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SOLAR POWER HEATING UP INTEREST INCREASING AS ELECTRICITY RATES RISE.

Byline: Jesse Hiestand Staff Writer

California's energy crisis has sparked sudden interest in solar power by homeowners desperate to cut costs and avoid threatened blackouts.

Before deregulation threw the utility industry into turmoil, GO Solar Company in Sylmar got less than one inquiry a month about residential solar systems.

Now owner Graham Owen fields about 12 calls a day and twice as many e-mails.

``In the last couple of weeks there seems to be more concern that the electrical grid will go down and next summer there will be brownouts and blackouts,'' Owen said.

Unlike traditional solar users looking to heat their pool, water heater or trim the monthly bill, many of those now considering sun-generated electricity want to pay the extra $3,000 for a battery bank to keep the juice flowing in a blackout, he said.

Woodland Hills-based Utility Power Group of Japanese electronics manufacturer Kyocera Solar Inc. said it is getting about four times as many calls as usual about photo-voltaic systems, the industry standard.

``Some people are really irate and want to do something to get back at the utilities,'' said project manager Gilbert Duran. ``The one beauty to this is the high level of stability. Once you've paid for the system you don't have to worry about rising utility costs. You're basically buying all your electricity now.''

That cost is still relatively high for power generation hindered by shade, overcast skies and roof orientation.

Pool heating systems start at $3,500. Arrays of rooftop solar panels capable of generating 1 kilowatt of electricity cost at least $7,500 even with the solar panels now costing about one-third of what they did a decade ago, Owen said.

Still, the average household requires two to four times that much power, meaning a $30,000 system to save about $15 per month for each kilowatt of power generated, he said.

``How many years until you generate enough electricity to offset the investment? It's 20 years at least,'' Owen said.

Other solar companies say the cost savings can come in as little as three years, but most solar systems are sold not as an alternative to a utility power but as a contentious move to help the environment.

There is sudden interest in solar power across the region, especially in areas served by Southern California Edison, one of the state's three big investor-owned utilities that say they will go bankrupt if they cannot raise rates dramatically.

``People just want to save money,'' said Eddie Dombrowski, officer manager of Stanley Louis Company, a Redondo-Beach solar firm with customers from Ventura County to Orange County. ``They've seen the increase and say, 'Why should we have to pay for that?' ''

Further fueling the interest in solar power are incentives from the California Energy Commission and, locally, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Since 1998, the state has installed 333 systems, mostly for residential customers who get reimbursed $3 per watt or 50 percent of the capital costs. This is available to customers of Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric Company and San Diego Gas & Electric.

``In the last week or so we've seen a surge in interest mainly from small residential customers that want to protect themselves against the price spikes,'' said Marwan Masri, manager of CEC's renewable energy program.

Los Angeles' DWP has a solar incentive program that went into effect Sept. 1 and offers a rebate of $3 to $5 per watt, the latter if the equipment used is manufactured in the city.

That can cut the cost of a solar system by more than half, said DWP spokesman Walter Ziesel.

State deregulation of the electricity market required the DWP to set aside money for such programs, which Ziesel said the utility pays for through internal cost cutting, not higher rates.

``It enables you to have clean power, guarantees against future fuel increases, lowers the monthly cost on electricity and the excess comes back into the system,'' Ziesel said.

Solar energy can actually benefit the utilities because excess power from the solar cells flows back into the grid through the homeowners' fuse box, actually causing the meter to run backward.

For that reason, solar power is cut off when the power grid has a blackout because utility workers could get electrocuted.

Solar battery banks use special power panels to keep power running to the house when there is a blackout.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 9, 2001
Words:730
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