City Seeks to be “Solar Capital of the Universe”

The sun is relentless in the high desert town of Lancaster, California.  This city, with a population of just over 150,000 people, is located about an hour north of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley region.  It is the home of Edwards Air Force Base, where space shuttles have often landed long after the speed of sound was first broken by Chuck Yeager.

The city’s mayor, Rex Parris, wants to capitalize on the abundance of solar energy, and has launched a campaign to be the first city to produce more electricity from solar energy than the town consumes on a daily basis.  With 39 megawatts already installed and 50 MW under construction, this will “only” require an additional 126 MW of solar capacity to meet that goal.

To help you understand the magnitude of this feat, a single megawatt would require the installation of approximately 4000 solar modules.  To achieve their goal, Lancaster residents will need to install solar on rooftops, parking lots, and fields with over 860,000 panels, all aimed at the southern sky to absorb the bounteous sunlight and convert it into clean energy.  To further their goal, city officials passed a law requiring that all new homes be built with a minimum amount of solar, and worked with home builders to help realize that vision.

While the deserts of California and Arizona are among the richest sources of sunlight on the planet, the Midwest also has a generous amount of solar irradiation.  In order for solar to be cost effective, two of three things are needed:  1) good solar irradiation, 2) high energy prices, and/or 3) strong financial incentives.  Missouri has good solar irradiation but relatively low energy costs.  However, we have what is now the best solar rebate in the nation.  This, combined with the 30% federal tax credit, makes solar very affordable.

Best Solar Rebate in the Nation

The solar rebate is offered by investor-owned utilities in Missouri, including Ameren and KCP&L.  When it was originally implemented, the rebate represented only about 25% of the cost of a typical solar array.  However, a sharp decline in prices has made the rebate worth as much as 2/3 of the cost of an array for commercial customers, and often as much as half of a residential installation.  The $2 per watt rebate is capped at $50,000, but most homes are limited by their available south-facing roof space.

Many people have no idea how big a typical array is, or how much electricity can be produced.  In fact, most people don’t even know how much electricity they consume on an annual basis.  So here are some typical numbers:  An average 2,000 sq. ft. home uses about 12,000 kilowatt hours per year, which typically costs an average of 10 cents per kWh.  (The rate is higher in the summer months.)  A moderate-sized solar array with a power rating of 5,000 watts (about 20 solar modules, each roughly 18 sq. ft.) can produce over 7,200 kWh of energy if optimally positioned and configured, or 60% of a typical home’s annual need.  However, with minor investments in energy efficiency and conservation, the average demand can be reduced by 20-30%, resulting in an even higher solar offset.  A larger array or reduction in demand could enable a home to be “net-zero” – or produce as much energy as consumed.

While pricing will certainly vary, the 5 kilowatt example above might cost around $20,000.  The utility rebate would return $10,000, and the 30% tax credit would reduce the cost by another $6,000.  So the net cost could only be $4,000 plus the income tax on the utility rebate.

Given how much the Missouri utility rebate offsets the cost, the rebate is highly likely to be cut back starting in 2014.  So if you’re interested in installing solar, you should act quickly.  We may never be able to accomplish what Lancaster residents hope to achieve, but we can all strive to take advantage of the abundant solar energy in our corner of the universe.

This was published in the Going Green section of the May 2013 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine.

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