Sunday, August 21, 2011

Doing One Good Thing

A week or so ago we had solar panels installed on top of our garage.

The decision was a "no-brainer": 40% of the cost will be deducted from our federal (30%) and state (10%) taxes; we will not pay electricity bills; and El Paso Electric will effectively pay us 12 cents per kilowatt hour for the electricity we generate; and that 12-cent price is guaranteed for twelve years.

The system will pay for itself within eight years.

More importantly, we are contributing, in our small way, to solving one of this country’s many serious problems – and to a cleaner, healthier environment.

A recent opinion piece in the Sun-News, by a lady sympathetic to big energy interests, urged New Mexicans to repeal the program entirely. She trumpeted that coal and nuclear power are cheaper in the short-run, implying those are the direction New Mexicans should go. Coal is as dirty as power gets, and increasing our use of it would cost far more, in health and dollars, in the long run. Increasing use of nuclear power is simply idiotic.

Nuclear power plants are dangerous, as recent events in Japan should suggest. Further, their waste must be contained for tens of thousands of years. When we build and operate a nuclear power plant we undertake to safeguard its waste for several times the number of years (2011) since the death of Jesus Christ. No government or company has lasted even a small fraction of that time. A safety "guarantee" by the U.S., New Mexico, or the nuclear industry may sound good, but will any of them be around another ten or twenty thousand years? As our economy tanks and governments and companies cut corners, how can we have faith that either will continue to try their best? Even with the best intentions and careful planning, events (an unprecedented tidal wave in Japan; perhaps an unprecedented tornado in the U.S., terrorism, or a strong earthquake in a region that hasn’t had one for thousands of years?) happen.

New Mexico desperately needs to increase its use of clean and renewable energy.

Several points are unarguable:
1. The country must find energy alternatives that are safe, clean, and do not need to be purchased from other countries. With energy so critical to both our economy and our security, we need greater control over our supply of it.
2. We’re at a critical stage in human contribution to global warming and environmental pollution, and urgently need to be burning less and less oil and gas if we hope to bequeath our children and grandchildren a liveable world.
3. New Mexico is one of the two finest states in the nation for solar energy.
4. Most of the citizens of Doña Ana County could use the kind of financial break you get with solar panels – and, since loans are available if needed, most homeowners can do as we did. (The tax credits can be used over several years.)

However, if you are thinking of going solar, think fast.

If you go solar this year, you get a better deal than you will next year – and El Paso Electric is fighting tooth and nail to get the New Mexico Public Regulatory Commission to weaken the incentives for solar energy.
The case for solar is simple: it’s efficient, particularly in New Mexico; sunlight won’t run out this century, and the sun doesn’t charge us $100 or $200 every month for using its rays; and there’s little or no harm to the environment.

El Paso Electric is asking the PRC to reduce the price paid for solar energy to 10 cents per kilowatt hour (and to two cents for some) and reduce the term of the contracts from twelve years to eight. Last year, in a similar effort that failed, EPE provided figures indicating that their requested reduction would save the average customer . . . less than a penny month. Asked about that, an EPE witness testified that this was highly significant to people on fixed incomes – as if that, rather than its own business interest, motivated EPE.
Meanwhile, El Paso Electric also just announced a 43% increase in profits, comparing the second quarter of this year with the second quarter of 2010. EPE correctly points out that profits spiked partly because of the weather; but EPE, whose stock continues to rise and survived the recent stock-market madness, is in very good shape.

The PRC should resist EPE’s efforts to weaken the solar initiative in order to maximize already healthy profits. The New Mexico Legislature should act to strengthen a program that is proving quite successful. New Mexico can be a model for the nation – unlike Texas, where the oil and gas industry is paramount.
We’re in an unfortunate corner of the world as far as mounting political opposition to EPE: in northern New Mexico rate cases, the Renewable Energy Industry Association and other groups routinely intervene; in Texas, El Paso Electric serves a larger population than it does in southern New Mexico; but since only a small part of New Mexico buys electricity from EPE, we’re under the public-interest radar. Last year only one intervenor – Mark Westbrock of Positive Energy, a New Mexico solar power company – filed testimony and other documents with the PRC.

You can help. Write the Commissioners. Their addresses are readily available on the PRC’s web-site, - just click on each commissioner’s picture.. (So are the parties’ briefs – you don’t have to take my word for anything!) "Our" commissioner is Ben J. Hall, but you should send all five commissioners a copy of your letter or e-mail.

[The above column appeared in today's Las Cruces Sun-News]
couple of other things for which there wasn't space in the column:

-- Ideally, you should visit with two or three local solar installation companies; we did, and learned a lot and felt all the more comfortable with our decisions; there are some issues and differences of opinion, and after hearing three perspectives we felt confident in our read on the issues and the people.
-- if you decide to go solar this year, do it soon; the solar installation companies aren't necessarily so backed up -- yet -- but the process isn't necessarily instantaneous: unless you are quite knowledgeable, a good company will want to analyze your past couple of electricity bills and talk with you before recommending a specific number of panels; then it can take a week or two to get El Paso Electric's signature on the contract, and you defnitely want that before you go forward.  In short, waiting until December could make it tough to get this done this year.

-- among the issues are:
a central inverter vs. micro-inverters, or a compromise (micro-inverters of some sort are definitely wave of the future, but they're also quite new, and produced by companies without much track record; and some of the apparent disadvantages of a central inverter are not as significant in our area as they might be elsewhere);
panels on your roof or on a free-standing array [free-standing allows for panels that track the sun, and are thus marginally more effective, but for most of us the roof is the better choice, since it doesn't screw up your view or take up space you could be using for garden or terrace or trees);
-- whether to get more panels than you need (beyond the number of panels that produces approximately the amount of electricity you need each month, you can still get paid for sending electrcity to EPE, but you get paid a good deal less; on the other hand, getting more panels than you need could, depending on your situation and roof space, (a) provide for future expansion, (b) be a reasonable investment on which there'll be a respectable return and which is highly "green."

An issue that -- regrettably -- wasn't much of a choice was whether to construct a system that would allow you to keep producing and using electricity even if El Paso Electric Company were completely disabled for weeks or months by some natural or other disaster.  For example, my friend Bud, who lives on our land just North of Doña  Ana County, has used a completely stand-alone solar energy system for more than a quarter-century, since his retirement as a professor at NMSU.  We're just too far from the nearest electric lines.  In thinking about getting solar here, I'd have liked, even at slightly more cost, to have a system that, if EPE went down, could function that way for as long as need be, with batteries; but it turns out that such a "dual" system just isn't cost-effective.  Rather than adding another ten or twenty per cent to your overall cost, it adds more like seventy-five or ninety.  This was my one disappointment in getting into solar energy, but was clearly true of all three companies we talked with.  I hope there's some change on this within the next few years; but I suspect there's not so much demand for it. 

-- It takes a couple of days for the actual installation, which may include making sure of the condition of your roof where the panels will be.  The folks who did our installation were businesslike, competent, and unobtrusive.   They were a pleasure to have around; and while I'm a complete idiot about such things, a neighbor who's more knowledgeable came by and took a look at their work and was impressed.


  1. Thanks for this info. I'm wondering if you may have looked into a way to disconnect from the grid to use at least some of your daylight power in the case of an extended grid outage. That's what we are hoping to do. Heeding your advice to move soon on it.

    I'm going to guess you went with Mark, which is who I'm leaning toward without having had any formal consultations with anyone thus far.

    A very nice start to a promising blog. It's much what I was hoping to do when I moved back here, but duties trumped my intentions.
    (loved the amaranth post above as well.. also good for chickens)

  2. Thanks, Cyndy!
    Glad you like it, and hope you continue to enjoy it and comment.
    I haven't looked into that, but haven't ruled out some day adding a couple more panels and batteries, unconnected to the grid, "just in case." As i recall, disconnecting these then re-connecting them would be expensive.

  3. Las Cruces Sun-News SOUND OFF Friday 26 August:
    “Why should I, as an electric ratepayer, finance Mr. Goodman’s boondoggles on top of his garage. If he wants to have solar, he should pay for it 100 percent.”
    (comment posted w Sun-News but not here. Our neighbor Joan actually spotted it -- and I'm hoping her husband Dave didn't write it!)

    Good question. Thanks for asking it.
    The renewable energy program not only results immediately in the use of cleaner (solar and wind) energy to meet a small amount of our needs now and in the foreseeable future, but it also encourages further development of these technologies and further public interest in them, so that in the longer run more and more businesses and people will be using solar energy for less and less initial cost. The cost to the average rate-payer is apparently less than one cent per month, or about a dime per year. If I did not have solar energy I would happily pay a dime a year to help further development of the technology.
    I can’t tell you what you should do, or approve of. Particularly if you are very old and have no loved ones who will be living much longer, and don’t care about the environment, I can understand your resistance to spending that dime – and if you e-mail me, identifying yourself, I’ll send you back your dime for this year, or buy you a cup of coffee and discuss these matters in person. Your choice.
    If you plan to live awhile, or have kids or grandkids who do, such a minimal expense to take a small but solid step in the right direction might be something you’d not mind doing. You can’t believe that this country’s energy supply isn’t a problem, now and over the next several decades; and you can’t believe that in the long run everyday folks wouldn’t be happy with free solar energy instead of costly electricity from EPE. I’ll be interested to hear in more detail what you do believe.

  4. I'll be asking the question about the disconnect, and I'll relay the approximate expense when I find out. I did talk to one electrician who said there was a pull down lever that would have to be be installed which would disconnect from the grid and that it would be best to install a separate small circuit breaker box with lines dedicated to the things we would want to power. Yes, it's probably expensive, but if the freezer was able to run during the day, it would keep food frozen until the next daylight hours. (and might be worth the cost) We also have a rainwater cistern installed and I would love to have the pump for it powered during an extended outage, though that might be more easily done with a smaller battery backup.

    I saw that 'sound off' rant and I thought, well I've been happily paying about $17 a month for the past few years to make sure the Hueco wind power continues to be viable and so EPE knows that people care where their power comes from. It also would cost EPE far more than 12 cents a KW to bring new energy sources online. The more solar installed and feeding the grid, the longer they can put off doing that.

  5. Thanks for a great post in the Sun-News. Too bad the headline was "Getting off the grid in southern NM", while the article was about your grid tied system. I have a 3.44 kw system from Positive Energy and am really happy with it. I did get a 1099 last year from El Paso Electric for my credits and extra production so I simply started depreciating the system over 5 years based on my cost after federal and state rebates. Have you considered this and has anyone else done this?

  6. Thanks!
    Hadn't thought about depreciation or 1099's until I read your comment. Suspect wisest course will vary from person to person based on situation -- including likelihood of selling house and whether depreciating a portion of home could muck up tax treatment of sale. I'm not an accountant or a tax lawyer, but will let you know if I hear anything helpful.