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Solar Power: Affordable Alternative Energy (Foster’s)

Sunday November 7, 2010

Foster”s Daily Democrat

By JASON CLAFFEY and JENNIFER KEEFE

For the average person, most forms of alternative energy are out of reach.

Erecting a wind turbine is expensive and may not be worth it if there isn”t enough wind — something the town of Kittery, Maine, found out when it pulled the plug on a $200,000 turbine at the transfer station because it didn”t produce enough energy.

A geothermal system that extracts hot water from hundreds of feet below the surface is expensive, too — costing up to $40,000.

And underwater tidal turbine technology is generally too new for residential use and requires living near water.

Solar technology, however, is cheap, accessible, and reliable.

Just ask Peter Ejarque. He built a solar water heater out of a discarded refrigerator, heater tank, and glass door he found at the dump. He installed water lines and sealed the unit with materials he bought at the hardware store. The whole thing cost him $30. He said it saves him 80 percent in energy costs at his Durham home.

“It might look strange, but it gets the job done,” said Ejarque, a former aerospace engineer who taught himself how to build the contraption.

It works like this: the unit is tilted outside to the south, where the sun shines the strongest. A garden hose fills the tank with water, which is warmed by the sun. A second line shoots the water to an electric water heater in the basement. Because the incoming water is already warm, the electric heater rarely has to turn on before funneling it to taps throughout the house.

Officials generally don”t recommend people build their own solar heaters because of safety reasons, though Ejarque said he”s had no problems with his. But even a commercial solar water heater starts at under $1,000, making it relatively affordable and able to pay for itself in energy savings.

Such a heater is the most cost-effective form of residential solar technology, according to Laura Richardson, a program coordinator for the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.

“There”s a fast payback,” Richardson said.

Solar hot air panels, which cost about the same as solar water heaters, are another option. The panels are mounted on a home and absorb the sun”s rays. A fan that blows the hot air inside.

“It”s free heat,” Richardson said. “It can make a significant difference.”

Solar technology got a huge boost under the stimulus program shepherded in by President Obama. The program set aside about $70 billion for renewable energy projects.

A solar array at Exeter High School received a tax credit through the program.

The system recently came online. It has 465 solar panels that can create about 100 kilowatts of electrical energy.

Nathan Lunney, chief financial officer for the Exeter Region Cooperative School District, said one of the benefits of the project is that it will eventually pay for itself. Through an agreement with the installer, Revolution Energy of Dover, the district will buy the electricity generated by the solar array over the course of 10 years at a price that”s less than what the district would pay without the equipment.

“After 10 years, we”ll own all of that equipment without having to pay for it directly,” Lunney said. “Our savings in the first year is estimated at $20,000, and over 10 years, with the cost of energy rising, we will make a payment to buy energy at about $150,000 each year, but the savings in not having to purchase it elsewhere will be about $20,000 more than that each year.”

And by also coupling the project with the installation of an energy-efficient heating system, Lunney said those savings also will be used to help pay off the solar panels.

The panels are on the ground at the school, a placement Lunney said was specific to make sure students and residents are made aware of the possibilities offered by alternative energy.

“There haven”t really been state incentives here” for these types of projects, he said. “Let”s put it out there where they can see it and let it be a reminder that it”s the right thing to do and it”s doable.”

For this project, Revolution Energy is taking advantage of an incentive built into the stimulus package. The company was able to get a 30 percent tax credit for the materials through the U.S. Department of Energy, and they are able to deduct for the depreciation of that equipment on an accelerated time table.

“The way incentives are right now, there are tax-based incentives we”re able to acquire being a for-profit company that a nonprofit such as a school or municipal entity wouldn”t be able to acquire,” said Mike Behrman, co-founder and principal at Revolution Energy.

“There”s a big need for it,” Behrman said of alternative energy. “We”ve made that shift as a society that we need alternative energy and don”t want to be beholden to other countries that have a lot of volatility. And there are significant economic and environmental benefits.”

Solar panels are made of silicone, and when they absorb radiation, they release electrons that give off electricity. Their output is measured in kilowatts — Behrman said while Exeter”s 465 panels produce 100 kilowatts of electricity, a home typically would have a system that produced 8 to 10 kilowatts.

But Exeter”s system, he added, is only a fraction of what is produced elsewhere in the country, as there are megawatt-scale systems that produce 100 times the output of the school”s array.

Behrman said the Northeast is a “hotbed” for alternative energy, from homes to big corporations, and the benefit for solar power installations is that “the model doesn”t change.”

“The beauty of this is that it (the solar array) just sits there,” he said. “Wind, which is a great resource, can sometimes be a challenge because there are mechanical parts that need to be replaced and can be affected by turbulence. These just sit here. The most you have to do is go out and clean the surface. If it has snow on it, what typically happens is if they”re at an angle, any corner that”s exposed becomes hot and the rest of the panel heats up and the snow slides off. They”re not intensive from a maintenance standpoint. Solar power is almost as simple as you can get as far as alternative energy goes.”

For buyers who are interested in having solar panels installed at a home or business, but are concerned about damage, insurance is available, and there are flexible, durable, silicon-encased panels that are resistant to damage from wind or falling objects.

Also, Behrman said a common misconception is that solar panels won”t be as effective in a cold climate such as in New England, when in fact they are more efficient.

Behrman compared the panels to a computer or other electronic device that become hot when in use but contains a fan to cool it down so electricity can pass more easily through components.

“If the panels are hot, it”s more difficult to send electricity to the electrical panel in the wall to feed electronic devices in the facility, so the actual generating capacity of the panels goes down,” he said. “Because the Southwest has more (sun) exposure, it does receive more solar radiation in an average day than New Hampshire, but when you factor in the decrease in efficiency and the lower electricity rate, it”s more efficient to have a solar panel in New Hampshire than in Arizona.”

One of the largest solar markets in the world is in Ontario, Canada, he said.

“That”s the beauty of solar,” he said. “You get sunshine virtually everywhere.”

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