Catching rays

Solar power remains a technology for the rich, but there are signs it may become more affordable

John Sagebiel participates in a net metering program. These photovoltaic panels follow the sun during the day with a dual axis tracking system.

John Sagebiel participates in a net metering program. These photovoltaic panels follow the sun during the day with a dual axis tracking system.

Photo By David Robert

Fancy that, in an hour, the sun radiates enough energy to power the planet for a year. Yet humans take advantage of its power for less than one-half of 1 percent of our electrical consumption. Talk of solar power is everywhere, but most people don’t know anyone who uses the sun to power their home.

Nevada boasts 300 sunny days a year, but at this moment, the sun hides behind a cloud over Sierra Pacific Power headquarters. John Hargrove manages its SolarGenerations program, designed to introduce customers to solar power. He says the program’s rebates are being reduced. Initially, the program rebated $5 for every kilowatt costing $10. Next year, the rebate will be $2.50 for each kilowatt costing $10. The program will end in 2010 unless it’s extended.

Still, demand for rebates remains high. SPP accepts applications for SolarGenerations on Aug. 1. Last year, quotas were exceeded in 24 hours. Applicants need a licensed contractor with bids prior to submission. There’s a list of recommended contractors at

Prime solar power candidate structures bask in unobstructed sun rays most of the year. During the hours of 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., no shadows from trees, chimneys or other building should darken the solar photovoltaic (PV) system.

In 1997, net metering made solar more attractive for Nevadans. It allows customers to use any electricity they generate themselves before they tap into the utility company’s supply. They can also put any excess electricity they produce but don’t use back onto the grid, in effect turning their billing meter backward.

Today’s net metering cap is 30 kilowatts—in other words, customers are not reimbursed when they add more than 30 kilowatts back onto the grid. Assemblymember David Bobzien sponsored Assembly Bill 178 to raise that cap to 1,000 kilowatts. Increases are good, especially for businesses.

“Knowing that they can get credits on their excess energy contributed to the grid and reduce their power bill makes it a lot easier to pencil out the costs,” Bobzien says. At this writing, his bill has been approved by the Assembly and still awaits Senate action as the legislature goes into its closing days.

Even with the rebates and up to $2,000 in federal tax credits, upfront costs for solar power are beyond most people’s financial reach.

Average residential energy use is 3,500 kilowatts. To fully power a homewould cost $35,000. It takes around 12 years for the average residence to recoup costs for a system. Construction, maintenance and future moves can be other deterrents to the investment in a system.

Citizenre Corp. is among businesses that offer an alternative to these obstacles. The company will complete construction of a massive PV panel plant by January 2008. It plans to install solar systems on 100,000 homes across the nation next year. But instead of paying hefty installation costs, only a $500 refundable deposit will be needed of the homeowner. Citizenre owns and maintains the system. Customers buy the electricity produced by their home system. The company offers contracts up to 25 years at a fixed rate.

But some sources are skeptical. GroSolar CEO Jeffery Wolfe, a competitor, predicts the new Citizenre approach will not be able to survive, and will just end up removing people from the pool of available customers for solar.