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Let The Sun Shine (And The Wind Blow)

0902
 2013


Bill Bard and Alice Penney relax on the porch of the ranch home, which is kept cool with the power generated by 48 solar panels. Bard generates more than his ranch consumes.

Thinking about generating your own energy? Bill Bard is ahead of the curve — he's gone totally solar
 

By Kathy Warbelow
Photos by Spencer Selvidge


    Bill Bard’s Lockhart-area ranch bakes in the sun on a steamy summer day as temperatures push toward 100 degrees. Hummingbirds flit back and forth among the feeders on the front porch.

    Inside, the compact house is comfortably cool, thanks to ceiling fans and two heat pumps — one for each floor. And it’s not costing Bard a cent. Forty-eight solar panels on the roofs of Bard’s barn and laboratory are silently pumping out power. The panels can generate up to 10 kilowatts of electricity, more than enough for Bard’s house, the outbuildings and the equipment for the rainwater collection system that handles all of his water needs.
 
    “I wanted to be as self-sustainable as possible, and one part of self-sustainability is generating your own electricity,” said Bard, who installed the system in 2010 and 2011.
 
    Bard, who teaches electrical engineering at the University of Texas, is not your typical solar system customer. His system generates far more power than the 100-acre ranch uses.
 
    “I figure I’m powering several of my neighbors,” he said. Asked why he built such an oversized system, his friend Alice Penney interjected with a laugh: “Did he tell you the part that he’s an engineer?”
 
    Residential power-generating systems once were too expensive for most people, and attractive mostly to clean-energy fans or people with no access to electricity. Now, residential solar and wind systems have moved into the mainstream, as costs fall and people become more interested in renewable energy and generating their own power. A string of brutal Central Texas summers also has given homeowners utility-bill sticker shock.
 
    “That’s when we get the calls – when people get their utility bills,” said Derrick Hoffman, co-owner of HESolar in Buda, which installs everything from solar patios to full house systems.
 
    Rooftop solar systems have become “more affordable across the board for middle-class homeowners,” with falling prices for the photovoltaic panels and some of the other materials, said James Govea, project manager at Texas Solar Power, which installed Bard’s system.
 
    Prices also are falling for small wind turbine systems, which are practical primarily in rural areas where there’s room to erect a tower tall enough to catch breezes. Local contractors install larger systems; Home Depot sells small DIY systems online. The turbines start at $499 for a 600-watt model; an 80-foot tower kit is $2,275.
 
    For many homeowners, solar is a more practical way to generate some of their own electricity. Solar systems generate power whenever the sun is shining, even on a partly sunny day. But, to generate power with a wind turbine the wind has to be blowing above a certain speed.  Solar systems involve panels installed on racks on your roof and need minimal maintenance.  Wind turbines need regular maintenance and may not be acceptable to your neighbors.
 
    For either type, the federal government provides a 30 percent renewable energy tax credit, which covers materials, labor and site preparation, such as additional wiring. There is no maximum and the credit applies to vacation homes as well as primary residences.
 
    The Rural Energy for America program provides loan guarantees and grants for small renewable systems for agricultural producers and rural small businesses.
 
    Bluebonnet wants to smooth the path for members interested in generating their own solar or wind power. 
 
    “It sounds contrary for an electric utility to say, but Bluebonnet doesn’t sell electricity,” said Mark Rose, Bluebonnet’s general manager. “We provide electric service.
 
    “So if our members want to generate their own wind or solar power, it’s our job to make that as easy as possible. And if they generate more power than they use at their home or business, we’ll buy it at the same rate we pay our wholesale power providers,” Rose said.
 
    Bluebonnet has one of the most progressive policies for renewable energy interconnections of any utility in the country, Rose said. Bluebonnet’s member service representatives and engineering department will work closely with members who want to install wind or solar power systems to ensure they are safe to connect to the electric grid.
 
    Currently, only 58 Bluebonnet customers generate some of their own power: 39 with solar power, 17 with wind, and 2 with a mix of both. On average, Bluebonnet gets two or three inquiries a week from people interested in generating their own renewable energy.
 
    What questions do members ask? Rebates or tax incentives are of interest. (Bluebonnet does not offer rebates but there are tax incentives and credits available.) They want to know whether solar is better than wind. The money-saving aspects are also of interest: How will they be credited for the electricity they produce? Will Bluebonnet buy any excess energy?
 
    Residential renewable energy requires a substantial upfront investment. Bard says he has about $50,000 worth of panels in his system. A more typical system might cost $20,000, according to Texas Solar Energy Co. in Houston.
 
    It’s hard to come up with an average price for a home system because there are so many variables, including the pitch and orientation of the roof, the amount of tree cover, the efficiency of different types of panels and how much power the homeowner wants to generate.
 
    The payback depends on factors including the size of the system, the home’s energy efficiency and current electricity bills.
 
    “We can do a small one-kilowatt system up to 10-, 20-, 30-kilowatt systems, said Govea of Texas Solar Power. “If you have a huge home, a little ranch, with water wells and a pool, you’ll need a larger system to get to a 50 or 80 percent offset” from your bill.
 
    Homeowners can start small, with items such as solar-powered attic fans, then scale up to roof-mounted systems. Small solar devices to power wells, gate openers and outbuildings on farms and ranches cost just a few hundred dollars. DIY kits are available to provide backup power to cabins or barns.
 
    Finding a contractor requires the same homework as finding someone to replace a roof or install a new furnace. References from neighbors or friends are a good place to start. Installers should be licensed electrical contractors with experience in renewable energy systems. Some solar contractors may participate in a voluntary certification program run by the National American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (look for that online at nabcep.org/installer-locator).
 
    Bard used to get bills as high as $150 in the hottest or coldest months; he now offsets 100 percent of his own usage, and his system generated 5,500 kilowatt hours above that in the first six months of this year.
 
    He tracks the ranch’s usage and generation with a special meter, provided by Bluebonnet, installed outside his barn amid a cluster of devices that include inverters, which convert the direct current the panels generate to alternating current.  He’s still connected to the grid, though. Bard isn’t sold on current battery technology to store power for use when the sun doesn’t shine. 
 
    Bluebonnet credits customers with renewable systems at the retail rate, about 9 cents a kilowatt hour, for the power they generate up to the amount of their own usage, said Will Holford, Bluebonnet’s manager of public affairs. The utility pays the wholesale rate for power generated above that amount.   
 
    As the cost of standard solar systems continues to fall, new options are reaching the market.
 
    Dow Chemical Corp.’s Powerhouse system is designed to look like regular roof shingles, but the shingles are really interlocking small solar panels that generate electricity.
 
    Unlike standard solar panels, the shingles are flush to the roof, said David Phillips, president of Ja-Mar Roofing, Dow’s authorized installer in the Austin area.
 
    “You get a seamless, integrated look,” Phillips said.
 
    Phillips said the system requires about 20 percent more roof space than rack-mounted panels that generate an equal amount of power.
 
    More options are in the pipeline: Solar paint is being researched. It would use advanced nanotechnology materials and could dramatically cut the cost of solar panels. Small fuel cells that generate enough power for a home or small business  already are in use in Japan.
 
    Meanwhile, rooftop solar is powering the industry’s growth in the U.S. In 2012, residential installations rose 62 percent, with homeowners installing 488 megawatts of generating capacity, according to a report by GTM Research for the Solar Energy Industries Association.
 
    Texas, long a leader on wind power, is a laggard when it comes to solar, adding just 8.3 megawatts of rooftop solar power generated last year. Sixteen other states produced more, including California with 307 megawatts; New Jersey with 298 megawatts, and even Massachusetts with 15.8 megawatts. Considering utility solar farms as well, Texas ranks ninth.
 
    But the report forecasts Texas residential solar installations will grow tenfold by 2016, even without the statewide incentives that have spurred adoption in many other states.
 
    “Texas has the highest rooftop solar potential after California,” said Jamie Nolan, a spokeswoman for the association. 


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