Utahns slow to be energized by solar panels
July 8, 2007
Solar energy is popular in Europe where fuel prices are exorbitant. A form of solar energy is also popular in Mexico, where even the most conservative house is likely to have a black, gravity-fed water heater on the roof, absorbing plentiful Mexican sunshine at no cost.
With costs of fossil fuels rising and concerns about greenhouse gasses leading to global warming and federal and state tax rebates available for alternative energy systems, why are solar panels rarely seen in the United States, especially on homes and businesses in Park City, a town that prides itself on reducing its global footprint?
Rod Hyatt, whose business ‘In Hot Water,’ has provided solar water heating systems since 1990 in Park City and around the state, has expanded his business to providing solar panels for an array of alternative energy applications. He sees the main impediment to solar panel use as "a lack of public awareness of what’s out there."
Initial costs of the systems, aesthetics and the need for reserve power as a supplement, can also dissuade potential buyers. Although a 4×8-foot solar panel may cost $1,000, setting up the infrastructure accounts for the major cost of a system, Hayatt said.
Hyatt said the average cost of a solar hot water system is about $7,500, half of which can be recovered from state and federal alternative energy rebates, deducted at tax time. He said his business even fills out the rebate paperwork for customers. But the upfront cost is still considerably more than a conventional electric or gas water heating system. Hyatt said that over time though, the solar system will pay for itself, and "gives the owner self sufficiency along with the peace of mind of treating the planet better."
Solar panels to some are an eyesore, but not to Hyatt, who said the shiny black grid panels can be "quite attractive."
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Condo complexes and housing developments with covenants have been slow to accept solar panels, which can interfere with the uniformity of a complex or obstruct views of nearby owners. Panels have to face south or southwest, limiting placement options. Some panels can revolve with the orientation of the sun to maximize sun exposure. For those who find panels unattractive, solar panels in the form of roofing tiles are in the early stages of development.
Hyatt said a typical hot water system can handle 70-80 percent of hot water needs in the Utah climate. A regular gas or water kicks in if supply is unable to meet demand.
He said solar panels can used to heat swimming pools, with a pool 30 feet by 20 feet requiring about 10 four by eight-foot solar panels to heat the pool. "Solar panels will handle about 90 percent of the heating during summer months."
Hyatt also said radiant floor heating with tubing built into a concrete sub floor and powered by solar panels is popular in higher-end homes and green homes.
He is frustrated with a Utah mentality, which he calls "cardboard homes lined in gold," lacking proper insulation and energy efficiency, but he said that is not the case in Park City. "I have a lot of admiration for the Park City building department," he said. "They’re forcing people to build to a higher standard."
Hans Cerny, an architect with Jack Johnson Company in Park City, said, "We don’t get a lot of requests for panels. Initially we get people asking for green design, but they get caught up in cost. They don’t see the value associated with the cost. They want to see a return in savings right away, and geothermal heating saves money over a longer time. We do get a lot of requests for passive energy efficiency, like the orientation of the building so it can capture sun and hold heat."
"Our society hasn’t accepted green architecture as fully as it could, but we’re getting there. Absolutely."
Bradley Zane, the president and owner and president of Bonded Electric, includes the installation of solar panels in his business. He has operations in Park City and San Louis Obispo, California. He said solar panels are "picking up steam, given the global environment."
He compared the heavy use of solar panels in California with the sparse use in Utah. "California has high energy costs," he said. "Also people are environmentally aware. And, he said, California provides tremendous tax incentives. Power companies also buy back excess solar energy consumers produce.
Zane, like Hyatt, sees a major problem of getting word out about solar panels. "The marketing is not here in Park City. You have to ask for it to find it."
In Europe they are dead serious about global warming, Zane said.
"They use solar, wind, and France and Germany are going nuclear. The U.S. is the only one who is not moving away from a petroleum-based economy."
For more information visit http://www.utsolar.org