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Weekly Alibi Unplugging from the Grid

The State of Solar Energy

By Anna Wardenberg

AUGUST 2, 1999:  It beats down on us 300 days a year, baking our heads, houses and cars and turning what little snow we get in the winter into slush within hours. Some-times we curse it, and sometimes we welcome it.

But perhaps our relationship with the sun needs to change. Rather than sitting passively by while the sun shines, maybe we should be looking to the giant ball of fire in the sky as a way to generate electricity and free us from the grip that the monopoly power companies and the worldwide conglomerates have on us.

Maybe it's time to harness the sun's energy and unplug from the grid. And in fact, the solar energy movement is growing in Albuquerque and around New Mexico. But industry experts say the idea is still a long way from being mainstream.

And that's too bad, they say.

"We are importing 60 percent of our energy. That is a tremendous weakness. Right now our renewable energy sources are at 8 percent. We are the Saudi Arabia of solar," says Karlis Viceps, president of New Mexico Solar Energy Association. "We have 300 days of sun, so we should really be on the forefront of renewable energy."

Say, for example, Jesus was walking through the desert. What form of energy would he use to read his Bible? Solar power! At least that's what monks at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, about 30 miles outside of Abiquiu, decided recently. They were faced with an estimated payment of $800,000 for the Public Service Company of New Mexico to run a line out to their location down the canyon lining the Chama River.

Instead, with 12 large tracking arrays tilted toward the sun, rooms full of batteries, inverters and a propane generator, combined with responsible energy use, the monks are completely self-sustaining.

"We started off in a very small way with solar power, and like Pinocchio's nose, it just grew," said Roger Gregory, the overseer of the project at the Christ in the Desert monastery.

The $100,000 system is far from being economically viable for consumers who are in cities and have easy access to the grid. But for those in remote areas or with concerns about the greenhouse effect and Y2K, solar power is becoming a more attractive alternative.

The grid refers to the lines and power plants that utility companies have built across the nation. The companies generate electricity by burning either coal, oil or natural gas, or with nuclear fuel rods.

Solar power, by comparison, is generated in most large scale applications with photovoltaics (PV), which use semi-conductor silicon cells to convert sunlight directly into electricity. Batteries store energy for when the sun isn't shining, and inverters change the electricity from direct current to (DC) to alternating current (AC).

"It is a wonderful application for remote areas," said Connie Brooks at the PV department at Sandia National Laboratories. "It could cost a thousand dollars a mile to connect to the grid. The best option is for remote areas, but now it's catching on to be good for grid application, to people who are conscious of the environment."

Watt Does It Cost?

People inside the solar industry say they have seen major jumps in sales this year, largely due to people who fear severe interruptions in power from the utility companies beginning with the year 2000.

"There has been a huge increase in the last year because of Y2K. People are even moving to New Mexico from Los Angeles because they think [Y2K's] going to be a disaster. The normal growth rate was at 24 percent a year. This year it's gone nuts," says Chuck Luders who sells equipment for solar infrastructure at Zomeworks.

Marek Sutherland of "Proffit" From The Sun Inc. has also seen an increase in sales recently, due to fears of power outages after the year 2000. The company sells equipment ranging from complete systems for houses to small panels that can recharge car batteries.

According to Sutherland, a PV home system without a generator can range in cost from $8,000 to $20,000, depending upon energy consumption.

For example, a small, energy conservative home can use up to 2,000 to 4,000 watt hours per day. It would need a system of six 75-watt PV modules; six 6-volt deep cycle batteries and a 1,500-watt inverter/battery charger. This household currently pays PNM $96 per month, Sutherland said.

A larger home can run up to 13,200 watts per day and would require up to 16 120-watt PV modules, 20 batteries and two 4,000-watt inverter/battery chargers.

One candle generates a watt of power. A 150-watt appliance that runs for 15 minutes would take up 10 watt hours a day.

In general, the battery systems have a storage capacity of three days. Given the 300 days of usable sun here, these systems can cover all 365 days of the year with no back up generator, but many systems have a back up just in case. Long storms that block the sun would have to be met with more energy conservation for systems that don't have generators.

Putting the system in place is only part of becoming an autonomous energy producer, according to Sutherland.

"You have to look at what your energy use is, using energy efficient appliances, and budget your energy use. You can liken it to a bank account. Every day the sun puts so much energy in your account," he says.

Appliances that heat and cool are the highest energy consumers. An average refrigerator can use up to 3,000 watts a day.

PNM charges a household about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity. A household that pays PNM $96 a month would pay off a $10,000 solar generating system in seven years.

"A lot of our customers are in remote locations, and the local utility will charge them more to bring in power than it would cost them to do solar. Some people just don't want to be a slave to PNM with monthly payments for the rest of their lives," Sutherland says.

Subsidizing the Sun

When Jimmy Carter was president, the government offered tax credits to individuals who used solar power. Today, aside from fears of doomsday, it is not seen as a viable economic alternative. There are no credits for the individual on the state or federal level, according to Christy Herig at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

"The removal of the tax credit effectively destroyed the solar industry in the U.S. The oil industry is getting so many subsidies. The only thing that is not getting a subsidy is solar, and that means the playing field is very steeply tilted," says Day Chahroudi, the key technologist for a company called Suntek.

Suntek created a technology which came to the market in 1982 that insulates windows with invisible coating, increasing their insulating value by more than 200 percent.

President Bill Clinton, through his Million Roofs Initiative, aims to see solar units on one million roofs by the year 2010, including all federal buildings. His initiative includes non-solar-specific tax credits to commercial entities and grants to nonprofit organizations.

Studies show that Clinton's initiative is well beyond the halfway mark, and has created regional and municipal incentives.

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) primary role in solar technology is in research to lower costs by improving efficiency, developing lower cost materials and improving reliability and design. DOE also supports development of codes, standards and related test capabilities to reduce costs by minimizing risk in commercial transactions, according to Brooks.

But proponents of solar power say that the government initiative means nothing in a time when utility companies dominate state legislatures and make it more difficult to use sources of renewable energy other than coal or nuclear.

"There is a lot of talk and no clearly defined program. All over the world there is tremendous work with renewable energy going on, but in this country the utilities are in control," says Mark Sardella, president of Southwest Energy.

Members of the industry say that the utility companies have far too many regulations that discourage individual power producers and have the money to lobby for legislation favorable to their own interests.

But there is hope, Sardella says.

"Something profound is happening in the utility industry; it is being deregulated state by state," he says. "If consumers make the choice of renewable energy because they believe the environment is suffering, they can make this a huge market. It is profound because consumers really can demand renewable energy and demand they stop using coal and nuclear."

According to Sardella, the grid would benefit tremendously by individual solar power producers because electricity being generated back into it by the individual producers could preclude the need for more power plants.

There are an estimated 2,000 homes that are solar powered in New Mexico, and the number is climbing, according to members of the industry. About 95 percent of those homes provide all their own power.

Users of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or other more efficient uses of natural gas can be sold back to the utility companies at a rate of one cent per kilowatt hour during the winter months and four cents in the summer. PNM buys the energy back at the same rate they buy energy wholesale from coal and nuclear powered plants.

Individuals who generate their own electricity are still connected to the grid, so the amount of energy they sell back to the grid can be metered. The process is called net metering.

The Sacramento Municipality Utility District (SMUD) has a program where they actually own solar equipment, and they have installed it onto 450 residential rooftops and 20 commercial and church rooftops which, combined, generate 1.5 megawatts of electricity that go back into the grid.

More than 600 customers pay one cent more per kilowatt-hour to fund solar array systems to nonprofit entities.

"They have done studies on what is called SOD, sustainable orderly development, and they are attempting to accelerate the time in which PV becomes economical in traditional terms," Sardella says.

Officials from PNM say there are six residential homes and two commercial entities currently selling power back to PNM.

"We've seen more small PV systems in the last two years than we have in the last six, probably because the price is coming down," says Pat Scharff, who is in charge of net metering at PNM.

Solar Show and Tell

Those pushing for renewable energy sources such as PV say that the way to bring the costs down is to bring the demand up, which can be accomplished, in part, by bringing solar into the mainstream media.

One such project is being implemented at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center on 12th street just north of I-40. The Cultural Center is installing a 10,000-watt solar system -- a small percentage of the total energy needed by the facility -- that will tie into the grid, turning the Cultural Center into a licensed power producer.

"With all this sun we could be going gangbusters out here, but like everything else [New Mexico] is last on the list," says David Melton, a member of the Laguna Pueblo who is heading the project at the center.

"Part of this is show and tell. There are 400,000 visitors a year. We're going to expose everyone who comes by, and put out information about renewable energy to get the word out. Here in the sunny Land of Enchantment there is no word about solar energy."

Melton says he would like to see solar power reach Native American communities where grid power is more expensive or isn't even accessible. He estimates there are 10,000 Navajo families who have no power because they are so spread out. To bring wires out to their homes would cost $25,000 a mile.

"If you don't have electricity, you have no phone. You have safety and health issues. Granted, it's pretty expensive, but if we don't start somewhere it will always be expensive," Melton says.

Melton, who predicts the solar industry is going to boom, envisions bringing the industry to the Pueblos to provide jobs that do not pollute and, eventually, enabling the participating Pueblos to become leaders in the solar industry.

"There are no manufacturers between California and the East coast. I think we can make a go of it,"he explains.

Let the Sun Shine In

Taos, recently promoted as the solar capital of the world, has become a pioneer in renewable energies with the largest solar powered radio station in the world, and the Earth Ship community started by Mike Reynolds who specializes in completely self-sustainable housing.

The Taos radio station, KTAO-FM, sponsored a two-day concert in Kit Carson State Park in Taos last month. It featured musicians and a solar village. One of the two stages was powered by solar.

"The whole purpose of the solar village is [to educate] people who are unfamiliar with these alternative ways of building. There are so many other ways of building that are extremely efficient. It's something we are committed to," says Brad Hockmeyer of KTAO-FM.

Small projects are also being carried out by the city of Albuquerque. For example, a city fire station using solar panels oriented toward the sun has had the best (lowest) usage of natural gas, according to Jean Bustamante, an energy specialist with the city. There are also panels for use in bus stop lighting, and a DOE funded project that lights the Tramway bike path that was installed about 10 years ago.

"Right now we are looking at various solar projects where we could use it for more efficiency, like outdoor lighting in remote areas, use of irrigation and timers," Bustamante says.

The lights, which have been problematic due to lack of maintenance, will be fixed, according to city officials.

A project to develop a five-megawatt facility that would generate solar power is currently on hold, according to PNM officials. The Mesa Del Sol proposed planned community had intended for a solar company to locate to the mesa to carry out the project but had some financing problems.

Legislation passed this year for New Mexico would add a tax to promote renewable energy, but solar experts who fought against the legislation say the money will not necessarily go toward renewable energy.

The tax includes several possible spending options, including rural areas and low-income assistance, according to Sardella. If there is money left over, there is a ceiling on what they can spend on renewable energy but no floor.

"It's terrible in that people think it will provide renewable energy and they won't get any at all. Consumers must have non-discretionary access to the utility grid, so they can generate their own electricity. There are tremendous environmental benefits to generating electricity on site, regardless of how you do it."

Getting mainstream America to take control of their energy consumption will take a major catastrophe, according to Kevin Goodreaw of the Direct Power and Water Corporation, a company that sells and installs solar systems.

Experts say solar has a long way to go before it becomes a mainstream power source.

"It will take a major Y2K power outage to make Americans cognizant of how nice they have it with electricity," Goodreaw says. "Americans don't plan; they just react. If there is a major power outage, there will be a small percentage that has emergency power systems, and those are the ones who'll be fine. The masses will have no power."

Gregory at Christ in the Desert Monastery says if given the choice between solar and grid power, they might have gone the simpler route.

"I think the abbot has a commitment to the environment, because he is a product of the '60s. But I think if PNM said, 'Yeah, we'll run a power line up to you 'cause you're a monastery,' we'd be on the grid," Gregory says.

It would seem that the only religion in question here is capital, and Jesus would quickly be left in the dark if he didn't have the money to pay. But with the sun as our guide, maybe we can attain a more vital and enduring alternative.

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