Warming to solar
With an energy-credit program in place in Nevada, solar power looks more appealing than ever
Up in juniper-laden hills, Yogi the black bear snacks on the annual incursion of Mormon crickets while relaxing in his concrete pond.
The 400-pounder is “in and out of the pond 10 times a day,” says Aaron Hiibel, co-founder of Animal Ark, which provides permanent care to animals that lack the ability to survive in the wild.
Because the 38-acre animal sanctuary, 25 miles north of Reno in Red Rock Estates, is off the power grid, the property has generated its own power since construction two decades ago. By way of solar panels, the sun circulates and filters water into Yogi’s pond, charges the electric fence delimiting animal enclosures, and powers the golf carts and every other electrical device on the premises, from computers to king-size chest freezers.
Until recently, only properties like Animal Ark, beyond the power company’s grip, enjoyed the advantages of solar power, despite that Nevada is one of the three sunniest states in the country. More affordable costs, new legal incentives and, perhaps, a more autonomous national ethos are turning Reno onto solar.
“Business has almost doubled since Sept. 11, 2001,” says John Henderson of Independent Power Corporation.
During the company’s eight years in business, Independent Power has installed alternate energy sources in about 200 homes in the Truckee Meadows, 20 in Reno. Many new customers are bringing solar power within the city limits.
Even though prices have dropped in recent years, “a big front-end cost” remains unavoidable, Henderson says. Average installation runs $15,000. A four-panel photovoltaic system, which would generate about 80 kilowatt hours per month, costs around $6,500.
Rather than economics, the main reason for increased business, Henderson says, is that “people on the grid are leaning more toward being independent,” relying less on powerful energy retailers like Sierra Pacific Power Co.
Solar households on the grid possess an option not available to their isolated counterparts—net metering. By reversing the direction of their power meters, households can feed excess energy generated from solar panels into the grid, for which the utility service gives them credit.
Currently, Sierra Pacific has 21 residential and two commercial net-metered customers in northern Nevada. Two years ago the total in the entire state was seven.
Four and a half years ago, for $7,500, Marion Barritt became the first net-metered customer in Nevada. Sixty solar slates double as roofing material on her 1,500-square-foot tract home in downtown Gardnerville. The slates produce half the power consumed on the property—800 watts. Ordinary power lines conveying juice from Sierra Pacific supply the other half.
Barritt is a board member and former president of the Sunrise Sustainable Resources Group, a nonprofit organization that seeks “to empower Nevadans to use resources responsibly through education, advocacy and community development.” Also a flight instructor and a glider pilot, Barritt is attuned to her reliance on the sun. Since June 19 she has been navigating a glider from Los Angeles to Kitty Hawk, N.C. The sun heating the ground creates the updrafts necessary to keep her glider in the air. Her flight ends July 4.
“If everyone was net metering,” Barritt says, “we wouldn’t have to worry about building more power plants or importing coal from outside the state. The more we produce and utilize renewable energy, the better the economy will be in the state.”
The first net metering law in Nevada was passed in 1997. It obligated utilities to provide net-metered customers the excess-energy credit.
Now, new laws recently signed by Gov. Guinn make net metering more attractive: AB 429 creates a $250,000 fund through which the governor’s Energy Office will distribute grants, incentives and rebates for individuals to buy or augment net-metering systems. AB 431 creates a solar energy demonstration program for schools, businesses and households. AB 296 multiplies by 2.4 the credits for companies and individuals who net-meter and consume at least half the energy they generate.
“It’s now more advantageous,” Barritt says. “More people should be doing it.”
The new legislation buttresses another renewable power bill enacted two years ago, which states that Nevada Power, in southern Nevada, and Sierra Pacific must purchase at least 5 percent of their electricity from producers of renewable power, like Barritt. The amount increases by two percentage points every two years, peaking at 15 percent in 2013.
"[Sierra Pacific] has been learning,” Barritt says, “accepting that renewable energy will be a part of their energy portfolio.”
This is demonstrated in part by the company’s willingness to conduct free energy audits for households and its policy of sponsoring two-for-one sales of fluorescent bulbs as an alternative to incandescent bulbs every few weeks at Home Depot.
In a gesture promoting its new dynamic with renewable energy, Sierra Pacific donated 60 solar panels to Animal Ark after a 1999 fire damaged the facility’s existing panels. The donated panels came from a demonstration net-metering house in Las Vegas. The array produces 4,000 watts.
“The entire system, without donations, would’ve cost $55,000,” says Hiibel, who’s grateful for the company’s contribution.
A hybridization between solar and wind power, Animal Ark also employs an approximately 10-foot diameter wind turbine.
“Three other houses [in Red Rock Estates] are on solar and wind,” Hiibel says.
However, Reno is less than adequate for a turbine. The propellers begin turning in 7 miles per hour winds, but a wind greater than 10 miles per hour is required for efficiency. In the valleys of Reno, winds average 8 miles per hour.
Solar and wind technologies were nurtured on the periphery of Reno, away from the reins of the power lines that square off the city. Even if Aaron Hiibel and his wife Diana had paid the full $55,000 installation cost, it would have been preferable to the $75,000 necessary to extend lines to Animal Ark’s driveway.
As alternate energy sources undergo continuing refinement and price reduction, solar is moving outside-in. More people in cities are realizing the benefits, such as the absence of a power bill in the Hiibels’ finances, or the negligible $100 fee that Barritt pays per year to Sierra Pacific.
“People last year from California were looking at our system, right after [the cost of] power went up,” Hiibel says.
Considering that solar panels developed in the 1950s are still operating at near-complete capacity, Hiibel will probably never be bothered by the power company.