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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Tucson businesses get savvy to solar

    There is certainly no shortage of sun in Tucson.

    The scorching college town spends a third of every year flirting with triple-digit temperatures. It’s only natural for the city to head a nationwide movement toward solar power.

    “”It’s long overdue,”” said Brooklyn Pizza owner and manager Tony Vaccaro.

    The restaurant on Fourth Avenue recently covered its roof in solar panels.

    “”Solar power is an efficient way to make energy. It’s clean energy and there’s no maintenance,”” Vaccaro said.

    According to the owner, solar panels provide about 40 percent of Brooklyn Pizza’s power each month.

    “”Tucson was into solar before solar was cool,”” Bruce Plenk, solar coordinator for the Tucson Energy Office said.

    In 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy named Tucson one of the first 13 “”Solar America Cities””, a number that has increased to 25 cities today.

    A $200,000 federal grant to the City of Tucson accompanied the title to promote increased use of solar-powered technologies. The city matched that number, and the total two-year grant is now worth almost half a million dollars.

    “”What we are trying to do is figure out what the barriers are for government and businesses and individuals to get going with more solar,”” Plenk said.

    The most significant barrier to the advancement of solar power is the whopping price tag for setting up a system.

    “”The cost. That’s pretty much it. There’s no real other negative,”” said Cholla Nicoll, an administrator for The Solar Store, which specializes in sustainable energy solutions. “”It already has gone down on cost, but it’s still not at the level where it’s affordable for most people””

    Plenk agreed, saying, “”The biggest barrier is money because solar is expensive and the city is broke.””

    A photovoltaic solar power system pays for itself by pumping power back into the grid and canceling out the power used. It’s like having a mini power plant at home or work.

    “”Right now, when you buy solar panels, what you’re really doing is you’re buying 25 years of electricity up front,”” said Plenk.

    The problem is it currently takes that long for such a system to pay itself off.

    “”Some manufacturers are saying they are cutting their costs in half over the next three years,”” Denise Smith, director of conservation and renewable programs for Tucson Electric Power, said.

    TEP has implemented SunShare, a program created to curb the effects a photovoltaic system can have on a customer’s wallet. Upfront and performance-based rebates are offered as incentives to encourage the use of solar power.

    “”On average you might see 50 to 60 systems in a year,”” Smith said.

    The City of Tucson also offers a credit of up to $1,000 for building permit fees on any project that includes solar installation.

    Brooklyn Pizza joined the TEP program, and according to their Web site, more than 75 percent of the total system cost was covered by financial incentives including a $30,600 federal tax credit, $10,200 state tax credit, and $36,550 TEP rebate.

    “”If you want to put an addition on your house, you’re going to pay the full price for the building permit. If you put an addition on your house with solar panels on it you just saved yourself a thousand bucks,”” Plenk said.

    Another major barrier hindering the progress of solar power is the storage puzzle.

    “”A big issue right now is storage because obviously the sun doesn’t shine at night,”” Plenk said.

    Finding a solution is a work in progress, with theories involving heating compressed air or heating salt with energy from the sun. Either way the answer is still vague, and technological advancements are needed to efficiently store solar energy.

    “”As people become more aware of the potential for solar, and as the cost for solar goes down, which it is, more and more people are going to be putting up solar panels on their homes and their businesses,”” said Plenk.

    The use of solar technologies as a clean alternative to fossil fuels has increased with the green trend sweeping America.

    “”I think people really do want to help the environment,”” said Smith. “”They want to provide a better world for their kids tomorrow.””

    “”It’s the best way to deal with global warming and reduce greenhouse gases because every time TEP burns a ton of coal, they’re putting out a big chunk of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,”” Plenk said.

    The solar industry is in its infancy, but the question is – will it replace coal and nuclear power?

    “”Maybe it’s never going to replace all the coal plants, but it certainly could replace any nuclear plants we have and any new plants somebody wants to build,”” Plenk said. “”I think it’s crazy right now to think about building any kind of new power plant except a solar plant.””

    Smith realizes the industry has a long way to go, but sees the potential for a new primary source of energy to emerge.

    “”Some very large advances need to be made in the system efficiencies, in the manufacturing process to get the cost down, and in the storage capabilities,”” she said. “”If those three things happen, and we have some sort of technology breakthrough, it’s possible.””

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