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Carbondale stoked on solar

Scott CondonAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Solar panels
Aspen Times file photo

CARBONDALE Solar power isnt just a convenient way for hippies to get electricity to their backwoods cabins anymore. Its gone mainstream, and no place in the Roaring Fork Valley has embraced the renewable energy source like Carbondale.The town is on a solar electric, or photovoltaic, binge. Numerous systems have been installed in the last year, ranging from a 147-kilowatt mini-solar farm at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School campus to the 1.68 kW system that resident Dan Richardson included in his new house.Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig believes solar electric has been embraced by residents because it is a relatively easy step that pays immediate rewards for the environment and themselves.Its got the same appeal that growing stuff in the garden does, he said.Hassig is among the solar converts. He and his wife installed a small solar electric system at the their house a few years ago. Thanks to their efforts to boost energy efficiency and reduce power consumption, they received a small check back from their energy provider, Xcel Energy, when their system produced more electricity than they pulled from the grid in 2008.Carbondale has a long history with solar electricity. The nonprofit organization Solar Energy International (SEI) was formed there nearly 20 years ago with the mission to educate people on how to improve energy efficiency and tap renewable energy sources. Some of the most experienced installers of solar electric systems hung out their shingles in the early 1990s.Theyve been in the wilderness for decades, Hassig said.Not so anymore. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter has focused on developing a new energy economy during his first term in office. And now President Obama is touting energy efficiency and renewable energy at the federal level.

SEI has seen a surge of interest in its classes and workshops in the last two years. All of our classes are full, full, full, said Sandy Packard, the nonprofit organizations business manager. The biggest interest right now is solar electric.Classes and workshops at SEIs lab in Paonia accommodate 26 to 28 people. Online classes that last six weeks are capped at 100 students. In the old days, Packard said, the students were typically homeowners who wanted to figure out how to install a photovoltaic system on their house as inexpensively as possible. Now many students want to start their own solar-oriented businesses.SEI attracts students from around the country. More often than not, they like the vibe they find in Carbondale when they realize that many residents there share their beliefs and philosophy.Every person who comes to class here wants to move here, Packard said.The interest in photovoltaic systems goes beyond the academic. Sunsense, a Carbondale company that installs solar electric systems, has experienced 100 percent growth annually for the last few years, according to Steve Haines, who helps Sunsenses customers determine what to build.

Sunsense was founded by its president, Scott Ely, in 1990 and initially relied on installation of off-grid systems in secluded houses. Now the companys bread and butter is residential solar electric systems that range between 2 and 10 kW for homes in subdivisions throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, as well as projects for commercial and government buildings. (According to Holy Cross Electric, a 7-8 kW system will offset the average monthly usage of a typical 2,000 square-foot home.)Sunsense is in the process of doubling its warehouse space and adding to its crew of 15 installers.Haines said a perfect storm of events boosted interest in solar electric. First, solar panel prices have dropped 15 percent in the last three months. Second, utility providers in the Roaring Fork Valley provide rebates based on the size of the systems installed. Additional rebates are available for some residents through the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, better known as CORE.And finally, the federal government allows a tax deduction of 30 percent of the cost of the system before rebates.This perfect storm may not be this way forever, Haines said.Jim Raras of InPower Systems, another solar electric installer based in Carbondale, believes there is the potential for solar electric systems to become standard in new homes in the Roaring Fork Valley. Radiant floor heating was considered novel not that long ago. Now its common, he noted. He believes solar electric systems will follow a similar path.Homeowners in the valley typically have a high disposable income and are often willing to embrace cutting edge technology, Raras said. In addition, some of the leading architects in the country are located in the valley and eager to incorporate solar electric systems into their designs.InPower focuses on designing and installing solar electric systems in new homes, particularly in Pitkin County. Convincing homebuilders to spend the extra money, even if they are wealthy, is sometimes a challenge. Some homebuilders also must be convinced the solar panels can be an interesting design element.If all that people cared about was reliability, we could sell $1 billion worth, Raras said. Its the same technology thats been around forever. It will outlast almost anything else in your home.Haines said some of the clients he meets with are motivated by the desire to be green and reduce their consumption of electricity produced by fossil fuels. In addition, some clients feel good about running their homes or businesses on clean power produced on-site. The kicker for some is the ability to save money over the long run.If your sole motivation is money, it may be too long for payback, he warned.

And thats the reason that more Roaring Fork Valley residents havent gone solar.Richardson, the former head of the Aspen city governments Canary Initiative to identify and reduce its carbon footprint, incorporated a photovoltaic system into the design of his Carbondale house. Five solar panels occupy a good share of his south-facing roof. The 1.68 kW system will probably produce about one-half of the electricity consumed in his high-efficiency house.I would have liked to go with a bigger system but cost was definitely a consideration, he said.A rule of thumb is that solar electric systems cost between $8 and $9 per watt to install in the Roaring Fork Valley, Richardson said. His system was installed for about $14,400. Xcel Energy offered a rebate of $3.50 per watt or about $5,880. Richardson also qualified for a $2,000 federal tax credit. That reduced his out-of-pocket cost to about $6,500.Because his system will produce about one-half of the electricity he uses, it will offset the cost of installation in 10 to 12 years, he said. For him, the decision was a no-brainer.Richardson said he would like to think that Carbondale is a hotbed of photovoltaic activity because of its hippie past and prevailing counter-culture mentality. But honestly, he said, it probably has more to do with the rebates provided by Xcel Energy.Xcel has a limited service area in the Roaring Fork Valley that includes most of the town of Carbondale. Much of the remainder of the valley is served by Holy Cross Energy. As a small, nonprofit cooperative, Holy Cross isnt in a position to offer as large a rebate as Xcel, a major statewide energy provider. Holy Cross offers a $2 per watt rebate to its customers that install photovoltaic systems. That difference is important, Richardson said, even though CORE offers additional rebates to Holy Cross customers to try to bring the rebate up to Xcels level.

Del Worley, chief executive officer of Holy Cross, said the energy company is proud of its commitment to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, even if it hasnt pleased all critics.There is the usual cast of characters who dont feel were going fast enough, he said.Holy Cross board of directors has committed to devote 2 percent of its projected annual revenues to its various efficiency and renewable energy programs. For this year, that amount will be about $2 million, according to Steve Casey, member services and marketing administrator. Any unused amount from one year gets carried over to the next year.Holy Cross offers its $2 per watt rebate for customers who install solar electric systems as part of its We Care program. Although it cannot match Xcels rebate, Holy Cross program is soaring in popularity. No customers installed photovoltaic systems in 2004, but four systems were installed the next year to earn $12,145 in rebates.Activity picked up to 17 projects for nearly $140,000 in rebates in 2006; to 47 projects and almost $421,000 in rebates in 2007, and 55 projects for $569,000 in rebates last year.All told, Holy Cross customers have undertaken 123 photovoltaic projects since 2005 and earned $1.14 million in rebates, according to Casey. Its an impressive number, but its only a fraction of Holy Cross 39,000 customers.Its not even a blip in the system yet, Worley said of the contribution from photovoltaic systems.Holy Cross and Xcel have different motivations for their green programs. Xcel is mandated to go green because of Amendment 37, approved by Colorado voters in November 2004, which calls for major utilities to provide 20 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. Xcel reduces its overall demand by offering the rebate incentives to customers who install individual photovoltaic systems.Amendment 37 didnt apply to Holy Cross because it is a small energy cooperative. But Holy Cross officials have voluntarily set what they believe is an aggressive goal for alternative energy use. Holy Cross wants 20 percent of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2015. It reached 12 percent last year.Were moving down the road, Worley said.

While the homes of Richardson and Hassig provide a glimpse of whats possible in the near future, the hilltop home of Paul and Julia Spencer might demonstrate where the renewable energy economy ultimately takes us.The Spencers built a 4,200 square-foot home in rural Pitkin County, in the hills above Emma, five years ago. Their southern orientation provides sweeping views of the Elk Range, including Capitol Peak and Mount Sopris. Basalt Mountain dominates the view to the north.The Spencers decided to stay off the power grid when they learned it would cost $90,000 at that time to bring electricity to their lot. Instead they installed a 1.5-kilowatt wind turbine and a 3-kilowatt solar electric system.An essential element in the system is a bank of batteries in the utility room. When the wind turbine and photovoltaic system produce more energy than the Spencer home requires, the excess is stored by the $8,000 cache of batteries. Up to three days worth of power can be stored there.A propane-powered generator provides back-up that is rarely needed. Last December, when the Spencers received 8 1/2 feet of snow in just eight days and skies were cloudy for most of the month, Paul said, the generator was fired up only three days.Even on those cloudy December days, the solar panels still worked at between 30 and 40 percent production. Somethings better than nothing, Spencer said.And when the sun doesnt shine, the wind often blows. The turbine generates power when the wind blows between 7 and 35 mph.The wind turbine is a slow, steady producer of energy for the Spencers. The wind often blows 24 hours a day while the photovoltaic system capitalizes on peak power for just five to seven hours each day, maximum.Its like the tortoise and the hare, Spencer said.A solar thermal system provides the hot water for 95 percent of their domestic use and 60 percent of their heating.Their entire cost for the system five years ago was $60,000 or $30,000 less than tying into the grid. But that was just the icing on the deal. The Spencers always wanted a sustainable home and never seriously considered connecting to the grid.The passive solar positioning and high-efficiency construction of the house, along with good conservation habits, reduce consumption to about one-half of the average U.S. household in winters and one-third in summers, he said. The Spencers dont deprive themselves of electricity consumption; they dont have to.We stay up at night watching TV, Spencer said. We have a Wii. We dont give up anything.Friends often come to the secluded property for the first time with visions of the Spencers walking around by candlelight in a dark log cabin. Nothing could be further from reality. What they find is a couple that heeds the lessons most peoples parents taught them turn off the lights when you leave a room, keep the thermostat at a reasonable level and dont waste water. Many of their appliances, like the high-definition TV, DVD player and computers, are plugged into power strips that are turned off at night or when they leave for an extended time. That way, appliances on stand-by arent sucking energy when there is no need for it.I think everybody could cut their consumption 30 percent and not even feel it, said Spencer, an electrical engineer who is president of a midvalley firm called Bonsai Communities, which works on sustainable communities and efficiency standards.Virtually everyone involved in the solar electric surge stresses energy efficiency as a vital first step. It doesnt make sense to install a solar electric system on a house or business that leaks heat and wastes electricity.Richardson said there is a well-worn phrase in the green movement: Eat your energy efficiency vegetables before you have your renewable energy dessert.scondon@aspentimes.com

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