Local Home Is Solar Pioneer
The pretty house on North Ridge Street in Southern Pines doesn't look like a power plant. But it does make electricity from the sun.
As near as anyone can tell, the camellia-studded residence at 165 N. Ridge St. is the first photovoltaic (PV) solar electric-generating power plant in Moore County.
"I don't know of anyone else with a PV system of any kind in the area," said Jon Parsons, executive director of Sustainable Sandhills. "I know some folks thinking of it, but nobody's made the jump until now."
Sustainable Sandhills is a non-profit organization that works with eight North Carolina counties, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and Fort Bragg to promote regional sustainability.
The house and its 12 solar PV panels belong to Dr. Stephen and Roberta King and will produce up to 2.4 kilowatts each sunny hour. Because their system will ultimately feed back into the community's electrical "grid," the N.C. Utilities Commission requires all grid-tied systems to register and be approved as independent power plants.
Statewide, the Kings' panels are among the vanguard, according to a spokesperson for the Utilities Commission. Only 35 to 40 such PV-grid connections in the state are currently approved. This does not include an unknown number of PV systems for private, "off-grid" electrical generation. Such installations do not need certification from the state.
The Kings' system has been approved by the commission and is awaiting its final connection. The panels convert sun into electrical energy, charging a battery backup device called the GridPoint System before sending the excess power through a meter and into Progress Energy's electrical lines.
In the same month that the Kings' solar PV system is slated to come online, a bill was introduced in the N.C. House of Representatives that will require North Carolina utilities to meet 20 percent of the state's energy demand with renewable energy and efficiency measures by 2021. An energy bill also was introduced in the state Senate.
'Small Power Producer'
Having lived through several ice storms in which electrical power was interrupted, the Kings had been looking at options for backup power for their home.
"For years I have wanted to add a PV system to our house, but until recently considered the cost prohibitive," said Dr. King. "This year, I learned about the GridPoint system in an article and realized that I could easily incorporate a PV system with backup power and a grid inter-tie."
Southern Energy Management of Raleigh designed and installed the Kings' system.
Currently, North Carolina has the best tax incentives for renewable energy in the nation, offering a 35 percent tax credit on top on a 30 percent federal tax credit for a system such as the Kings'.
"I knew about some of the state/federal tax incentives," said Dr. King, "but then I learned that I could become a 'small power producer' to realize even greater tax advantages."
The Kings will continue to purchase their household electricity from Progress Energy at normal rates at the same time they are paid a premium -- more than twice the retail price -- for their clean power by another organization, N.C. GreenPower, an independent, nonprofit organization established to encourage the early adaptors of renewable energy.
The organization, says Bob Kingery of Southern Energy Management, is basically a matchmaker.
"It matches people willing to pay $4 a month more on their power bills to buy blocks of renewable energy with the generators of clean energy," Kingery says. "The Kings will be generators."
Saves on Mortgage
Many factors entered into the family's decision to go solar, said Dr. King -- "partial energy independence; backup power without a noisy, polluting generator; the environmental benefits of producing green power; doing a small part to reduce dependence on foreign oil; and tax incentives that allow the system to pay for itself in five to seven years, by my calculations."
Kingery of Southern Energy Management says King's payback calculation is exceptional; current PV systems generally recoup their initial costs in 12 to 13 years, depending on energy usage and solar exposure. The PV side of solar is changing rapidly as the industry faces increased global demand, evolving technologies such as thin film collectors and a worldwide shortage of the silicon used in PV cells to convert sunlight into electrical energy.
A more common use of solar energy is domestic hot water heating, a mature technology that hasn't changed much since the 1970s. Payback is also quicker, taking six or seven years for a family of four at today's electric rates, says Kingery.
Also a simpler system, domestic solar water heating is thermal rather than electrical. Water is heated by pumping an antifreeze solution to two panels, where the solution is warmed by the sun and returned to a heat-exchanging tank. Such systems have backup heating for cloudy stretches. Domestic hot-water installations are popular and even commonplace in such disparate countries as Austria, China, Israel, Germany and Greece.
Domestic water heating is only beginning to make inroads in this area, a fact that puzzles some solar enthusiasts.
"If you add a new solar water heater to your mortgage," says Kingery, "it saves you more every month than it adds to your mortgage."
Domestic water heating is akin to solar pool heating, though the latter is simpler yet. Pool heating systems circulate water instead of antifreeze, do not use a heat-exchanging tank and are designed to be drained in freezing weather. Pool heaters are ineligible for some tax credits.
Robert and Bonnie Dougherty of Southern Pines swim for health reasons and are installing a solar pool heater this month.
"I want to extend my swimming for as many months of the year as we possibly can," said Bonnie Dougherty. "The way our house is constructed (facing south), we have the opportunity to really use solar energy to heat the water."
Solar Interest Increasing
Rising local interest in solar energy delights enthusiasts such as Parsons of Sustainable Sandhills. Last fall, he said, he was scrambling to find just two examples of solar or renewable energy so that Moore County could participate in the National Solar Tour -- and one of those systems, a geothermal/sun-room combination, dated from the early 1980s.
"We were not able to find a single solar electric system," said Parsons. "We're thrilled to hear that there is one in Southern Pines, and we hope for a couple more before the 2007 tour this fall." (The tour will be Oct. 6, 2007; the Web site is http://www.ases.org/tour.)
The Kings feel sure that others in the area will follow their suit.
"While doing research into different systems in preparation for this investment," said Dr. King, "I came to the conclusion that the renewable energy production market is close to reaching a critical mass that will result in widespread adoption of these technologies."
Such a shift will prove beneficial not only for the environment but for business, he believes.
"The Wall Street Journal and other business publications have documented that business leaders and major capital investors are pouring money into energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies," said Dr. King, "recognizing that these new technologies are not only good for the global environment and for our country's national security, but also represent an opportunity for American companies."
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