Solar Energy Rising

Faren DancerBy  Faren Dancer

Recently, I received a little membership token from the American Solar Energy Society, a window sticker that reads…”The Solution Comes Up Every Morning”.  Funny how something so predictable and taken for granted is one of the most obvious answers to our energy needs.  In the 1970’s solar energy came into the grander public awareness during  the years following the Arab Oil Embargo.  The Carter administration promoted major tax incentives for companies and consumers to move into the renewable state of mind.   The media followed suit with focused attention on our energy consumption and the need for renewable solutions

Here in New Mexico, the land of lavish sunshine, many innovative architects and builders experimented with new design approaches that were highlighted by passive solar innovations.  In many respects, New Mexico was among the leaders in generating the push toward cutting edge design and application.  Things moved in reverse after Ronald Regan took office in 1980, and his mantra of “trickle down economics” focused tax relief on corporations and the wealthy, rather than the meager small business start-ups or consumers wanting for alternatives. The media in turn quickly moved the spotlight away from renewable energy, consumers lost interest without affordable tax incentives, and a period of diminished research and development dimmed the rays that previously held such promise.  Though the sun continued to rise each morning, society, for the most part,  reverted back to business as usual.

In this time of heightened environmental awareness and concern for our dwindling resources, photovoltaic systems offer true ability to generate electricity from the sun. The technology of solar hydronics, solar thermal hot water and solar heating systems, has also come of age.  Although there is somewhat of a debate on which systems offer consumers the greatest advantage in terms of recouping their investment, any and all of the advances in solar energy technologies are now available to move us toward greater energy independence and a sustainable lifestyle.

Solar Electric Systems

Solar electric energy uses photovoltaic (PV) modules to generate electricity.  The various applications include utility-intertied systems which slow down your meter or spin it backwards, independent power for living off-grid, back up systems for emergency power, and water pumping for wells and stock tanks.  The utility-intertied system can rapidly move one toward zero energy consumption. At BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development), in Beddington, England, outside of London, photovoltaic collectors power a rental fleet of electric cars.  Community residents have first priority, and a reduced rate, to use these community cars as their main means of transportation.  This is a fabulous model for clean, renewable, sun generated electric power fueling clean running transport.

Before investing in a solar electric system, it is recommended to start with energy efficiency.  For every dollar invested in energy efficiency, such as superior insulation, weather striping, high performance windows, energy star rated appliances, etc., it is the equivalent to $3 to $5 dollars invested in a solar electric system.  The simple payback for solar electricity with the new incentives and without considering rising energy costs is well under the useful life of the equipment.  A photovoltaic system uses the sun for fuel and has no moving parts.  In choosing a PV system consider both your budget and the desired percentage of your utility power to be supplied by your solar electric system.  You will be able to lock in today’s utility rate for the portion supplied by your solar system.  As utility rates rise the cost of your system remains fixed.

Financing for a solar electric system is readily available through several local and national lending companies.  For each $1000 invested in a system the monthly payment cost is approximately $6.70 on a 30 year mortgage at a 7% interest rate.

Some communities with publicly owned utility companies, such as Austin Energy, provide interest free loans.

Solar Thermal Heating & Hot Water Systems

Installation of a solar thermal heating or domestic hot water system protects users from increases in rising fossil fuel costs. When compared with heat derived from propane or electricity, solar heating systems provide a sizable return on investment. Compared to natural gas, the investment return takes somewhat longer to recoup, however, the wholesale cost of natural gas has tripled in recent years. Costs are driven based on availability and the remaining reserves are taking far more effort to retrieve.

Solar collectors can be added to an existing water heater but the most effective solar water heating systems use specialized equipment. Tanks with internal heat exchangers are more effective for heat transfer and reliability.  These tanks also include internal electric elements for seamless backup heating.  For domestic hot water one or two collectors generally do the job.  They generally range from 27 to 40 square feet.  For solar space heating, 10-12% of the home’s heated area is the space required for collectors.  Anywhere from 200-240 square feet of collectors is typically required to heat a 2000 square foot house.

Solar hot water systems typically range in price from $6,500 to $15,000, including collectors, tanks valves and pumps.  Solar heating systems average $12 to $20 per square foot of heated area, depending on scale, complexity or whether it is new construction or a retrofit. Radiant slab floor heating, the most desirable in the Santa Fe climate, is the best match for solar heat because of lower fluid temperature requirements and the available heat storage mass of the floor.  The social-economic impact of solar heat is of far greater benefit, as it’s use keeps profits within New Mexico.  As our utilities are investor owned, the acquired profits tend to leave the state rather than remaining in the community to be spent on stimulating local economic development.

It is estimated that an 80 gallon solar water heating system in New Mexico can offset an average of 9.269 pounds of C02, 26 pounds of N0x, and 26 pounds of S02 per year, in addition to reducing particle emissions and carbon dioxide release.  These compounds are “greenhouse gases” associated with global warming, and are factors in acid rain, respiratory illness, asthma and many other health related issues. The reduced emissions are the equivalent to those produced by driving a passenger car 11,586 miles per year.  The amount of carbon dioxide not released as a result of using a solar hot water heater is equal to the C02 absorption capacity of one acre of trees per year.

The state of New Mexico is now assisting resident’s investment in clean energy with the Solar Tax Credit. The New Mexico State Renewable Energy Tax Credit provides 10% break, coupled with the Federal Tax Credit of 30%, equals a substantial 40% savings for your photovoltaic or solar thermal system.  The State and Federal caps have been removed, so this savings is available on any size system for residential.

Visit the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department website:

CleanEnergyNM.org for all the needed details on current tax credits for solar.

Irregardless of whichever solar approach a person decides to implement, any and all are of a major benefit economically, socially and environmentally. So, the next time the sun comes up in the morning, you would be wise to see it as a genuine solution.

Additional related websites:

Information on Federal Tax Credits -SEIA.org

American Solar Energy Society - ases.org

US DOE Energy Efficiency Renewable Energy - eere.energy.gov

Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy – NNICCAE.org

Positive Energy Santa Fe – positiveenergysolar.com

AMENERGY Santa Fe –  amenergynm.com

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