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A Ray of photovoltaic sunshine

It is a fact that earth receives more energy from the sun in just one hour than the world uses in a whole year.

In October of 2009, local residents Ray and Teddy Finney tapped into that incredible energy source by completing the installation of a photovoltaic array on the rooftop of their home in a Pagosa Lakes subdivision. Ray’s goal is to use the solar system to reduce the energy consumption in his home, and to possibly sell any excess energy back to La Plata Electric.

Ray Finney has jokingly named his solar project “Ray and Teddy’s National Defense Energy Policy,” with a mission to generate energy locally and create a local economic stimulus package.

“The panels are made in the USA and were installed by a local southwest Colorado firm,” Ray explains. “This is an upgrade to our home and symbolizes the commitment of Pagosa families to the need for green power.” Although his home was already built with two floors of windows facing south to help heat the home in the winter, he felt that the addition of the photovoltaic array would offset some of the coal-powered electricity generated far from Pagosa Springs.

In addition to living in a location that touts over 300 days of sunshine, our state also has a governor who has publicly declared his goals for a new energy economy in Colorado by advancing energy efficiency and renewable, clean energy resources. The state policies and incentives may have helped to lure the German-based company SMA Solar Technology, which announced in late October that it will open a manufacturing facility in Denver, spend nearly $22 million on its first non-European site, and hire 300 to 700 workers beginning in 2010. Riding the wave of new solar technology, Ray and Teddy made the decision to install the panels. The Finneys used their previous year’s electric usage data to determine the size of their array, with the advised optimum size being 95 percent of the total usage for the year.

“You try to generate a little less than you need,” says Ray.

The electric meter mounted on a post in the backyard provides a telltale sign that something is different at the Finney house. The late morning sun is shining bright on the solar panels mounted on the roof, and the horizontal disk on the meter is spinning backwards at a very fast pace.

“The meter was at seventeen this morning,” Ray observes, “Now it’s down to one.”

The photovoltaic array on the roof generates 3,900 watts, or 3.9 kilowatts of direct current power. This DC current is channeled into an inverter to turn it into an alternating current, or AC, and from there feeds into the main house electrical panel. When the sun is shining and there is not much energy usage inside the house, the extra energy is put back into the power grid and is reflected by the meter running backwards. At night, when energy usage is higher from lights, televisions or computer use, the meter runs slowly forward again as energy is drawn from the La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) grid. At the end of each billing cycle, the meter is read and the net usage is recorded. If the meter has gone down at the end of the month, a credit is issued and once a year the user receives a reimbursement check from LPEA.

So why isn’t everyone jumping into the idea of installing a photovoltaic array on their homes? Although solar energy prices have declined an average of 4 percent annually over the past 15 years, the price of the systems does not yet offer a quick payback in energy savings. The Finney system consists of several panels that are screwed directly into the roof rafters, forming a large array. The panels are linked together to a main line and then feed into a unit that measures the DC current generated and displays a live reading on a digital display. In addition to the solar panels, the system price includes the wiring, grounding rods, an inverter, power cables to the main LPEA grid, and the labor that went in to installing the system. The cost for this free energy from the sun was a hefty $40,000, but with a $3,000 LPEA rebate and a 30-percent federal tax credit, the final cost to the Finneys will be $25,000. Ray figures the payback time on the system will be 11 years. After that, his electric bills should be nearly zero and the system will still be going strong.

“Not really a super deal,” Ray laments, and he notes that if the system was installed in someplace like Portland, Ore., a state even richer with solar credit incentives, the cost to the homeowner would be down to about $12,000.

But even with the high cost and lengthy payback time, the Finneys think it was definitely worth doing something rather than nothing, since their main motivation for the project was creating clean energy.

“The reason I did this was to address the issues of energy,” Ray says, and although he realizes that solar energy is still relatively inefficient, he says it is just about the only thing that works here.

According to Jordan House, C.E.O. of Four Corners Solar, photovoltaic technology has come a long way. “Ten years ago a solar system was completely off-grid with batteries to run the system,” Jordan explains. Homeowners had to develop a “solar lifestyle,” which meant watching when they ran appliances and how they used their energy. New advances in solar technology, especially the ability to link directly into the main electric grid, have allowed users like the Finneys to install a system that has relatively little maintenance and gives them the satisfaction of knowing they are using predominantly green energy in their home.

Rooftop systems are not the only method to capture solar energy. David Conrad of the Pagosa Springs company Millennium Renewables describes photovoltaic tracking systems mounted on poles that follow the path of the sun during every day of the year. Although these arrays add even more cost to the system, the benefit of a tracker means 15 percent more energy generated from the panels in the winter months, and 40 percent more energy in the summer months due to the optimal angle of the panels in relation to the sun.

To help offset system costs, La Plata Electric Association offers a Renewable Generation Rebate program that will rebate $2 per watt of installed capacity, up to $3,000, for residential and small commercial members installing solar technology. In addition, federal tax credits for both solar water heating and photovoltaic arrays amount to 30 percent of the total cost of the system. And beyond monetary compensation, Sue Passant at the Department for Covenant Compliance in Pagosa Lakes emphasizes that the Pagosa Lakes Property Owners Association fully supports this type of clean energy in the community and looks favorably on the installation of solar arrays. Her department is working to support homeowners who are installing these types of systems. As with any changes or additions to homes in the Pagosa Lakes subdivision, homeowners must obtain a permit that describes the scope of the project. PLPOA permit costs range from $30 to $80. According to the Archuleta County Building Department, homes outside of the Pagosa Lakes subdivisions do not need a county permit, but do need an electrical permit that is required from the State of Colorado.

With so many details to consider, Doug Large of Grande’s Solar LLC in Pagosa Springs offers a unique service as a project consultant. As a solar energy specialist who used to install systems, Large’s service involves discussions on size, system rebates and credits, working with banks that invest in “green” technology and visiting the locations and checking the site for solar viability by using a pathfinder to track the sun for each month of the year. He has found that many sites are just not suited for solar systems due to hills or other obstacles that block the sun during the winter months. Doug notes that photovoltaic panels are at the lowest prices yet seen and hopes more people like the Finneys will take advantage of the sun’s energy.

By using their new solar array, Ray and Teddy Finney feel they are contributing their small part to Ray’s own National Defense Energy Policy, and helping to “green” the community. According to Jordan House, Ray’s system will offset about 87 percent of his energy consumption. By generating 7,350 kWh of solar electricity each year, the Finneys will prevent the burning of 9,900 pounds of coal.?The environmental savings is the equivalent to planting 37 acres of trees or not driving the average American car 176,000 miles.?

For more information on Ray’s project, he invites you to call him at 946-7491.