Waiting for sunrise

Solar remains an ethical, not frugal, choice


What it costs, saves

- Installing solar electric in an average Yampa Valley home to provide 50 percent of electricity needs:


• Installation: $31,500

• Federal tax credit: $2,000

• Net: $29,500

• Monthly payment (6.5% APR, 30 years): $186


• Increase in property value: $6,680

• Average monthly utility savings: $47

• Years to break even (including property value appreciation): 24

- Installing solar electric in an average Yampa Valley commercial property to provide 50 percent of electricity needs:


• Installation: $54,000

• Federal tax credit: $16,200

• Net: $37,800

• Monthly payment (6.5% APR, 30 years): $239


• Increase in property value: $13,400

• Average monthly utility savings: $94

• Years to break even (including property value appreciation): 13

SOURCE: www.findsolar.com...

There are lots of reasons to go with solar power. Global warming is gaining acceptance, and fossil fuel consumption is blamed for contributing to that warming. Solar power, conversely, is clean.

Electricity consumption is on the rise. Colorado set an all-time high for electricity use Tuesday afternoon. And by 2015, Colorado's electricity use is expected to increase 5.2 percent. Solar energy is renewable.

But there remains a missing key incentive to solar energy - and it's an economic one.

The cost of installing a solar electricity system in a Steamboat Springs home to supply 50 percent of its electricity is about $30,000, solar-electric system providers say. With electricity produced from coal remaining cheap - YVEA says the average residential electric bill is about $70 - the time it could take to break even from the purchase of a solar-electric system is more than 20 years.

"Right now, it's a feel-good," said Jim Chappell, spokesman for YVEA.

According to the International Energy Agency, it costs 35 to 45 cents to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity from solar panels, compared with about three to five cents from burning coal. That discrepancy has led to solar energy accounting for less than 1 percent of worldwide electricity generation.

Solar power businesses and renewable energy advocates cite a lack of government incentives and a battle with computer companies for silicon supplies as forces keeping the price of solar high. Silicon is used in the manufacture of photovoltaic solar panels. They expect things to change soon.

"It's just oh so close to getting to be cost-effective," said Philip von Hake, spokesman for the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. "We're pretty sure some sort of carbon regulation is coming down the pipe."

Carbon regulation likely would increase the cost of fossil fuels, von Hake said. That, combined with a state mandate for most major power providers to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015, could help solar turn the corner, von Hake said. In the meantime, he said the most cost-effective steps one can take toward energy efficiency are using energy-efficient light bulbs and improving a home's insulation.

Susan Holland of Steam-boat-based solar power provider Emerald Mountain Energy said the Yampa Valley has even less of a solar incentive than other parts of the state and country. YVEA and local governments do not provide any rebates for solar power, leaving federal rebates as the only government incentive. Federal rebates are capped at $2,000 dollars for residential solar systems. There is no cap for commercial systems, making them a more viable option, Holland said.

Chappell said YVEA knows of six solar homes tied to the local electric grid. Of those six, two produce more solar power than they use and contribute back to the grid. As their meters turn backward, YVEA compensates them with its wholesale price for electricity: 5.04 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is less than the 5.6 cents per kilowatt-hour YVEA charges for electricity, not including its surcharge for fuel.

The practice of paying back those who create more solar electricity than they use - net metering - is counted as a financial benefit of going with solar power, albeit a small one. Chappell said the last net-metering check YVEA wrote to a homeowner was $35 for a period of six months.

Since opening last year, Emerald Mountain Energy has installed seven solar-electric systems in the area.

"My goal is to install one system a month," Holland said.

The difference a greater number of incentives can make is obvious when you compare Holland's business with that of Fort Collins-based Sun Electric Systems. Sun Electric President Jim Welch said his is a multi-million dollar business. Sun Electric does business across the state but operates primarily in areas served by Excel Energy, which provides rebates for solar energy to its customers. Welch said he still receives several calls a month from the Steamboat area.

"We think that Steamboat is a very promising market as soon as rebates are worked out with the city and utility," Welch said.

Those rebates could be coming soon, Welch said. He said Sun Electric has been working with Big Agnes Mountain Works owner Bill Gamber. Welch said Gamber hopes to install solar in his downtown Steamboat offices, but is waiting for the city and YVEA to offer rebates.

"It'll get better," Holland said. "There is legislation in the works that could increase the number of systems."

Another form of solar power, solar-thermal, can make economic sense. Solar thermal panels use both the sun's rays and its heat to heat a home's or business's water, reducing or eliminating the need for electricity-powered water heaters. These systems are cheaper - about $2,500 for the average home after federal tax rebates - and they can pay for themselves in as little as a year depending on property value appreciation.

- To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210

or e-mail bgee@steamboatpilot.com


thecondoguy1 9 years, 10 months ago

this solar stuff is a bunch of crap, 20 years to break even and then you are stuck with a obsolete peice of junk that doesn't work, you can't get anybody to fix it, no spare parts, then you have to pay sombody another 20 grand to get the junk off your house and haul it away. this method of conservation is a joke............


dundalk 9 years, 10 months ago

...doesn't it remind you of the gigantic, area 51 styled satellite dishes?


RickCoen 9 years, 9 months ago

I'm glad to see quality reporting that deals honestly with the costs involved in the use of solar electricity. At the same time, however, a bit more coverage of the benefits would have been nice as well. The fact that a reader can conclude that it's "a bunch of crap" speaks to a certain ommission in the column.

For instance, it seems more intuitive that digging black rock from the ground and burning it into our air (with it's carbon and mercury, etc.) is closer to "crap" than sun shining on silicon for our electricity. However, to the reader's point about breaking even, issues like the following might have been included in the report:

  • We purchase things every day that never break even. What new car or granite countertop ever broke even?

  • While "cheapest is best" is the value underlying many decisions affecting electricity generation, we don't really believe that in a larger sense. Otherwise we'd all be driving Yugos and living in yurts.

  • The equipment that makes up a solar system is extremely reliable and durable. Since there are no moving parts, it doesn't break. The solar panels have 25 year warranties and the electronics 10 year. When was the last time you bought an electronic appliance that had a warranty longer than three years and how long do they last?

  • Those who invest in solar do so for a number of reasons: because it does have a payback, because they value the future they're leaving for their children, because they don't like being dependent on fluctuating power prices and supplies ...


Matthew Stoddard 9 years, 9 months ago

RickCoen makes really good points. How many people get "value" from plain electric grids? Well...I guess I do get around $40-50 every couple years from YVEA rebates.

***Yugos!! LOL! That's why they're called Yugo, because I don't go in it!! In the South, were they called "Y'allgo?"


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