Sun offers Y2K protection
New solar-electric panels like those recently installed on the Yellow Brick School building could be a good way to hedge against any power shortages that might result from Y2K computer problems.
While many homeowners are buying gasoline-powered generators to prepare for possible electricity outages around Jan. 1, 2000, a solar electric, or photovoltaic, system would be cheaper per kilowatt generated, say solar experts. Though a generator would only be used for a matter of hours, or perhaps days, a photovoltaic system could reduce electric bills for 20 years or more.
Some Starwood homeowners are said to be spending enormous sums of money on gasoline- or propane-powered electric generators, said Randy Udall, executive director of Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency. Some of these generators, which may produce up to 50 or even 80 kilowatts, may cost as much as $30,000.
“These backup generators will produce the most expensive power ever produced on the planet” – assuming they are only used for a matter of hours, Udall said. Even a small, good-quality generator might cost as much as $8,000, he said. More than $1 million worth of gasoline-powered generators are expected to be sold in this area before the year’s end.
But if homeowners install solar-electric systems, while they can’t expect as much power at once, they can have lights in the event of a public utility emergency, and can expect 20 years of service.
“A photovoltaic system is really investing in the future – getting 20 years of power up front,” Udall said. Actually, more than 20 years are easily possible, but systems are warranted for 20 years.
The new panels at the Yellow Brick building, which serve as a roof over an exterior stairwell, are designed as a functional metal roofing material as well as solar collectors. The product is called Uni-Solar and is made by an American company called United Solar Systems Corp. The system has about 400 square feet of electricity-generating surface and costs about $20,000.
Mike Tierney, of Aspen Solar Systems, installed the system. Tierney said the 2,000-watt array of photovoltaic panels, designed to function as roofing, could provide a small family with power, if room heating and domestic hot water heating was done with natural gas.
The panels get, by a conservative estimate, five hours of sun per day, producing 10 kilowatt hours per day. With 30 days of adequate sun per month, that’s 300 kilowatt hours per month.
“So I would say that display would produce every bit of electricity a small house would use,” Tierney said.
Tierney said he installed a solar electric system at a Smuggler Mobile Home Park home which includes a bank of batteries. That system can be set up so that the house can be disconnected from public utility lines and still have power at night, because the solar panels charge the batteries during the day. In case of a Y2K power outage, two rooms could be heated and lit indefinitely by the system, because of the way they wired the breakers, he said.
The owners can watch their electric meter turning backward during summer days, because the system generates more electricity than the house uses. Because Holy Cross Electric, the company that supplies power in the valley, has agreed to “net meter” surplus power from such systems, Tierney said, the owners get credit for the surplus power they produce, at the same price they pay when they use power from the utility.
The new solar panels that will provide electricity for the Yellow Brick School building will also serve as an educational display, Udall said.
The display, to be aimed at both school children and interested adults, will have meters showing how much electricity is being generated by the solar panels as onlookers watch. It will be an interactive display, providing information on demand such as the amount of power generated on the previous day.
Udall said the educational display was designed because solar panels aren’t very exciting to look at.
“The appearance is that nothing is happening,” Udall said, “so we’re going to try to bring this roof alive with this educational display.”
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The city of Aspen is contributing $1 million to a CDOT project that will see concrete instead of asphalt at the roundabout into town.