Power play

Renewable energy is coming on strong for all the wrong reasons. But who cares what the reasons are?

Alternative energy sources have cut Marion Barritt’s power bill to about $100—per year.

Alternative energy sources have cut Marion Barritt’s power bill to about $100—per year.

Photo by David Robert

With the energy deregulation fiasco in California, good tidings for Mother Earth have wafted over the Sierra to Nevada. Not since the Mideast oil crisis in the ‘70s has the call to increase the use of renewable energy sources—reducing oil and gas dependency—been louder.

True, little of this energetic change of heart has come about for the right reason: that renewable sources of power—solar, wind, geothermal, biomass—are better for the planet, because they don’t deplete natural resources or, comparatively speaking, increase pollution. Still, celebrants of Earth Day 2001 may actually have something to rejoice about this year.

In Nevada, the call for greener power is being answered on many levels.

At the individual level, people are finally getting clued into the fact that renewable energy isn’t just good for the environment, but also good for their pocketbooks.

At the local level, businesses have stepped up to the plate to take advantage of skyrocketing natural gas costs and offer renewable energy products that allow individuals to reduce their dependence on the power grid and nonrenewable resources.

At the legislative level, officials have several bills before them that would change the way Nevada deals with its renewable energy resources.

On an international level, NTS Development Corp., a nonprofit corporation funded by the Department of Energy to market the Nevada Test Site for commercial development, signed an agreement to use 664 acres at the site for a wind farm. The agreement was made with the MNS Wind Co., a partnership between Germany-based Siemens Energy and Automation, and Danish and Japanese M&N Wind Power. That single wind farm could generate from 260 to 436 megawatts at any given time.

Timothy Hay, consumer advocate for the state of Nevada, says the combination will result in lower prices for energy and a cleaner environment.

“The real problem that Nevada had in the ‘90s was that although we’ve got all kinds of wind, geothermal and solar resources, the prices in the marketplace have not really made it cost-competitive,” Hay says. “Considering what’s gone on in the West in the last year, and the fact that certain resources—wind is totally competitive with gas-fired generator energy sources, geothermal is in the ballpark and solar is continuing to drop in price—we’ve got a real opportunity to develop those cleaner resources to mitigate the impact of fossil fuel prices on our energy system, as well as the environmental consequences of building all these new fossil fuel plants.”

Here comes the sun
Marion Barritt giggles when she talks about her power bill. She won’t even talk about her monthly rate—"It’s ridiculous,” she says—but she doesn’t call her bill ridiculous for the reasons most people do, because it’s so high.

She calls her power bill ridiculous because it’s so low.

“My yearly power bill runs between $85 and $110,” she says. “It would be 2 1/2 times that, except I produce my own electricity, too. And $36 of that is a fixed fee, whether you use any or not.”

Barritt is a board member and past president of Sunrise Sustainable Resources Group, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to empower Nevadans to use resources responsibly through education, advocacy and community development,” according to the group’s mission statement.

When she built her 1,500 square-foot home in 1997, a tract home in downtown Gardnerville, she included a lot of things to ensure a reduced dependence on Sierra Pacific Power Co. The house was framed with 2-by-6 lumber instead of the standard 2-by-4 wood, which allowed for additional insulation. She put extra insulation in the ceiling and floors. She put a radiant reflector and light-colored shingles on the roof, which reflect heat away from the house. She painted the house with a special white, heat-reflective paint. She installed a solar-powered attic fan. The list goes on.

“My home uses about two-thirds less electricity than any of the homes in my area, just because I did everything I could do to keep use down,” Barritt says. “I put extra insulation in. I used fluorescent lighting.

Grace Caldwell believes in the power potential of the wind and the sun.

Photo by David Robert

“I used very energy-efficient appliances; for instance, I use a front-loading [washing] machine that uses 39 percent less water. It washes the same amount of clothes, but you’re heating less water.”

The Bush administration recently approved efficiency standards requiring new clothes washers and water heaters to use less energy. The standards will require new washing machines to use 35 percent less energy starting with the 2007 model year. Water heaters must use 5 to 9 percent less energy beginning in 2004.

Barritt says the largest user of power in the home is the refrigerator. People who want to save on energy costs and use less nonrenewable energy should get the most efficient refrigerator they can find. She said hers cost no more than a less efficient one.

Since they can be expensive, many of these greener technologies are more applicable to homeowners than to those who rent, but renters can conserve power and contribute to the community-wide effort to decrease dependence on polluting energies by buying high-efficiency versions of appliances, such as microwaves.

But the biggest difference most people would see at Barritt’s house would be the 60 solar slates on her roof. Solar slates are essentially newfangled solar panels, about 1 foot by 1 foot. Barritt’s slates cost her $4,800. To that she added an inverter, which converts the solar power to utility-grade electricity. An inverter can cost from less than $1,000 to several thousand dollars.

This potential for energy creation allows Barritt to produce power and get credit for it from the utility company. It’s called net metering, and it was established in Nevada in 1997. This law provides for customer-generators using wind or solar energy systems of less than 10 kilowatts. Barritt is one of only seven people in the state to take advantage of the law.

It’s pretty simple. Homeowners who produce power run their electric meter backwards as they feed extra electricity back into the grid. For entrepreneurial spirits, homes that produce more energy than they use don’t get a cash reimbursement in Nevada. Of course, power companies have never been known to give better than they get.

“You’re actually helping the production of electricity to a bigger extent than you are paid, because you’re producing when it’s really needed,” Barritt says. “And then at nighttime, when you need it, you get it back. In net metering situations, you are producing power during the peak period, when the power companies really need it the most.

“For example, if you’re in Las Vegas in the summer, everybody turns their air-conditioning on from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. That’s when the net metering customer is producing the most electricity.”

These days, Barritt is powering up for next year’s American Solar Energy Convention, which will be held at John Ascuaga’s Nugget from June 15-19, 2002. Barritt says the convention should bring world media attention to Sparks. The convention will include an energy fair on Victorian Square, with workshops, demonstrations, exhibits and a solar cook-off.

Winds of change
A glance at the yellow pages yields more than a dozen dealers of solar and wind systems. One of the leaders in renewable energy systems in the area has been Independent Power Corporation, formerly Independent Power Systems, in Sparks.

Grace Caldwell, who owns the business with her husband, Alan, says that with the California energy boondoggle, her green business is booming. While her livelihood depends on selling solar and wind systems, she says the first thing customers should do is replace electricity guzzling appliances with energy-efficient ones.

“Even though those appliances cost a little more, it costs you less to do that than using solar to power a less-efficient appliance,” she says. “We try to focus on people reducing their loads first, and then build a system around that. It’s just more cost-effective for them.”

Still, compared to the tens of thousands of dollars that converting to solar or wind cost back when the Mideast oil crises got people thinking about renewable energy sources, the prices today verge on reasonable—especially when you’re talking about power bills like Barritt’s.

“For a starter system, you’re looking at about $6,500 or so,” Caldwell says. “A four-panel system will generate about 80 kilowatt hours per month. At our house, we use about 5[00] to 600 kilowatt hours a month.”

She says that the best value for those thinking about augmenting their power is a solar-thermal system. These types of systems can do the work of a hot-water heater and be used for heating homes.

Legislation is currently in front of the Nevada Legislature to promote renewable energy usage.

Photo by David Robert

The Caldwells may also be beneficiaries of the crisis in California. They have completed the research and development on a new type of wind turbine, which she says will soon be available.

“We actually aren’t getting too public with it until we get it on the market,” she says. “It puts out 50 to 100 percent more power than the ones that are on the market now. It doesn’t make any noise, because it’s a different type of design.”

While Caldwell didn’t want to be too specific, she says their turbine will come in a variety of sizes—from one to three meters—to serve different uses, from yachts to homes to industry. The turbine, rather than having fins like an airplane propeller, will be more like squirrel cage fan, like you’d find on a swamp cooler.

But don’t plan to install a wind turbine on your roof—not in Reno, at any rate. Wind turbines typically require 10 to 12 mph of wind, but Reno only averages about an 8 mph wind.

“The problem is, you have to make sure they have really good winds, because otherwise, they’re going to be disappointed with their power output,” she says. “As a rule, Reno is not considered a real good wind area.”

Electric avenue
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, has introduced legislation to promote the use of renewable energy. She says we are at the beginning of a golden age for non-fossil fuel use.

The legislation includes AB 661, which would establish a renewable energy trust fund and a task force to administer the fund, and make changes to the state energy office. Also before the Assembly is AB 481, which would change the portfolio standard, increasing the percentage of renewable energy that power companies must use to 5 percent. The standard would then increase by 2 percent per year for five years, until utilities must buy 15 percent of their energy from renewable-energy sources. In the Senate, SB 372 also deals with the portfolio standard.

Leslie says that she has been working on the creation of the task force that would:

• Establish a plan for renewable energy and conservation

• Coordinate the renewable energy conservation fund

• Evaluate the benefits of a distributed generation program

• Evaluate the benefits of blending renewables and fossil fuels

• Act as an information clearinghouse

• Act as a renewable energy and energy conservation resource for the legislature and the governor

She says this fund would be paid for by a one-time assessment of $1,000 for each megawatt on new plants. The fund would begin with $2 million to $3 million.

“I think now is the time,” she says. “With this energy crisis, we’ll see this whole energy area take off. Yes, it may be more expensive now, but if we do things like this rebate program, and we get the task force up and running, we encourage net metering, we may look back in 10 years and go, ‘Wow, we were visionary. We did the right thing.'”

Bill Davidson, an energy consultant and owner of Nevada Wind Power, has been waiting a long time for Nevada to do the right thing. He doesn’t care if it’s being done for the right reasons, but he says that he sees California’s troubles as a major opportunity to diversify the economies of the cow counties in Nevada by allowing them to take advantage of their renewable resources, particularly wind and thermal. Most are broke, he says, and the renewable portfolio standard changes before the Legislature could give them a lot to celebrate this Earth Day.

“The upshot is, this renewable portfolio standard is really pretty important,” he says. “It’s wildly important. What would basically happen is there would be an enormous renewed interest in geothermal, solar and wind energy. That makes so much sense, it’s hard to believe it would actually transpire, but stranger things happen.

“The future is now."