kind of like being pregnant," said Wright said about the increasing awareness of this lighting option. "You don't know about one until you see one, and then you start seeing them everywhere."

Homeowners aren't the only ones installing solar tubes. Silverbell Trading Company, in the Casas Adobes Plaza, uses the tubes to meet almost all of its lighting needs during daytime hours, and in the process, it cuts down on cooling costs.

Tubular skylights are designed to provide the light but not have the energy transfer of a traditional skylight. Although some electricity savings comes from not having to power as many light bulbs, most of it comes from not having to run the air-conditioner as much.

"The regular incandescent lights are little heaters that put out light," said Katherine Kent, a solar expert in Tucson who in 1990 received the Department of Energy's national award for energy innovation.

Another incentive is that Arizona offers a 25-percent tax credit on tubular skylights.

Kent, who owns The Solar Store, 2833 N. Country Club Road, estimated that 15 or 20 percent of homes in the Northwest and Foothills harness solar power to reduce electrical bills if you include people who incorporate solar tubes into their lighting systems.

"A lot of the homes have tubular skylights," she said.

But the number of takers goes down dramatically when light is taken out of the mix.

In 2004, Trico Electric Cooperative launched a campaign to encourage people to consider using solar panels. Six of its 30,000 members in Pinal, Pima and Santa Cruz Counties have made use of incentives and installed systems, and two await them.

"I believe the bottom line is the cost," Williams said.

Some developments, including Civano and Armory Park del Sol, equip their homes with solar panels, so the cost of buying one is spread out over the life of a mortgage. But people who retrofit their homes with solar panels can wait more than a decade before the system pays for itself and electricity arrives essentially free.

That wasn't always the case.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the government offered substantial rebates, and for a period, federal and state credits for Arizonans amounted to 100 percent on solar power systems.

This period turned some people off of solar power.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people saw this as a great money-making opportunity and put in systems that were not up to the performance standards of today," Kent said. "We got a cold spell and they froze, and a lot of people have stories about putting in systems that didn't work."

Nowadays, some people who live in planned communities don't consider solar options because they mistakenly believe they're not allowed to exercise them, Kent said.

"In 1984, Arizona passed a law that homeowners associations can't restrict the use of solar devices," she said.

Despite a dearth of solar panels atop homes, people in the Northwest should expect to derive a significantly increasing amount of electricity from the sun in the next two decades.

In February, the Arizona Corporation Commission voted to require regulated electric utilities to generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2025.

For 2006, that percentage requirement is 1.25.

For now, people who want to generate solar power without mounting panels on their homes can opt to add as little as $2 to their monthly electric bills through Trico or Tucson Electric Power that will go toward building solar panels in the Tucson area.

"A lot of people are interested in supporting renewable energy, but the cost of photovoltaic (power) is simply beyond lots of people's means," said Joe Salkowski of Tucson Electric Power. "What this does is give everybody an opportunity to support the development of clean, renewable power resources right here in our home town."

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