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Bright future

Roger Diez

Mayor Bob Crowell calls Carson City “the solar capital of the country.”

Driving around the city, residents and visitors see solar arrays popping up everywhere on rooftops, parking structures and fields.

Why the explosion of solar power in Carson City? An abundance of sunny days is one reason, but the big driver of solar and other renewable energy sources in Carson City is economics. Rebates cover much of the cost and reduce the amount of time needed to achieve a return on the investment.

Doug Olson, renewable energy manager for Briggs Electric in Carson City, says his company does residential and public installations, and is looking at a 10 percent annual increase in business in the next five to 10 years.

Rebates funded by the state through a power-bill surcharge collected through NV Energy make solar installations much more affordable.

“At today’s rates, there is about a 13-year payback on an installation when you figure in the federal 30-percent tax rebate, but with the NV Energy rebates added it comes down to eight years,” said Olson. A five-kilowatt system costs about $25,000 to $30,000 installed and carries a 25-year warranty. Olson said that a typical array provides 1,000 watts of power per square meter, with an average of 5.8 hours of power-producing light per day in Carson City.

The array ties into the customer’s power panel and provides power to the building’s load. When there is excess power, it is fed back to the grid. This process is called “net metering,” which means that when an array is producing excess power and feeding the grid, NV energy buys that power back at the same rate it charges the customer.

In short, the meter sometimes runs backward.

The Carson City School District is a huge proponent of solar power. Mark Korinek, manager of operation services for the School District, says the savings have been impressive.

“We saved about $202,000 in less than a year,” said Korinek of the district’s installations. There are 300-kilowatt systems at each of the two middle schools and the high school, and smaller systems at two elementary schools.

“Our first system, at Seeliger Elementary, cost $5.50 per watt to install, but we got a rebate of $5 per watt from NV Energy. Costs are coming down, and the cost for an additional 50-kilowatt system at Eagle Valley Middle School is $3.45 per watt,” said Korinek.

In addition to the school district, Andy Burnham at Carson City Public Works said the city government has three solar installations totaling 464 kilowatts, paid for with rebates and grants. Burnham estimated an annual savings of $100,000 per year between the solar arrays and LED upgrades to the luminieres at intersections controlled by traffic signals.

Gus Nunez, administrator at the State Public Works Board, said the state’s last rebate amount was $4.70 per watt. His department has installations on the Capitol building, the Legislative Counsel Bureau parking facility, the State Library and Archives, and the Printing Office. The state currently is installing a 100-kilowatt system at the prison on the south end of town.

Chris Chimits, a deputy to Nunez at the Public Works Board, said that the rebates coupled with federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have made their installations economically feasible. The state agency is allocating a portion of the savings from the installations for system maintenance and another portion for continued improvements and new installations.

John Hargrove at NV Energy said that the rebate program established by state law calls for incentive rates to decrease over time. The goal is for solar to become self-supporting by the end of 2021 when the program expires.

To date, participants in the program have installed a total of 3.49 megawatts of solar power in Carson City. Nine school projects, including the school district and Western Nevada College, account for 2.55 megawatts; 12 public projects provide 705 kilowatts; and residential and small business installations add another 232 kilowatts. This total does not include the major portion of the 1.4-megawatt system at the National Guard Armory.

Hargrove went on to say that although there are similar programs in other states, Nevada is very aggressive in promoting solar power.

“There has been dramatic growth in solar in Nevada, and the rebate program has had a big impact on the number of installations,” said Hargrove.