In what essentially amounts to a big farm of solar panels, St. George homeowners will be able to buy access to the panels for about $6,000 each. Those who buy into the project will get the sun-generated power, as well as an extra incentive for going alternative: A full tax credit, or about 25 percent of the cost of the unit.
The official rollout is set for Oct. 11 at a city-sponsored alternative energy fair. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and other dignitaries have been invited to attend.
“It’s just like breaking ground for a farm, except instead of crops, we’ll have solar panels,” says Phillip Solomon, energy services director for St. George Municipal Power Co.
The city’s decision to dive into solar energy combines logic in taking advantage of the area’s hot and sun-saturated climate, as well as a change in state law regarding tax incentives. Previously, state law allowed the alternative energy tax credit only for homeowners who installed solar panels on their own property. Rep. Bradley Last, R-St. George, sponsored legislation that permits the city utility to build the panels and sell them to customers at a substantial discount via the tax credit. Solomon says the city backed the change in part to appeal to the substantial number of retirees and vacation homeowners in the southwestern corner of Utah.
While the costs seem high on the front end, Solomon says, the city hopes the tax incentive will attract people on fixed incomes who may have trouble paying a contractor to install the panels on their property.
Solar power is becoming a reality in the sunny west. Nellis Air Force base, near Las Vegas, has a solar panel array on 140 acres and sells power to a local utility. The municipal utility of Sacramento, Calif., is helping developers build solar-powered homes by paying down some of the costs of what the builders dub “solar smart homes.” St. George Power is combining the two approaches. The city is building and will maintain the panels but is providing access by selling them to private homeowners.
The city has contracted with a private partner in the venture, Dixie Escalante Electric. The energy cooperative serves about 14,000 customers in southern Utah and northern Arizona. St. George customers, as well as those of Dixie Escalante, will qualify to buy the panels and for the tax credit.
While “going green” is all the rage, solar energy proponents and the companies that sell it concede the alternative power source is land-intensive. The best places for solar farms may be deserts, which have few other uses.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is currently involved in a massive assessment of the environmental impact of solar farms in the Western United States. Solar farm proponents say there is a tradeoff involved. More land is needed to produce solar-powered electricity, relative to the amount of power produced than more traditional, but dirtier ways of producing power, such as coal-fired plants.
The U.S. Department of Energy is projecting that by 2030, solar-powered electricity could supply up to 10 percent of electrical generation, per year—the equivalent of about 180 million barrels of oil. The DOE Website offers that while solar is not cost-competitive with other power sources, “[solar] supplies electricity when and where energy is most limited and most expensive, making a highly valuable and strategic contribution. It does not simply replace some fraction of generation; rather, solar electric power displaces the right portion of the load.”
In other words, solar power can supply enough of our energy needs to make a difference.
The St. George solar farm is somewhat limited in scope. City officials estimate the solar farm will provide about 100 kilowatt-hours. That’s enough power for only about 25 to 30 homes.
The project may not be for everyone, but power company officials hope it will catch on. “The people who will buy the panels are those who are trying to reduce their carbon footprint,” Soloman says. He adds the city will clear enough land to provide up to two megawatts of power.
Meanwhile, other cities are expressing interest in a similar project, he says. “Everyone’s watching us to see how this works out.”