Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Catching the rays

It would take a lot of solar panels to power the United States – so many, in fact, that they would fill almost 5 million football fields, says a spokesman with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

It’s an area about one-twelfth the size of the Land of Enchantment. Public Service Company of New Mexico’s proposed plan to make solar-power systems cheaper might help reach that goal one rooftop at a time.

The plan – submitted to the state Public Regulation Commission for approval – would allow PNM to pay its customers 11 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy produced by its solar-power system, according to a PNM news release.

Over 12 years, a participating customer would receive about $3,100.

“Photovoltaic (solar-power) systems are still an expensive way to generate electricity,” said Hugh Smith, senior vice president of energy resources with PNM, in a news release. “This program is an innovative way to partner with a substantial segment of our customers to bring solar into the PNM portfolio at a lower cost to PNM, while lowering the cost of a small PV (photovoltaic) system for our customers.”

To meet its power demand, a typical mid-sized U.S. home would need a 3-kilowatt to 5-kilowatt solar-power system that would cost from about $23,250 to $38,750 for materials and installation, said Nick Babic, sales manager at Affordable Solar Group, an Albuquerque seller of solar-power systems around the world.

Despite the cost, Babic said solar-power systems are becoming increasingly popular.

“The industry is still small,” he said, “but it’s still growing at about 30 to 50 percent a year in the last few years.”

He attributes the growth to the rising price of more traditional energy sources and an increasing number of incentives and tax breaks for solar-power systems. A tax incentive in the national energy bill will further motivate people to buy when it goes into effect in 2006, he said.

Ben Luce, chair of the New Mexico Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy, said even more tax credits for solar power are likely to come from the state next year.

He called PNM’s proposed program a “big jump” for solar-power generation in New Mexico.

If the plan is approved, PNM customers would be responsible for buying the solar-power systems and the meter – available from PNM – to measure the energy gathered by the solar-power system, said PNM spokesman Jeff Buell. There would also be a one-time administrative fee of $150 for residential customers, he said.

The proposed plan would join the net metering program, which has PNM crediting its solar-powered customers for any extra energy they return to PNM’s power grid.

Using one typical photovoltaic units per home, it would take anywhere from 558 million to 929 million homes to power the United States. There were about 123 million housing units in the country as of July 2004, and about 826,000 housing units in New Mexico, according to the Census Bureau.

PNM hopes to increase amount of solar generation tied to the PNM grid to 1.2 megawatts within eight years, according a company news release. Building a facility to generate that amount of electricity would cost PNM $7.5 million, whereas buying it from its customers’ solar-power systems would cost $2.8 million, the news release states.

The plan’s hoped-for launch date is March 1, 2006. A similar plan for solar-power systems larger than 10 kilowatts will likely be submitted by PNM to the PRC in early 2006.

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