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[whitespace] Nothing like the sun

Alternative energy sources have become a reality for some residents

Cupertino--If you think that power plants represent archaic, damaging methods of extracting power from the earth, you are not alone. People all over the country have turned to alternative energy providers to combat the environmental and financial ill effects of traditional providers. However, many find the same dissatisfactions with alternative providers as they do with traditional ones, and feel that they have no further options.

However, as many citizens of Cupertino have discovered, all you have to do is look to the stars: specifically our star, the sun. Several Cupertino residents have done just that by installing photovoltaic panels on their roofs which provide power for their homes, as well as feeding power back into the PG&E grid.

William Mannion is the latest resident to put the panels on his roof; however, he has many years of experience with solar power. He had solar water heaters installed on his roof in 1981, and gives them credit for drastically reducing his gas bill.

Mike Clifton, the CEO of MC Solar Engineering and the man responsible for installing Mannion's system, says that the panels can generate 1,000 watts of electricity on a sunny day, and some systems supplying even more. For a homeowner such as Mannion, a retiree, this constitutes more than enough power for his home's daily operations. Daytime electricity use, he says, "is a free ride." Because of this, a special converter attaches to the solar panels that takes the excess electricity and funnels it into the PG&E grid. Clifton says that with a traditional turning meter, "you can actually see the meter spin backwards."

Mannion's decision to put solar panels on his roof grew from his interest in the technology and his desire to help the environment. He expects the system will lower his monthly electricity bill, as well as providing a greater measure of autonomy in the face of frequent blackouts.

In the event of a blackout, Mannion's essential electrical items, such as refrigerators and lights, will remain powered up, and batteries hooked up to the system can provide limited power for other electrical uses. Clifton says that during a recent blackout, one of his customers with a similar system did not even know about the blackout, and learned of it from neighbors curious as to why his lights were working.

PG&E spokesman Scott Blakey warns that photovoltaic electricity "probably isn't for everybody," and that individuals should research the technology before they commit to adding it onto their existing electrical system.

As PG&E implements its proposed rate hikes after the end of the rate freeze, though, photovoltaic systems may require less thought on the part of consumers irate over astronomical electricity bills. Blakey adds that PG&E does not "have any objections to [photovoltaic systems]."

State law requires PG&E to comply with a customer's request to have their photovoltaic systems attached to the PG&E grid.

Several Cupertino residents have added systems similar to Mannion's on their homes. Mary Minow installed her system a year and a half ago, and says that "it's extremely gratifying to go outside and see the meter spin backwards." She believes that solar technology can improve both private residences and public buildings. As a member of the city's library commission, she hopes to put photovoltaic panels on the roof of the new library. "I would love to see public buildings use solar power."

Price can often discourage the use of photovoltaic technology for public and private use. The state's Energy Commission offers cash rebates for people who buy and use renewable energy systems, which can total either $3,000 per kilowatt or 50 percent of the cost, whichever is less.

Even with government assistance, though, the initial expense of solar energy is still high. Photovoltaic systems can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000, but the installation does not take long and the equipment rarely requires maintenance as it does not contain moving parts.

In fact, Clifton says that he has yet to receive a service call for a photovoltaic system. He also says that the price of the technology constantly falls, and a system today goes for one twentieth of the cost of a system twenty years ago.

This fact did not convince Mannion and Minow to wait for lower prices down the line. After all, as Minow notes, "we need to have the early pioneers to buy the equipment and drive the price down."
Kevin Fayle

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Web extra to the September 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro.

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