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Following the sun

Colorado voters expressed their desire for the development of renewable energy resources when they passed Amendment 37 in 2004. Not only did the amendment demand that 3 percent of all the retail electricity that is generated come from renewable sources by 2007, it also mandated that some of the power come from solar energy.Jon Klima, president of Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association, addressed the amendment’s impact on solar energy. “If anything, the amendment stopped people from installing solar units, because federal and state rebates did not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2006,” Klima said.However, over the past few months he has received many inquiries from residential and commercial customers looking for qualified people to install solar systems. Klima said he believes more Colorado residents will take advantage of solar power now that customers are eligible for tax credits and rebates. Between now and Dec. 31, 2007, businesses can receive a tax credit covering 30 percent of the cost of any solar system installed. Homeowners are eligible for a tax credit up to $2,000 per solar system. In addition, Klima said, Colorado public utility companies are offering rebates between $2 and $4 a watt for installing solar power systems.”The rebates make the whole idea of solar energy economically feasible,” Klima said. But he said he worries that rebates may not be high enough to encourage residents to install solar units. Klima said the first year or two of the program will be a test, but under the current tax credit/rebate plan, he does not expect utility companies to be able to meet the requirements for solar power demanded by Amendment 37.Darryl Edwards, manager for member services at Mountain View Electric, said, while his company does not fall under Amendment 37 regulations until the company has 40,000 customers, they promote the use of renewable power by allowing people to purchase green units, which are units of power generated from renewable resources.Edwards also said he has witnessed a negative impact caused by the amendment. “Some of our customers who purchased green units in the past felt they no longer needed to do so once Amendment 37 passed,” Edwards said. He also said that most of the renewable power used by Mountain View comes from wind farms in North Dakota and Wyoming, and solar energy is only a small percentage of renewable power purchased by the company.Jim Fladland, who holds a degree in solar engineering and owns Pro-Solar in Colorado Springs, said the solar energy field has been lagging behind other renewable energy programs since the 1980s, when the federal government ended tax credits and rebates. “In some ways,” Fladland said, “the 1980s program actually hurt solar energy because many fly-by-night firms installed systems that were not efficient.”Fladland said he believes, when it comes to energy needs, customers always respond to a crisis. “Right now we have cheap electricity, but the coal contract for Colorado Springs Utilities is ending next year and prices may be doubling, plus, there is always the negative environmental impact of burning coal.”Under Amendment 37, Fladland said, people have a chance to install mini power plants in their home through the use of photovoltaic panels. He explained that most old solar power systems, like the one he currently has installed on his roof, use thermal power to generate hot water. Storing energy has always been a problem with these systems. With thermal solar units, water had to be stored, and old electric solar units used batteries to store excess electricity.But, with the advent of the space program, reliable photovoltaic systems were developed. Photovoltaic panels generate DC electric power, which is then put through an inverter to generator the AC power needed to run lights and household appliances. Fladland said, “It costs about $10 a watt to install a photovoltaic solar unit.” Good units are warranted for 25 years, so they will provide electricity for many years, he said. Not only do these solar units allow residents to generate their own power, but also the photovoltaic systems let customers participate in net-metering programs, Fladland said.Net-metering means that homeowners can use solar power for their household needs, and, when the unit generates excess power, it is returned to the electric company. Homeowners bills are credited based on the amount of excess energy their system produces throughout the month; thus, decreasing their electric bill.”Large-scale use of solar power is a futuristic concept,” Fladland said. “It will occur as the price of solar technology comes down, and fossil fuel prices go up.” For now, he said, changing people’s mindset so they understand that, if everyone takes care of some of their household energy needs with solar or other renewable energy, “it will mean a few less train cars full of coal going to the power plants.”

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