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Solar Case Studies

Solar Energy Use Expands, Drops In Cost

source: Daniel Kammen Capitol Weekly 2012.6.7

U.S. Navy veteran Elmer Rankin, 71, has a failing heart, prostate cancer and arthritis that keeps him in a wheelchair. Last year, Rankin, who survives on his Social Security checks, could no longer afford the mounting costs to heat his home and power the oxygen tank he uses every night. He turned down the heat and got so cold that he wound up in the hospital.

Fortunately, while Rankin's health remains precarious, today he's no longer scrambling to pay for power. Thanks to rooftop solar panels - paid for with a California subsidy - Rankin's monthly energy bill has dropped from an average of $250 to less than $22. Last month he paid just $1.09. On sunny afternoons, he likes to sit and watch his electricity meter run backward. "Solar power didn't just save me money - it saved my life," he says.

Like clouds temporarily blocking the sun, the continuing partisan debate about Solyndra - the Fremont solar power firm that went bankrupt last year despite a $528 million federal loan guarantee - has obscured the more important story taking place in the solar energy field: Clean, renewable solar power is rapidly becoming a mainstream, affordable U.S. energy option - and a boon to our overall economy.

The solar industry worldwide has been growing by 50 percent annually. In the United States, solar power now costs less than 20 cents per kilowatt hour - less than many Americans pay for electricity. Per dollar invested, solar energy is also the highest job-producing component of the country's energy economy. The U.S. solar industry has already produced more than 100,000 jobs - a doubling since 2009 - and another 25,000 are expected over the next 12 months.

California's government has been making smart investments - including the one that Rankin credits with saving his life. The California Solar Initiative is devoting approximately $2 billion in utility ratepayer funds by 2016 to install solar systems. So far, it has helped pay for solar panels on more than 112,000 homes, making California a national leader in this cost-effective strategy, which reduces peak energy costs and water demand, improves air quality, and puts thousands of people back to work.

What's particularly inspiring is how many of California's new megawatts have been quietly improving the lives of people, like Rankin, who until recently have been left on the sidelines of the global race for green energy. Low-income families spend more of their earnings on electricity than do the well-to-do but lack the capital to cut those costs with efficiency upgrades, such as solar panels.

Since 2007, California has been making solar more affordable to people like Rankin with rebates, innovative financing programs and "net-metering" options that allow system owners to sell power back to the grid.

In a first-of-its-kind solar program, California's Single-family Affordable Solar Homes project provides incentives for low-income homeowners to go solar, while also developing livelihoods for people like Eduardo Huerta, a father of five, who got work installing solar panels after losing his job as a stucco plasterer during the recession. "I'm proud to have work again, and even more that it's work that helps my community," says Huerta.

The solar homes project is administered by an Oakland nonprofit, GRID Alternatives, which installs solar electric systems exclusively for low-income families, making green energy easy by designing the systems, obtaining building permits, and submitting rebate paperwork. GRID Alternatives has helped save residents approximately $50 million on their electricity bills, reducing greenhouse gases by 171,000 tons over the next 30 years, and trained more than 9,000 people in solar installation.

These days, some in Congress are still trying to make the case that government support for solar power is a losing proposition. Yet there's plenty of evidence that it's now time for the rest of the country to follow California's lead. Smart investments and models like GRID Alternatives can bolster America's competitiveness worldwide and brighten the futures of thousands of Americans like Elmer Rankin and Eduardo Huerta.

Monterey County Solar Inspiration: Garage Owner Sees the Light, lowers electric bill

Solar Panel Systems in the Monterey County can help home and business owners in Monterey, Santa Cruz County, and San Benito County save money and "Go Green" just like this business in Ventura did. This same business plan using solar panels in Carmel, Carmel Valley, Salinas, and the Salinas Valley could be used around the Monterey Bay including other areas like: Pacific Grove, Santa Cruz, Prunedale, Hollister, and Gilroy. See what solar energy could do for your business and contact Applied Solar Energy Today!

Energy: After the state power crisis dented his profits, the Ventura businessman installed solar system and saw his electric bill plummet.

source: Amanda Covarubias LATimes 2002.5.24

An auto shop in Ventura that harnesses the sun's power to create electricity may be on the cutting edge of energy technology, but what really impresses owner Lee Lizarraga are his shrinking utility bills.

At his one-story repair shop on Market Street, every electric device-- from the overhead lights in the front office to the hydraulic lifts--is capable of being powered by the 120 solar-collecting modules resting on the roof.

ABC Auto Care is one of about 50 businesses in the state that operate on solar power and probably the only auto repair shop on the list, said Sandy Miller, a spokesman for the California Energy Commission's renewable energy program. The panels were installed at Lizarraga's 8,000-square-foot shop in September after longtime customer Michael Cordell, who sells solar energy systems, convinced his mechanic that they could translate into big savings over the long haul.

It helped that the initial conversations took place in the heat of the state's energy crisis and its rolling blackouts last year that sent small-business owners scrambling to rent or buy generators to keep their operations viable.

"That was the initial seed that made me think about it seriously," said Lizarraga, who added that he lost half a day's business during a blackout while waiting for an electrician to hook up a rented generator.

He said he first balked at the idea when he learned it would cost $105,000 for a system. But with government-sponsored financial incentives designed to encourage businesses to cut their energy use, he figured the entire project would be paid off in three years.

In the end, 44% of the initial investment was paid through subsidies, rebates and tax write-offs and another 32% was covered by a low-interest loan sponsored by the California Energy Commission, Lizarraga said. His former $600 monthly electric bill has been reduced by as much as 90%.

He said his shop has cut its dependence on California's electric power grid, which serves three-fourths of the state, and on some days the flat, metallic-colored modules capture so much energy that he does not have to tap into the grid at all. Six months after the system was installed, the shop experienced its first day of operating exclusively on solar power, Lizarraga said. That was March 12. The system works like this: The panels collect sunlight, which is transferred to an electronic component in the building that converts solar energy to usable electric power. The power generated by the system supplies the building's electrical energy and any left over flows back to the state grid, earning Lizarraga a credit on his utility bill.

Lizarraga estimates that the system will generate about 200 kilowatts more this month than the building will consume--but some months he has come up short and has had to use power off the grid. The shop uses about 2,300 kilowatts a month, he said, and if all goes well, the amount of electricity generated versus the amount used will balance out by next year. To a customer walking into the one-story repair shop, the solar electricity system is undetectable. Everything appears normal as mechanics poke their heads under hoods, and the flat panels sitting atop the building at a slight angle are not visible from the ground. The system has not affected customer service, Lizarraga said.

Other small-business owners in California are not racing to switch to alternative energy--or even to lower their electricity consumption, said Rich Illingworth, vice president of Safe Bidco, a nonprofit corporation created by the state to help commercial users reduce their energy use through low-interest loans.

Lizarraga received a five-year loan with a 4% interest rate, but terms vary depending on the job, Illingworth said. The money also can be used to replace old boilers, refrigeration systems and other out-of-date equipment with energy-efficient models. Only about 30 businesses a year have applied for the loans since the program was started in the late 1980s, he said.

The most popular improvement is replacing old light fixtures, Illingworth said. "It's cheaper and requires the least amount of faith in believing these energy efficiency improvements will work," Illingworth said.

Although many business owners inquired about generating their own electricity during the energy crisis, few actually stepped up to the plate, Illingworth said. Miller of the state Energy Commission said homeowners have been more receptive to the idea of solar electricity.

Despite the hesitancy of small businesses, Cordell said his company, Solar Electrical Systems in Westlake Village, has installed panels at hundreds of places, including Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, "Titanic" director James Cameron's Hollister Ranch home in Santa Barbara and Fire Station No. 6 in Oxnard.

Lizarraga, who monitors his electricity output and consumption in real time on his office computer, said he is looking to install solar panels on the remaining uncovered portion of his rooftop.

"Why not make this place as efficient as possible?" he said. ---

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