The greening of the grid
LPEA offers new renewable energy rebate program

Solar panels catch the last rays of the day atop the Sun Building, in downtown Durango. The prospect of going solar just got a little sunnier, with La Plata Electric Association recently announcing a program whereby customers installing renewable energy systems are eligible for up to a $2,000 rebate. This rebate is in addition to the co-op’s net metering tariff, which allows customers on renewable systems to turn back their meters./Courtesy photo

by Missy Votel

The cost of being green in La Plata County just got a little cheaper.

La Plata Electric Association recently announced a renewable energy rebate program that rewards members for generating their own energy. The program would pay members $2 per watt generated from residential renewable energy systems, up to $2,000. The one-time rebate is in addition to the co-op’s net-metering tariff, which allows members to feed power from renewable energy systems back into the grid, essentially spinning their meters backwards and off-setting monthly electric bills.

“We adopted the program based on member surveys and feedback,” said Jeff Berman, LPEA board member. “Members wanted clean air and water, and this is one way to do that.”

The rebate, one of only two such programs in Colorado, will be applied retroactively to systems that have passed LPEA’s interconnection inspection since Jan. 1, 2006.

“We’re only one of two co-ops in Colorado that have such a program right now,” said Berman. “I think it’s a real step in the right direction.”

County resident Mike Fitzgerald and his wife, Shari, took a similar step last year when they installed a 4.2 kilowatt system at their Cherry Creek adobe west of Durango. The system is made up of two 12-panel Sharp “tracking” arrays, which automatically move to follow the sun. In addition, the Fitzgeralds also installed two 115-watt solar panels on their water well, which pumps about five gallons of water per minute.

Using the new photovoltaic system, in addition to net metering, the Fitzgeralds say the monthly electric bill on their 3,000-square-foot home is less than $10 a month. This is in sharp contrast to the $80/month average they were paying on their former conventional home.

“In the end, we typically have a couple- of-dollars-a-month bill,” said Mike. He said staying on the grid versus building a totally self-sustainable house independent of utilities “off the grid” made more sense.

“I was never really interested in building off the grid because the idea of being able to generate more than we needed and giving back was more attractive,” he said.

According to Xcel Energy, which serves 3 million customers throughout Colorado and the Midwest, a typical 2-kw (2,000- watt) photovoltaic system costs between $16,000 and $20,000 installed. Such a system generates about 7,500-kw hours a year in sunny Colorado, equating to a savings of about $550 a year. As such, it would take the average homeowner more than 30 years to recoup the cost of installing such a system.

However, Ben Jason, of Sustainable Living Technologies in Durango, said most homeowners are willing to foot this bill in order to do what they feel is ecologically responsible.

“Most people are looking to offset their electric bills and to do the right thing as far as the environment is concerned,” he said.

Put in relative terms, he said a new solar energy system is no different than investing in a new, fuel-efficient car in terms of price and benefits to the environment.

“It’s as simple and cost-effective as buying a new car,” he said. “Right now, most electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. One solar system can make

A solar tracker panel is installed at the home of Mike and Shari Fitzgerald, west of Durango. Local solar technician Ben Jason said demand for renewable energy systems has increased locally, with his business increasing almost twofold between 2005 and 2007./Courtesy phot

 an enormous difference in the amount of


He also said that in recent years, solar energy has become more mainstream, with technological advances making it more attractive than ever. For example, systems no longer require batteries, as in years past, making them cheaper and easier to operate. People are also starting to catch onto the idea. Last year, he installed about 15 systems, and expects to do about 20 this year and 25 in 2007 “The market is growing and interest is growing,” he said.

Furthermore, renewable energy system installers are becoming better trained and there are more standardized certification programs available. Jason learned by doing, building his house off the grid more than a decade ago. He has been in business for six years, and became a certified technician through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. He said he envisions a day when his field is licensed like other skilled trades, such as plumbing and electric installation. “Because it’s becoming more mainstream, I think we’ll need to legitimize ourselves more,” he said.

There are also more programs than ever to help alleviate the financial sting of installing renewable energy systems. In addition to LPEA’s $2,000 rebate, people installing renewable systems also are eligible for tax breaks under the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, which will refund 30 percent of the cost of a solar energy system, up to $2,000. The tax credit applies to improvements made from Jan. 1, 2006, through Dec. 31, 2007.

Colorado residents installing solar systems also are eligible for rebates under Xcel Energy’s “Solar Rewards Program.” The program, which buys back renewable energy from state residents, was implemented in March 2006 as a way to comply with Amendment 37. Passed by Colorado voters in 2004, Amendment 37 requires that the larger electric utilities in that state, those serving 40,000 or more customers, must generate 10 percent of their total electricity from renewable sources by 2015. Four percent of this renewable generation must be from solar energy, and 2 percent of the renewable generation must be from solar generation located on customers’ premises.

Currently, LPEA is not required to meet the new standards. According to the co-op’s 2005 annual report, it had just more than 39,000 total services in place in 2005.

Regardless, board member Berman said the new rebate program was not instituted in response to the Amendment 37 mandate.

“As far as I know, the program was not necessarily a direct response to that, but what members were asking for,” he said. Berman did say that that the co-op is looking at several other renewable energy programs in addition to net metering and the rebate. “There are quite a number of different programs being considered,” he said. “I’m going to make sure we take a good, hard look at them.”

In the meantime, the Fitzgeralds recently signed a $15,000, 20-year contract with Xcel, which will help put a dent in the cost of their system. And while Mike said he’d like to see LPEA offer more competitive prices for renewable energy, he noted that it was the principle, not the profit, that motivated him to go solar.

“The point is to show people that it can be done,” he said.

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