Solar power coming to the Top of Utah

Monday , April 20, 2015 - 6:56 AM

OGDEN — Just in time for Earth Day, Weber State University is announcing a partnership with Utah Clean Energy to bring more solar power to northern Utah.

The university will bring the Susie Hulet Community Solar Program to Morgan, Weber and Davis counties this summer, with a streamlined process for installing panels, a discounted price and vetted installers. It’s modeled after the University of Utah’s U Community Solar, which brought solar panels to 380 Salt Lake and Davis homes in 2014.

Northern Utah has fewer homes and more low-income houses, but statistician Kim Wheatley, who also chairs the the community solar program’s outreach committee, ran the numbers. He’d like to see between 117 and 150 homes with new solar panels this year. 

“If we can get 150, I’ll be delighted,” he said. 

Utah Clean Energy, a non-profit alternative energy advocacy group, has worked on similar community outreach programs to bring solar energy to households since 2012. Solar Project Coordinator Kate Bowman said partnering with universities helps amplify their efforts.

“The university has a huge reach,” she said. “They’re already a big voice for the community, and someone the community looks to for all sorts of things.”

Weber State’s new Sustainability Practices and Research Center, or SPARC, would like to channel the success of the Salt Lake program up north.

“We are a state that has a heavy reliance on fossil-fuel based electricity generation, but are very well suited geographically to a variety of renewable energy options, especially solar power, that place a far less heavy burden on the physical environment and human health in terms of impact,” said Alice Mulder, SPARC director and a professor of geography, in a statement.

SPARC’s Susie Hulet Community Solar Program is named in honor of the late Susie Hulet, a local sustainablility advocate at Weber State. The program will be the center’s first big sustainability public outreach initiative. It will also follow the same model as the U Community Solar program.

First, steering committees made of local residents and university staff will select one or two solar panel contractors for the installations.

Then, beginning May 28, the committee will host a number of public workshops providing more information on the logistics of solar power and panel installation. Interested homeowners can then fill out an online questionnaire about their electricity use and their home’s sun exposure. A contractor can then come out for a site visit and provide a cost estimate.

The streamlined process eliminates some of the barriers that come with solar panel shopping. Homeowners don’t have to worry about whether they’re getting a good deal, a good product or a good contractor, Bowman said.

“Participants can know they’re working with a vetted installer that their peers have chosen,” Bowman said. “We simplify the process from start to finish with an understandable step-by-step process to make it easier for people. And by getting a bunch of people to install solar collectively, the is committee able to negotiate a volume discount.”

Homes with solar panels can still draw electricity from the grid when it’s dark or cloudy. Rocky Mountain Power customers can also “loan” power back to the grid, when they’re not home or not using much electricity. The homeowner will then get a credit for that shared energy.

“Then when you get home, maybe when it’s dark out, you can use the credits you banked up during the day to offset your electricity bill,” Bowman said.

According to Bowman’s research, Morgan, Weber and Davis counties currently have 152 homes with solar panels and a Rocky Mountain Power connection.

Wheatley, chairman of the community solar program outreach committee, explained how the SPARC solar program can make a local impact.

“First it’s never happened, and secondly … we don’t have that many homes with solar, so there’s lots of opportunity,” he said. “And third, the timing’s right.”

The timing’s good, Wheatley said, because solar technology has come a long way in the last few years. It’s more efficient and it’s more affordable. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the average price of a solar panel has dropped 63 percent since 2010.

“I always say, people who looked at solar three years ago should look again, because the price is going to be significantly cheaper,” Bowman said.

There are also incentives to install solar. The federal government offers a 30 percent credit on solar installation expenses, which can be deducted from a homeowner’s federal tax bill. There’s also a state tax rebate of 25 percent with a cap of $2,000. Bowman said those incentives end up covering about half of the overall installation, meaning the average home can install a solar system for around $5,000 to $7,500.

The federal incentive is set to expire in 2016, however, and SPARC’s Susie Hulet Community Solar Program program will only last through Oct. 1. In the meantime, Wheatley said the committee will be amping up their efforts to educate local homeowners about the benefits of going solar.

“We’ve looked at a lot of research, mostly done in California, on who’s likely to do this, and it’s basically Democrats who drive Priuses,” he said. “We know getting people energized here is a real challenge, but we’re taking up that challenge.“

More information is available at weberstatesolar.org.

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