Solar Arizona a strong possibility, but it won’t be cheap
Calls for Arizona to become “the Middle East of solar energy” sound good to environmentally conscious consumers who want to cut reliance on fossil fuels.
That goal is achievable, say solar promoters.
Though Arizona is widely touted as the sunniest state in the nation, solar energy accounts for less than 1 percent of the power produced commercially here.
Changing that would require a hefty upfront investment, advocates say. But it would pay off in a clean, endlessly renewable power source.
They say government must lead the way.
A small step was taken this week when the state House of Representatives passed a measure barring homeowners associations from enacting rules that would interfere with the placement of rooftop solar collectors.
That doesn’t leave the individual out of the picture, though. Homeowners can take advantage of solar energy for free – with a clothesline – or can install photovoltaic systems that generate all household electricity. Those systems, even with tax credits, cost $20,000 or more.
In the middle of that range are solar thermal collectors. They harvest heat, instead of converting sunlight to electrical current, and can be used for hot water needs.
Whether sunlight is harvested on a small or large scale, including it in the energy mix could help cut greenhouse gases believed to be heating up the planet.
So what’s stopping solar power from becoming the dominant source of power in the state?
Cost, said Erik Magnuson of Environment Arizona, a group that promotes renewable energy sources.
Magnuson calls our current energy system the product of decades of policies “the government has put forth to subsidize that power.”
“If governments made a similar commitment to make solar power the sole or major energy source for Arizona, the technology is there to make that happen,” he said.
The political momentum for such a shift may be building.
President Bush said in his most recent State of the Union address that the nation’s future depends on the development of alternative energy sources and that the world needs to take action to deal with “global climate change.”
Bush argued that a renewable fuels mandate – which would need approval from Congress – would spur investments in the industry and give research a boost.
Lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have proposed two of a slew of climate change bills that senators will debate in coming weeks.
That could benefit solar and wind projects in northern New Mexico and Arizona.
Large-scale action called for
For Arizona to go solar, government incentives would be necessary, said Colleen Crowninshield, coordinator of the Clean Cities program for Pima County.
“The solar-energy industry is ready to do it,” said Valerie Rauluk, a member of the Tucson-Pima Metropolitan Energy Commission. “We are just waiting to get those rules in place.
“Solar electric can happen. One way is with a solar farm and another is to put solar panels on the roofs of large building such as Wal-Marts and Home Depots,” Rauluk said. “Such installations would substantially cut fossil-fuel energy consumption and help those customers shave peak power needs.”
Homeowners also need to get into the action, Magnuson said.
“Arizona can do a lot more to put the sun to work,” he said.
Magnuson called for 250,000 homes in the state to be equipped with solar energy and solar water heating units by 2015.
“We are all about reducing the need for this dirty and expensive form of power when we have such great alternatives,” Magnuson said.
Coal-fired power plants, and even nuclear power plants, “cost taxpayers and ratepayers millions of dollars a year to supply coal and to import nuclear fuel to run them.”
Even without government action, there are steps individuals can take to incorporate solar energy into their household use.
At the high end of the cost spectrum are photovoltaic arrays. These panels convert sunlight into electricity by using two layers of material that absorb light differently.
For example, one layer of silicon – essentially glass – is “doped” with boron, and another with phosphorus. The space between creates an electrical field called a junction. When light hits the junction, electrons are split off into a device that collects the flow as direct current. It’s then converted to alternating current for household use.
A medium-size rooftop system would cost about $40,000, according to BP Solar, which produces the systems.
The solar panels work better in lower temperatures. Summer heat can stress the systems, making them iffy for generating electricity during Tucson’s peak demand.
Another option is a solar water heater. Instead of converting sunlight to electricity, it stores the heat.
They can serve as preheaters for conventional heaters and may include a pump. The pump can be powered with photovoltaic panels.
Arizona Public Service Co. last year opened a solar energy plant, the first to be built in the nation since 1988, northwest of Tucson.
The 14-acre, $6 million plant will produce 1.3 megawatts, enough to supply 200 to 250 homes.
The plant has six rows of parabolic mirrors that track the sun, concentrate sunlight on steel tubes, and heat mineral oil in the tubes to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot oil heats a second fluid that vaporizes, producing steam to spin an electric turbine.
By 2025, APS plans to get up to 15 percent of its power from solar, wind and other renewable sources.
Tucson Electric Power Co. operates a 2.4-megawatt solar facility near its coal-fired plant in Springerville.
Yet the power still costs much more than electricity delivered from coal-fired plants.
“No one is saying that biofuels and solar energy are going to take care of all our needs,” said Rauluk, of the Tucson-Pima Metropolitan Energy Commission. “They can’t, but they certainly can take care of part of our needs, and they have certain benefits: reduced pollution and reduced greenhouse gas.”
So what’s it going to take to make the leap?
“The world is moving toward a place where there will be a tax on pollutants, taxes that get passed onto the customer,” Rauluk said. “We are going to have to pay one way or the other. But by aggressively going heavily into solar energy, we are providing a hedge against those rising prices of the future.”
INCENTIVES AVAILABLE IN ARIZONA
Tucson Electric Power
• Residential: Up to $3 rebate per watt of solar electricity used (it takes 2 watts to power the average electric alarm clock).
• Nonresidential: Up to $2.50 rebate per watt up to 100,000 watts.
• 10 percent tax credit of installed cost, with a maximum of $25,000 for any one building and a total of $50,000 for one year.
• Personal tax credit up to 25 percent of total installed cost up to $1,000.
• 100 percent rebate of sales tax on eligible equipment for solar hot water, solar space heat, solar thermal, photovoltaics and solar pool heating.
• Residential solar tax credit up to 30 percent of total cost up to $2,000.
Source: Erik Magnuson, Environment Arizona
ENERGY SOURCE PROS AND CONS
The thread linking global warming, U.S. security interests, pollution and traffic congestion is energy.
Driving and electricity account for most of the energy we use. Savings in one area might offset consumption in another.
Some pros and cons to energy sources:
● Solar is abundant and readily usable for warming air and water, but it is expensive to generate electricity from sunlight.
● Nuclear is relatively clean but produces radioactive waste, which can cause genetic mutations.
● Biomass fuels include biodiesel and ethanol. They can be made with crops or agricultural waste from the U.S., but there are fewer places to fill your car’s tank.
● Coal, which generates about half the country’s electricity, is plentiful, cheap and a major culprit in greenhouse gases.
● Natural gas may be cleaner than other fossil fuels, but there is little domestic production of cars that run on natural gas.
● Oil is relatively cheap, but may get more expensive to extract. Like natural gas, it is abundant in countries that may become hostile to us.
● Hydroelectric power is fairly clean and cheap to generate. It’s expensive to build dams and doing so has devastated river ecosystems that are a vital part of Earth’s sustainability.
Source: Pima Association of Governments
ON THE WEB
For information on how small solar electric systems work: www.eere.energy.gov/consumer/ your_home/electricity/index.cfm/mytopic=10720
To calculate your costs for a solar energy system to meet household needs: www.bp.com/ solarsavings.do?contentId=3050766&categoryId=3050485