Solar Fiesta Saturday - Fact Finding Mission

It's Saturday, Sept 20th, 13:00 hours. I am on a mission. Before me stands Highland High School. As a veteran APS graduate I have the urge to flee. Instead, I drop $20 for 2 classes and admission to this year's Solar Fiesta.

The SF is like a small carnival where all the games cost $5000, but you can win the ability to survive any upcoming apocalypse in style. Less dramatically, it's where all the renewable energy vendors are showing off their wares, selling services, personal responsibility, carbon credits and greenness. Admission is $5, or free with classes, or free after 4PM. It's running all day Sunday, too.

My interest is simple. In a couple years I expect to buy an electric car. Whether it be a Chrysler Gem, a Chevy Volt or something else, it's going to need electricity. Speaking of something else:

Electricity- lots of electricity. And I'm not the only one who will be plugging my car in to charge it. Lots of people will. Hundreds of thousands- millions. That fact alone suggests the cost of electricity is going to go up. A lot. Soon. I've been thinking about this for a few months and started doing some research on how to keep up. My solution: Incrementally add Photovoltaic panels to my roof as finances allow to offset future costs.

A few weeks ago the helpful people at Affordable Solar put together an expandable system design for me and I'm ready to get started on paperwork. Oh god, paperwork. It's awful. Being engineering minded, it's been easy to get interested in the technical details of designing a system. But getting PNM authorization, state and federal tax credits, rebates, inspections- all the procedural aspects are daunting. That's why I'm here- to find out how to get started.

That's Frank Andazola from PNM preparing to give his presentation. Frank is the Manager of PNM's Photovoltaic Program. After the presentation he is gracious enough to let me pepper him with questions for an extra half hour. Thank you Frank! The most important point, for me, is that I need to start the paperwork process by submitting my plans to PNM. In much of life once you know what direction to face when taking the first step, the whole journey becomes apparent. Everything else follows from PNM's authorization, so now I'm confident I can get through the paperwork with relative ease. Other interesting tidbits:

PNM loves it when people install renewable energy on their premises- it takes load off the grid which means reduced maintenance costs for them.

For every kW I produce, PNM will give me $0.13, even if I use that power myself! PNM is under a legislative mandate to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2020. For that $0.13 they get credit toward 1 kW of that goal and I get free money. They need gigawatts of renewable power, so they're buying it wherever they can get it.

For every kW I produce in excess of what I use, PNM will bank the difference and apply it toward a future month where I come up short. At the end of the year if I'm still running an excess they'll send me a check for the difference at the wholesale rate ($0.05/kW or $0.08/kW, can't recall which).

And of course, for every kW I produce and use, there is no cost, but you probably knew that.

After talking to Frank at length I walk outside and have a green chile burger. One of the funny differences between a carnival and a solar fiesta is that carnivals have cables running this way and that to power things but solar fiestas just have individual solar panel setups powering everything. PNM is pumping out 80s music- a kids play area has solar power RC cars. My burger appears to be propane cooked, but at least they brought it with them. Talk about easy setup and tear-down.

While waiting for the next class I tour the exhibits and talked shop with Glenn (?) at the 310 Solar exhibit. Glenn does installations and he's been a very busy guy with all the work that they're doing. We talk about the travails of putting holes in roofs- he tells me everything I need to know to keep water above my roof while keeping the solar panels attached to it. When you have over 100 square feet of flat surface with an edge pointing into the wind, this is a real concern. At some point I'm going to need a qualified electrician to come out and do the final wiring. After getting such a wealth of information from them I feel morally bound to have them do the work. The people at Affordable Solar suggest them for installation needs, so not only did they recommend themselves today, but they already came recommended.

Next up is the incentives class. It covers both LEED money and solar incentives in the form of Federal and state tax credits (There's another one tomorrow). I had my numbers slightly off previously, so the revised bottom line is this:

The Fed will give me a 30% rebate in my taxes, up to $2000, for residential solar installation. In other words, if I spend $6666.66+ on solar electric (or water), I'll get $2000 back in the form a tax credit. This credit expires at the end of 2008.

The State will give me a 30% rebate on my taxes, up to $9000, for residential solar installation, minus whatever I get from the Fed. In other words, if I spend $36666.66 on a solar electric (or water) system, I'll get both $2000 back from the Fed and $9000 back from the state. That's $11000 back. There's 5 years to use up this credit if I don't have enough state taxes to take it in the course of one year. This credit expires at the end of 2015.

There is no sales tax on any of the parts or labor that go into installing a solar powered system. No tax on panels, inverters, mounting hardware, cabling, installation, nothing.

If I only use a portion of the available state credit, I can add to the system later and continue to receive credits. The $9000 limit is per household, not a one-time shot. That's good because I don't have $36666.66 to spare.

The paperwork for all this is handled after installation and inspection.

After the class I talk to Chris Karsa of Direct Power and Water. They're one of the many local Solar companies. They have their own metal fab and my next door neighbor, who has a number of PV panels on his roof, strongly recommends I give them a shot. Affordable Solar suggests using Unirac, another local company, for flat roofs. DPW will do custom racks for my needs without any roof penetrations at all- instead they use those 4"x8"x16" concrete blocks for ballast. I tell him my plan for a 8'x15' array at 30 degrees- he kindly suggests that the wind loading for that configuration may be too much for either his ballast system, or even any residential roof. Based on his feedback, I'm going to double check the calculations and give him a chance to quote me a competitive system.

It's after 5 and all my questions have been answered. Mission accomplished, I unlock my bike and head home. It's running again tomorrow, but I'll be at the Santa Fe Renaissance Fair.

Views: 16

Comment by Matt on September 20, 2008 at 7:36pm
Great writeup Brendan. It's encouraging to hear that there seems to be plenty of good resources for setting up a solar system. I'm looking forward to when I can take advantage..
Comment by magoo on September 21, 2008 at 7:14am
very informative, Brendan. I'm gonna have to go check this out, thanks for the heads up!
Comment by killbox on September 21, 2008 at 9:32am
This may be the first year in 5 I will miss The Solar Fiesta, Was up on my fee to much yesterday, so my ankles are pretty stiff/arthritic today, But the solar fest usually winds up bumming me out as much as it excites me. as a renter there is very little there for me, Sure i could get a few small panels and power non grid tied things, or go gorilla solar. Some of the Vehicle conversions are interesting, but out of my available free time and price range.
Comment by slamwagon on September 21, 2008 at 10:17am
Thanks for the write-up!

Volt! Volt! Volt!
Comment by Johnny_Mango on September 21, 2008 at 3:15pm
Great report. I was there and am still talking about all the possibilities.
Comment by Carrie on September 28, 2008 at 5:33pm
Hey thanks for covering the fiesta! I was actually working it the whole weekend and didn't get a chance to see any of the exhibitors.

I would say that those who are on the fence about going should definitely do so just for the workshops. The 2008 Solar Fiesta hosted 43 workshops on a range of topics -- green collar jobs, a green jobs forum, many workshops on energy efficiency and reducing your energy use -- design workshops ranging from straw bale design to LEED 101 and Regenerative Architecture. There's something for everyone, even renters!


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