Solar industry slowly carving niche in Utah

Thursday , August 14, 2014 - 1:20 PM

By JESUS LOPEZ JR.
Standard-Examiner staff

The sun is there, in the sky, every day. It bathes the Earth in so much energy, at least when it is shining, that most of it goes to waste.

For decades, scientists, businesses and consumers have worked to harness that energy. Utah, with its prime location in the Southwestern United States, is a great place to do it.

“You can pinpoint a couple of places,” said Jeffrey Barrett, assistant director of the Utah Office of Energy Development. “We have a good one here in Utah.”

Barrett said the federal government recognized the region, especially areas within the national parks, for that use.

“They know that Utah has great solar potential,” Barrett said. “We are on the cusp of solar activity.”

Yet at this time in Utah, this technology is being used only on a small scale. The industry in the state is also limited to installation. And right now, there is not a solar technology manufacturing industry in Utah.

Although Southern Utah has many places perfect for solar farms, most of the solar panels in the Beehive State are going up on private homes and businesses. A few customers install solar because they live in areas away from the grid. The rest either want to save on their electric bill or do their part for the environment.

Aside from the obvious upfront expense of materials and installation, a big reason more do not invest in personal alternative energy is because utility costs in Utah are relatively cheap.



Coal is still an inexpensive form of energy.

But recent tax incentives from the federal and state governments have made purchasing solar panels a viable alternative.

Ken Gardner, owner of Gardner Engineering, provides alternative energy services including solar, wind and hydroelectric.

Originally a civil engineer, he retired, sold his company and started work in alternative energy.

He is enjoying seeing the market mature.

“It is in its infancy, and it’s just going to continue to grow from what I’ve seen,” Gardner said.

At the moment, Gardner said, people who install solar panels can get about half the cost back in rebates.

Customers can get a 25 percent tax credit for up to $2,000 from the state of Utah, and the federal government is offering a 30 percent federal tax credit, which does not have a limit.

Synergy Power owner and board member of the Utah Solar Energy Association, Chad Hofheins has used the tax credits and some grants to help several schools and nonprofits install solar panels.

With the solar panels, these groups save on their utility bills and promote the use of solar energy

“It’s becoming a strong investment for those nonprofit companies,” Hofheins said.

That has generated interest among individuals and businesses.

According to new analysis by the Worldwatch Institute, solar power installations have increased to a new annual record in the United States.

Across the region, Gardner said, his company is making a new installation every day.

But even with the tax incentives, use of solar power in Utah is not as cost-effective as in California or Texas. Because of their higher energy costs, these regions have invested heavily into solar and other alternative energies.

But Gardner said the price will not always be low in Utah, and as the price of energy increases, those with solar panels will save more money.

“The cost of energy is low in Utah, but that is changing,” Gardner said. “In another five to six years, it is going to be more expensive.”

Barrett said that could be the case, then again many factors could influence the cost of various forms of energy in the future, such as the cost of transportation or the loss of government incentives and subsidies.

Solar equipment also allows people to own rather than rent their energy, Hofheins said.

“It’s an obvious return on your investment,” Hofheins said. “You’re always having to pay for energy; why not keep that money in your pocket?”

Although most solar projects are on rooftops of businesses, homes, schools or state buildings, solar farms may be around the corner.

Last March, Rocky Mountain Power announced plans to build a solar farm in Southern Utah, which will provide enough electricity for 500 homes.

Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen said the company has also received requests for long-term contracts from other solar developers in the state for larger solar projects.

“We’ve been working with developers on those contracts and, based on the developers’ plans, they would be built for completion in 2016 and 2017,” Eskelsen said.

With all of the interest, solar will continue to grow in the state.

But though solar is a clean energy option, it will never completely take over for other forms of energy. The sun shines only during the day and its effectiveness depends on weather or season, but it can be a valuable addition to a robust energy portfolio.

“I think it’s all very exciting,” Barrett said. “It’s an exciting trend, and Utah has one of the best resources for solar in the country.”

Contact Jesus Lopez Jr. at 801-625-4239 or jlopez@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @jesuslopezSE and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/JesusLopezSE.

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