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[whitespace] Sunnyvale seeks a solar savior

More residents are turning to solar power as energy crisis deepens

Sunnyvale--As Sunnyvale residents continue to face skyrocketing energy rates and the possibility of daily blackouts, many are left with a feeling of helplessness. But a growing number have decided to take power into their own hands--solar power, that is.

The California Energy Commission lists two companies in Sunnyvale that sell and install solar systems--M C Solar Engineering and EcoEnergies. Both have experienced an enormous increase in customers over the last few months.

Mike Clifton, president of 27-year-old M C Solar Engineering, says his company has at least 10 times the amount of customers now as it did three or four months ago.

"People want to get them before summer," he says. "We're a little behind, but we're doing our best."

Although people have traditionally viewed solar energy systems as an expensive commitment with no real payback, the current crisis has shed new light on the issue.

The most common residential power generating system is the photovoltaic system, which uses solar cells to convert sunlight directly into electricity. Residential photovoltaic setups have historically been two to four kilowatt systems, but Clifton says many homeowners are beginning to go bigger--up to five or six kwh.

While prices have dropped to one-tenth of what they were in the 1970s, they're still not cheap. Potential customers may have to give up their hopes of buying a new Ford Mustang to pay for one of the smaller systems--about $20,000. And for a larger system they might have to kiss a new $50,000 E-class Mercedes goodbye. A battery backup that ensures immunity from blackouts will run another $3,000 to $5,000.

But with the energy market the way it is right now, photovoltaic vendors argue they're on the right track.

One advantage for potential customers is the California state-funded Emerging Renewables Buy-Down Program. Through the buy-down program, the state offers significant cash rebates on renewable energy electric-generating systems.

Buyers of new systems are eligible for a rebate of up to $3,000 per kwh or 50 percent off the price of the entire system--whichever is less. A customer who buys a $20,000 three kwh system stands to receive a $9,000 rebate--not quite enough to rekindle hopes for that new Mustang, but it gets better.

During the hours of most intense daylight, most systems will generate more electricity than a single-family house needs--especially when the adults are at work and the kids are at school. When this occurs, the excess electricity is sent back to the utility grid and PG&E credits the homeowner with market value prices for it.

According to Bill AR918 signed by Gov. Gray Davis in September, as of Jan. 1, 2001, customers returning power to the grid now receive "time of use" retail rate as opposed to the "average" rate.

While the average rate is about 11.5 cents per kwh, during summertime, at midday, according to Clifton, prices could rise to 32 cents per kwh. Since the daytime is when most household photovoltaic systems generate excess energy, system owners could, under the new law, receive up to three times more money than they would have before the bill was passed.

"The energy produced by our customers' systems is now a lot more valuable," says Peter Carrie, president of EcoEnergies, of the new legislation.

Carrie concludes the economic potential of a typical solar system is improved by 58 percent as a result of AR918.

So, if the market electricity rates stay high enough for long enough, owners could end up making money from PG&E.
Daniel Hindin

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Web extra to the March 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro.

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