Sunday, August 10, 2008

Colorado shines in the solar rush

Original Article

Joe Gierlach, a local resident, walks past
his solar panels at his mountain home in
Nederland, Colarado. Kevin Maloney for
The National

Boulder, Colorado // Joe Gierlach checks his electricity meter every morning to see how much power he has used. By evening, the metre is running backwards thanks to the electricity generated by his home.

Since Mr Gierlach became one of the first residents in his rural community in the Rocky Mountains to install solar panels on his roof three years ago, his family has changed its lifestyle.

“We’ve switched light bulbs, watched how much hot water we use and my wife now hangs the washing on the line and doesn’t use the dryer,” he said.

“Our solar system is tied to the grid and designed for 85 per cent usage. We hit equilibrium between how much we generate and use in April and November, and make a lot more in the summer and live off the credit given by the power company during the winter.”

Heightened ecological awareness and supportive policies by the state have made Colorado a leader in renewable energy in the US, standing in stark contrast to political bickering by many in the federal government in Washington.

Many residents are rushing to install solar panels before the end of this year, when federal production and investment tax incentives run out because Congress has been unable to pass a new bill this year for all the bipartisan stalling.

Energy independence has become an increasingly important issue in the presidential campaign, with both Barack Obama, the presumptive Democrat candidate, and John McCain, his Republican counterpart, promising to help US residents ease the pain of high oil prices. But solar advocates said the industry is suffering in the meantime.

“It’s pretty crazy that Congress is not extending the tax credits because of its inability to put aside bipartisan politics,” said Brad Collins, executive director of the American Solar Energy Society, which is based in Colorado and groups scientists, engineers and other professionals in the solar field.

“In the end, the tax credits will be reinstated, perhaps next year, but the big projects and plants are on hold. The solar industry has suffered for many years from start-and-stop policies whereas big oil still gets tax breaks and it’s a commercial industry. They’re putting up barriers to growth in renewable energy.”

Colorado is a vast state dominated by the dramatic Rockies overlooking the plains with only about five million people and as many as 300 days of sunshine a year. It is the fourth-biggest producer of solar energy after California, New Jersey and Nevada, Mr Collins said.

Boulder, in particular, is dominated by professionals with a green conscience, peopled as it is by professors from the University of Colorado and scientists from the many laboratories there, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We moved here to live near the glacier and get fresh water and clean air,” Mr Gierlach said. “A lot of scientists who study the weather live here too, so everyone’s got a neighbour who works in that area.”

In 2004, Colorado’s citizens were the first in the US to initiate and vote on a renewable electricity standard, which required 10 per cent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2015. This goal is expected to be met this year so the legislature doubled it to 20 per cent by 2020.

“There is a clean energy revolution under way in Colorado,” Ken Salazar, Colorado’s Democratic senator, said this year. “Anchored by pre-eminent renewable energy research institutions … Colorado is quickly making itself into the renewable energy capital of the world.”

Solar companies operating in Boulder and the nearby mountains said they are rushing to finish installations before the expiration of the tax credits, which in Colorado are supplemented by subsidies from local utility companies. Mr Gierlach, for example, only paid US$27,000 (Dh100,000) for a solar system worth $74,000, thanks to a $2,000 federal tax credit and a $45,000 rebate from Xcel, a Colorado electricity utility. The rebates are paid for by a levy of 50 cents per month paid by every Xcel customer under the 2004 renewable electricity standard.

The system was installed by Lighthouse Solar, a Boulder-based engineering company, which said it was twice as busy as last year because of increased demand.

“People are hearing about the incentives ending and it’s creating additional demand even though solar is still unaffordable for the average middle-class American,” said Colin Lantz, vice-president for sales and marketing. “The average system costs around $20,000 – less than a Prius hybrid car and more than a washing machine. We need the tax incentives to get the industry to the point where the price is financially feasible.”

Colorado will also be home to the GEOs Neighbourhood, about 250 sustainable homes the developer said would be the largest, net-zero energy community in the United States. GEOs, a smaller version of the zero-carbon Masdar neighbourhood planned in Abu Dhabi, will be powered by geothermal and solar energy; rain gardens will reduce the need for irrigation.

BP Solar is a strategic partner.

“The only zero-carbon developments in the US are custom-built homes costing around $1 million where people organise an architect themselves. That won’t have any impact on reducing the carbon footprint of the American people. Our homes will be affordable and cost between $200,000 and $600,000,” said Norbert Kleibl, the master developer of GEOs.

After reaching the conclusion that the world had reached peak oil production, the Austrian-born Mr Kleibl, a petrochemical engineer by training, developed the self-sustainable Virgin Cove resort in the Solomon Islands a couple of years ago.

“Overall, wind power might be more important, but solar can be decentralised and put in places where you can’t install wind machines,” he said. “I like to have energy on site without power lines.”

Meanwhile, voters in November might hope for a greater commitment to renewable energy, but many analysts and industry observers said the US has a long way to go.

“We still have the edge on pure research but we don’t do such a good job making it commercial,” said Peter Lilienthal, a former scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado who runs his own consultancy.

“We need consistent incentives to develop the industry.

“On and off again policies, like we’ve seen since the 1980s, are what I call sabotage.”

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