Shiny Happy People
Who's using solar energy in Monterey County and what it takes to join their satisfied ranks.
Thursday, February 22, 2001
"Gee, it''s so neat to not have a power bill, especially now. And you don''t have to worry about brownouts," my neighbor Cody told me as my husband and I began looking into putting solar panels on the roof of our Seaside home. Like many independent-minded individuals, Cody has a remote Big Sur weekend home that''s "off the grid" and powered exclusively by a system of solar panels that absorb energy from the sun.
The idea of installing a system that taps one of the few resources that is both plentiful and free in California (the sun) is beginning to seem, once again, like a smart idea. The environmental benefits of steering clear of fossil fuels has long been obvious, but California''s latest energy crisis has created financial incentives not seen since the ''70s oil crisis. Wouldn''t it be nice to avoid skyrocketing energy bills and not worry about how (or if) the state will locate new sources of power?
Following the golden rule of gardening--look to see what grows well in your neighbor''s yard before planting anything in your own--I started investigating where solar power already is in use locally and whether our often cloudy weather makes a suitable host for the endeavor. According to Monterey County''s primary solar guy, Stanley Semmel of Solex, the Central Coast is fertile ground for solar power, save in particularly foggy spots like Pacific Grove and Carmel. But he''s only installed a few hundred solar systems since 1982.
"Unobstructed southern exposure, that''s all I need," he declared. "Lots of sunshine and an area to mount panels on the ground or on poles."
Until now, Semmel''s received orders almost exclusively from folks living in remote areas like Big Sur and upper Carmel Valley--places where PG&E is either not available, too pricey or too unreliable.
One of Semmel''s happy customers is Richard Wangoe, who lives with his partner Laura in a passive solar design home south of Nepenthe, an abode replete with a stunning view of the bay, modern appliances and a copy of Home Power on the wood table.
Wangoe''s place boasts what''s known in the energy business as a "stand-alone system" that has no tie-in to a public utility. His $20,000 system includes not only solar panels and the inverter used to convert the direct current (DC) energy gathered by the panels into alter- nating current (AC) energy used by standard household appliances, but also a shed full of batteries to store excess energy for use when the sun''s not shining. And Wangoe wouldn''t have it any other way.
"My power has never gone off. When the road slid at Hurricane and the power was off for 10 days, all my friends were coming to my house to do laundry," he gloats. "As far as the amount of power, too, this is so the way to go. I can do four or five hours of laundry and run heavy tools. And you do nothing to solar panels--rinse them off when they''re dusty, that''s it. It''s lower maintenance than having a cat."
The idea may be catching. Semmel says his calls have multiplied tenfold over the past weeks.
"I''ve had quite a few calls from people who are just curious and want to see what it might cost," he explains. "Some are familiar with it already--they''ve looked into it in the past, and with the energy situation the way it is now, it''s given them a reason to actively pursue it."
In that vein, my husband and I called Santa Cruz solar consultant Roger Denault and asked him to give us the nitty gritty on a system. We agreed that what we wanted was a solar system that would provide the bulk of our power while still remaining tied in to the grid (that means no batteries). Under this scenario, the grid would kick in when we needed it.
After examining the pitch of our roof, potential shade factors and past utility bills, Denault said we should expect to pay $18,000 for 24 solar panels and an inverter, plus a couple thousand more for installation, licensing and sales tax. He arrived at that number by a simple equation: Assume you need one watt of power for every square foot in your home. Multiply the number of watts by $7-10 (prices reach the higher end with steep pitched roofs, tile surfaces and remote locales). Start a large piggy bank.
While government support for alternative energy is nothing like it was back in the Jimmy Carter days, we wouldn''t have to go it totally on our own. The California Energy Commission''s "Emerging Renewables Buy-Down Program" does offer homeowners a rebate of $3,000 per kilowatt or 50 percent off the system''s price, whichever is less. So far, only 12 Monterey County residents have taken advantage of the offer, but the rebate program would bring our total costs down by an impressive $7,000.With electricity prices as high as they are, our "payback time" would then be around 10 years, and for the remaining 10-30 years that the panels functioned, we could wash, heat and vacuum freely to our hearts'' content.
Assemblymember Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek) has also proposed a host of solar-friendly bills that, if passed, could increase state funding for rebate programs and make it possible for homeowners to be paid for excess energy they generate.
In the meantime, potential solar customers like my husband and I weigh the pros and cons and talk of long-term investment while folks like Wangoe sit pretty through the energy crisis, watching the waves crash and not dreading mail time.