Community Agriculture Alliance: Calculate benefits of solar energy

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Colorado has an average of 300 sunny days per year. Those “bluebird days” provide recreational opportunities year-round. Harnessing the sun’s energy and converting it into useable electricity is an appealing prospect for those wishing to reduce their electric bills or secure their own energy. Yampatika recently has invested in this area as part of a larger project to transform Legacy Ranch into a demonstration site for sustainability.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal is the most common fuel for generating electricity in the U.S. In 2010, 45 percent of our electricity came from coal. Natural gas followed at 24 percent, then nuclear power at 20 percent. Petroleum was used to generate just more than 1 percent. Renewable energy sources compose the remaining 11 percent. Hydropower was the most common renewable energy source at 6 percent. Taken together, biomass, wind power, geothermal and solar account for only 5 percent.

Harnessing solar energy dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The most notable step toward modern solar may have been in the 1950s when we discovered how well silicon worked as a semiconductor. Silicon is what solar cells and solar panels are made of today.

Since then, technologies have improved, and costs have gone down. However, an investment in solar energy is just that — an investment. The investor must consider the internal rate of return. Calculating the internal rate of return includes an analysis of the cost of your system, the price of electricity, the potential for its inflation, the performance of your system, required maintenance and rebates or incentives that may be available to you. Although costs have gone down, the financial return on investment is still not immediate. Common reasons for choosing an investment in solar include reducing or eliminating monthly electric bills, hedging against utility rate hikes, investing in a durable power system that may increase the value of your home or business, taking advantage of incentives and rebates available to you and reducing your carbon footprint.

It is important to note the two ways we are working to reduce our carbon footprint: producing cleaner energy and consuming less of it. Installing a solar array addresses the production side. Our five-kilowatt system will produce 7,500 kilowatt-hours annually, providing 24 percent of Legacy Ranch’s electric use at current rates of consumption. As we reduce energy consumption, we hope to increase that figure to 50 percent or more. To that end, we have taken simple steps such as installing energy-efficient light bulbs and programmable thermostats, steps that can be taken by most people. While a solar array is a larger investment with a longer time for return, these are smaller investments that provide immediate financial return.

We are documenting the sustainability site improvements we have made and their rate of return so we may share this information with you. If increasing energy production or reducing energy consumption is an attractive prospect, stay tuned. We will help you figure out how to do it within your own budget.

Sonja Macys is the executive director of Yampatika.

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