House of the rising sun

As prices come down for alternative energy options, solar is finally hitting its stride in Northern Nevada

Candy Sader and Bowie pose among the solar panels that power the family’s home.

Candy Sader and Bowie pose among the solar panels that power the family’s home.

Photo Illustration by David Robert and Andrew Nilsen

The sun beats down in Steamboat, just south of Reno, where horses in pastures chew grass, dogs chase each other around a pond, and old ranch houses mix with large, new estate homes. Candy and Bob Sader’s home is one of these. Through its insulated living room windows, Mount Rose glistens in the sun. A hybrid Lexus is parked outside the 6,000-square-foot home. An EnergyStar refrigerator, washer and dryer hum quietly inside it. Heating a great deal of it—the pool, water from the faucet, even the home itself—are 20 black panels propped up near the barn behind the house.

The sun strikes the 4-by-10-feet solar thermal panels, heating the water inside them, which is then sent to heat the house.

It’s late afternoon in early spring. The pool is 85 degrees—the warmth provided by the sun.

Sader, a petite, blond woman in sandals and jeans, says that once the system became fully functional in March, she and her husband used only 15 percent of the previous month’s gas load.

The Saders started building the home in October 2005, and they wanted it big. But they also knew that with “big” came waste and energy inefficiency. Starting from scratch, says Candy, was an opportunity to do it right.

“We decided that this is not responsible,” says Candy about her spread. “We have to mitigate the amount of energy we use. We hope this will reduce our energy footprint.”

Photovoltaic (PV) panels will take care of the rest of the Saders’ power needs. They’re waiting to install them until their application for a state rebate on solar panels is approved.

“With the two systems working together, I think it’ll be awesome,” she says.

The rebate, offered through the utilities-administered SolarGenerations program, will help save them about 25-40 percent of their solar panel installation bill.

“If the government subsidizes solar like they did gas, it’d be a lot easier to use,” says Candy. “In the future, we have to come up with other ways. But right now, we have this, and we should be using it now.”

Growing toward the sun
As more people become concerned about global warming, energy independence and rising power bills, solar and other types of renewable energy are no longer the domain of granola-crunching, back-to-the-earthers living off the grid in a backcountry cabin. Neither is it only for the rich (although that doesn’t hurt). People of all walks and income levels want it.

According to a report by Solarbuzz LLC, installation of solar PV devices increased in the United States by 33 percent in 2006 over the previous year. Worldwide, installation growth was up 19 percent over 2005. The United States contributed to 8 percent of those installations (140 megawatts), while Germany led the market with 55 percent of installations, or 960 megawatts.

On the large scale is Nevada Solar One, a 64-megawatt solar thermal power plant in Boulder City. Set to begin power production this year, Solar One is expected to provide enough energy for 40,000 homes in the Las Vegas area during the hottest part of the day. Its construction bill is an estimated $250 million. By 2030, with coal-fired electricity expected to go up in price, solar thermal aficionados are betting that it will be more economical in the long run. Solar thermal is also regarded within the industry to be much more efficient than PV panels—the biggest PV system in the world is in Germany, and it generates only 10 megawatts of electricity.

Candy Sader with the controls for her home’s entire solar system.

Photo By David Robert

Wild Island Water Park in Sparks has an extensive solar thermal system to take care of most of its water-heating needs. Interpretive Gardens by the River School has a solar PV and thermal system. The Patagonia building has PV panels. The Sierra Pacific Power building off Neil Road generates 75 kilowatts of electricity from solar panels.

Traner and Mendive middle schools are just two schools in the area that have taken advantage of the PV panel rebate. Through Desert Research Institute’s GreenPower program, both have solar- and wind-power-generating systems, and the Washoe County School District has filled in 10 new rebate applications for systems in other schools.

The Burning Man organization is donating 300 kilowatt hours (kWh) of PV to Lovelock and Gerlach, with installations slated for this year.

“I can’t keep up,” says Russ Cartwright, of Independent Power Corporation, a Reno-based renewable energy company and the leading installer of solar energy systems in Nevada. “[In the past seven years,] we’ve gone from three or five people in our company to close to 20. We’re up about 60 percent. It’s gone bonkers.”

Cartwright, who says IPC installs about one PV system every two weeks, says there is no typical customer. His clients range from those with fancy houses to those “who can barely afford gas in their car, and yet they’re installing a $20,000 solar system.”

Cartwright and his wife and three children have a 3kW system in their Northwest Reno home. The 48 panels were installed last June. His power bill all summer: $6.12. “That’s $6 to read the meter and a 12-cent franchise fee,” he says.

But solar energy is still largely cost-prohibitive. Standard utility rates are 11 cents per kilowatt hour. With PV panels, installations can run between $7 and $12 per watt.

In 2004, Nevada became one of about 25 states to set up a rebate program to help cut the installation costs of solar panels. Scott Gerz of SolarGenerations, which coordinates the rebate program, explains that a 5-kW system could more than meet the energy needs for most homes in Reno. That would cost between $35,000-$50,000 to install. The homeowner could expect about $12,000-$15,000 in rebates. It’s still more expensive than regular, “dirty” power, but it’s enough incentive for some to make it worth it.

The right thing at the right time
A warm draft pushes through a former laundry vent in Sandy Stocke’s home in suburban Sparks. The heat comes not from a clothes dryer but from 240 recycled cans on the roof.

It’s not as garish as it sounds. The cans are painted black, assembled tightly together and positioned behind a polycarbonate lens. There’s no rebate offered for this contraption, but at a relatively economical $3,500, there’s not much need for one. It’s called a Cansolair, and it gets hot up there, pushing the warmth through the Stockes’ attic, past the vent and into the living room, where Sandy sits on the couch with her two dogs. Also heating and powering her home are 24 PV panels on her roof.

The Stockes, like most homeowners, need about 600 kWh per month to meet their power needs. It’s early evening, and the meter reads 23 kilowatts for the day. “Oh, that’s fabulous,” says Sandy.

After seeing a 30 percent decrease in their power bill by simply replacing their outdated refrigerator and getting energy efficient lights, the Stockes looked into solar panels. With the rebate offer, combined with their concern for the environment, it seemed like getting PV panels was a matter of “the right thing to do at the right time.”

After a two-year wait, they were approved for the rebate in March 2006.

“Of course, that’s the only way this would’ve happened,” she says standing outside the house, looking toward the panels on her roof.

Russ Cartwright with the panels for his bargain-priced, beer-can solar system (which actually also includes soft drink cans).

Photo By David Robert

The home is modest, as is she—a slender, pretty woman with a soft voice wearing Tinkerbell earring, jeans and a pink sweatshirt.

The panels are “on-grid” panels, meaning they’re connected to the power grid. So—as the Stockes experienced when the system was first installed in the darker days of November—if PV panel owners use up all the energy their systems have generated, they won’t be left shivering in the dark. The power then switches to the regular power grid, and the power company charges them the difference.

With sunnier days ahead, Sandy expects to start “banking” energy to use throughout the year. Whatever the Stockes generate now but don’t use will be saved for use during the winter and fall months. They will, in essence, have their electric meter going backward, becoming their own little power company.

The Stockes had to take out a home equity loan to afford their solar power installations, but if all goes as planned, they shouldn’t ever have to write another check to the power company.

“It’ll be paid for, and I’ll have free electricity for the rest of my life,” says Sandy.

The Stockes have lived in their home for 22 years, and they plan to stay there for at least 20 years more. That’s a good thing because that’s how long it could take for the rate of return on their $26,000 solar investment. (That rate will likely decrease as power bills continue to rise.)

Not everyone stays in the same home for 20-plus years, although solar power owners expect their systems to also increase their property values. Systems are also portable if the new residence has a similar architectural setup.

But most people aren’t doing this now because it makes financial sense. The majority of solar power system owners do it for the environment.

The average household emits 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. By early April, Mendive Middle School, for example, had avoided sending more than 8,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere since its solar and wind installations in October 2004. That’s enough energy to power 129 homes for a day or to operate a TV for 454,196 hours.

Take the typical Reno resident with an electric bill of about $100 a month.’s estimator shows that installing a $40,250 ($25,425 after the state rebate and federal tax credit) 5-kW system would save the Renoite $925 in annual electric costs. So, based on simple division, it would take about 26 years to make back the cost of installation (on the off chance power bills don’t rise). The resident would also reduce the home’s CO2 emissions by 9,321 pounds. That’s more than the amount of CO2 produced by two round-trip flights from Reno to China.

Other reasons people are looking to the sun include independence from foreign energy sources and rising energy rates, as well as more energy security. (Following Japan and Germany, California became the United States’ biggest consumer of solar energy after experiencing the rolling brownouts of the early 2000s.

It’s the law
From the Nevada Solar One power plant to the state rebates on PV panels, a big driving force behind incentives for solar are state and federal laws aimed at curbing fossil fuels and coal. Nevada law requires certain utility providers to get 20 percent of their power from renewable resources and a total of 5 percent from solar power by 2015. Nevada currently gets only 8 percent of its power from renewable energy.

The rebate offered through SolarGenerations is based on a sliding scale: When the program began in 2004, residential customers got a rebate of $5 per watt. Now it’s $2.50 per watt for home owners ($5 for public buildings and schools) and will be down to $2 in 2010, when the rebate program ends.

According to Gerz, this was based on the expectation that contractors would flood the area and drive down PV prices. That hasn’t happened.

Why is Sandy Stocke smiling? She expects never to pay another power company bill.

Photo By David Robert

“There was a worldwide demand for PV, and the price of equipment has gone up almost 40 percent in the past two years,” says Gerz. Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of buyers.

Gerz says there were only about 80 solar panel projects since 1992 taken on by customers without the rebate program. Now, there are about 290 of them since the program started.

“There’s definitely a lot more awareness and motivation to put these projects forward with a little financial incentive,” he says.

The problem is the rebate supply doesn’t meet the demand. For the current year, SolarGenerations received 680 applications from small businesses, residences, public buildings and schools. That makes up 6.8 megawatts of applications when the program can rebate only 1900 kilowatts. “You can see the demand far outreaches the rebate program,” says Gerz. “Last year, we started accepting applications at 10 a.m., and we were oversubscribed by 2 p.m.”

Applications are approved on a first-come, first-served basis. SolarGenerations starts accepting applications for next year’s program on Aug 1. The Public Utilities Commission sends approval notices toward the end of March. Customers can then start installation, which has to be completed before June 30.

That brings up another problem: The short amount of time for construction is a hurdle for larger buildings and businesses that rely on board approval. So more homeowners apply than do schools or public buildings, but they’re put on a waiting list within their category. Meanwhile, money earmarked for public buildings goes unspent when it could’ve gone to a homeowner or small business. The Public Utilities Commission is now discussing allowing the shuffling of funds so as not to waste money and providing more flexibility on project completion dates.

The future looks bright (to slightly cloudy)
Solar energy proponents hope to see the costs become more accessible. Many of them opine that the government should subsidize renewable energy in the way they have oil or even computers. The $2,000 federal tax credit is nice, but it doesn’t make much of a dent in a $25,000-$60,000 bill.

The Bush administrations’ new Advanced Energy Initiative focuses largely on long-term research of solar, nuclear, wind and hydrogen power. There’s little in it that deals with immediate needs. A Harvard University analysis of the current national budget found that overall federal spending on energy research, adjusted for inflation, is only one-third of what it was at its 1978 peak.

Meanwhile, researchers continue to search for ways to make solar more accessible to the masses. Scientists are working on a new class of solar cells that aren’t as efficient as conventional ones but are cheaper and more versatile. In the meantime, however, those buying solar power systems continue to think more of the environment than of their pocketbooks.

First, clean up your house
But before spending $30,000-plus on a solar power system, take a look inside the house first, advises Mary Winston, an energy auditor with Energy Masters. For just a couple of thousand dollars, you can go a long way in improving your home energy efficiency.

“If we fix the common thermal defects in 200,000 homes, you could save 500 megawatts of power,” she says. “It’s huge.”

She says the most common energy wasters come from holes in the ceiling, attic and crawl space.

“Bottom line is to try to seal your house off at the ceiling and the crawlspace floor,” says Winston. “Add insulation to the attic, and that’s going to help a lot. This is cheap stuff a homeowner could do some of himself if he’s interested in crawling around.”

One of her clients, Bob Marsh, found this out firsthand. After he insulated the attic and sealed off leaky air ducts in his 2,100-square-foot house off Mount Rose Highway, he saw his electric bill drop from $120 to $55. His oil heater also used only 120 gallons of oil in a month compared to its previous 300 gallons. These measures cost him less than $2,000, which pays for itself within about two years.

“If everyone did this, I think we’d knock a quarter off the energy bill for the city,” he says.

“Before we start getting into more sophisticated technology,” adds Winston, “we need to do the baseline things first and get things down so low that putting in solar panels or a wind turbine really starts to make sense.”