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Plugging in to sun's power

Plugging in to sun's power

Newark, UD have plenty of solar panel potential

The News Journal

In a new sign of solar energy's burgeoning clout, a study has concluded that Newark and the University of Delaware could affordably tap rooftop sunlight for more than three-quarters of daytime power needs using readily available equipment and financing.

The finding appeared in a study dubbed "Creating a Solar City," led by the university's Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP).

Using maps and aerial photos, researchers found thousands of Newark-area rooftop surfaces suitable for solar panel grids. By conservative standards, the combined areas could generate as much 96.4 megawatts, displacing up to 76.3 percent of city and university daytime consumption, and 32 percent of 24-hour average needs.

"We made it clear in the report that the potential is there," said John Byrne, CEEP director. "The project is financeable. It's cost-effective to do in Newark. Whether you can do it on the scale of the United States is another question." The study's authors recommended small steps initially, although the overall venture was described as "well within the ability" of residents, businesses and the university. Installation of 10 megawatts over the next five years, about 10 percent of the potential envisioned in the study, would meet Newark's share of Delaware's current minimum solar energy target for the year 2019.

"If people went to even modest energy conservation, plus solar, what the study points out is that it's well within the grasp of most cities to be self-sustaining," said Ken Becker, a financial expert and solar company founder who reviewed the report. Use of a third-party installer or utility would shield residents and businesses from up-front financing costs, he added.

The center study was the latest in a series of looks at renewable energy options, an effort sponsored by the Public Service Commission and state public advocate. Past studies have looked at everything from solar power for poultry houses to more-aggressive use of energy conservation contracts for government buildings.

Delaware -- ranked eighth nationwide last year based on per-capita installations of solar photovoltaic systems -- has seen a recent surge in solar projects and proposals. The rush led to cutbacks in utility rebate programs, prompted by worries that a years-long backlog for payments would only worsen as solar demand grows.

High public rebates and tax credits, supportive state policies and spillover from New Jersey's huge solar electricity installation market all have contributed to Delaware's standing, officials said. The state's small size also distorts its ranking, however, with a 10 megawatt project noticeably increasing Delaware's per-capita use.

Recent major installation proposals include a planned 10 megawatt solar farm in east Dover that would supply 2.3 percent of the capital city's needs, with a possibility of additional output from adjacent industrial rooftops. The University of Delaware earlier this year announced a 6 megawatt minimum solar goal under its plan to to reduce the greenhouse gas toll of its energy consumption.

Across the country, solar projects made up 13 percent of all utility company generating proposals this year, up from 6 percent in 2008, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group.

"It's real. It works. The technology is out there. It's off-the-shelf," said Monique Hanis, spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association. "In the Mid-Atlantic states, it's very plausible."

Newark Electric Department director Sam Sneeringer was less bullish.

"It will be a long time before you could get everyone on. I don't know how it would work when it gets to the point where everyone has a system," Sneeringer said.

Newark Councilman Stu Markham, who had an energy-saving geothermal heating and cooling system installed in his home last year, said he wanted to know more about the findings. A city-sponsored rebate program to support solar and other clean energy investments, he said, already has a several year backlog.

"Certainly we're interested in solar and other alternative energy sources," Markham said, adding that he was speaking only as one council member. "But we don't have the money to invest right now. We have a severely tight budget."

Patricia J. Brill, a retired nurse and longtime resident of Nottingham Manor, said she supports pursuit of clean energy, but wants more questions asked.

"I'm all for anything that can save energy, but I live in a very densely shaded neighborhood, and people like trees here," Brill said. "I'd love to see it, and if we can make it work, I'm totally for it, but I'd want to know more about how practical it is in Delaware."

The CEEP report noted that its calculations were based only on rooftops and surfaces with the best exposures to sunlight. Potential electricity yields could prove even higher if solar panels are installed in other workable but less than perfect areas.

A full-on solar rooftop campaign, the report cautioned, could swamp current subsidy programs, driving down the value of renewable energy credits. Those credits are bought and sold by utilities, helping to hold down the final price of solar installations.

At current rates, typical solar rigs for individual homes could cost from $10,890 to $17,626, with paybacks ranging from 7.5 to 12.5 years, depending on subsidy rates. A large-scale, 250 kilowatt commercial system could cost as much as $516,000, but would pay for itself in 5.5 to 8 years.

Brian C. Yerger, a consultant and analyst with AERCA Advisors in Wilmington who evaluated the CEEP report, said the fact that the financing worked out means the Newark project is feasible.

"It was financeable. That obviously goes a long way to making it practical and realistic," he said.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, said the idea should be explored.

"If we can get the investment money for the initial solar installation, it would have two benefits -- it would save money in the long run and it would provide another way to separate us from dependency on fossil fuels," Kowalko said.

State law currently obliges utilities to gradually increase use of solar, with a goal of covering 2 percent of needs through sunlight by 2019 -- or about 175 megawatts for all suppliers combined across the state.

Newark's share of the 2019 solar renewable goal would be about 10 megawatts, based on the city's portion of Delaware's population, the study noted. Local officials could start out with 10 megawatts, half the size of Dover's announced project, and gradually expand.

"If city planning embraced such goals for its own building stock, a 10 megawatt distributed solar power plant would serve nearly 10 percent of the community's daylight hours electricity needs," the report noted.

The state's new Sustainable Energy Utility, Byrne said, is seeking proposals for "sustainable community" renewable energy ventures that bundle individual proposals.

The bundling approach could make it easier for owners of a large block of large commercial buildings or farming groups to jointly invest in rooftop solar, wind or geothermal energy projects and qualify for subsidies.

State farm organizations already have shown interest in bundled or cooperative efforts to put wind and solar rigs around cropland or other idle property.

Scott Johnson, co-founder of Wilmington-based SolarDock, said that renewable energy and solar prospects are changing fast.

The Department of Energy has estimated that solar now accounts for less than 1 percent of the state's overall production, and will remain too costly for large, utility scale use.

Byrne said that the race to develop plug-in hybrid electric vehicles like those envisioned for Fisker Automotive's Boxwood Road plant could mean more markets for solar.

Carport-type charging stations equipped with rooftop panels could be deployed to give a daytime shot of juice to car users who otherwise would have to find a plug-in station or wait for overnight charge-ups.

Yerger, the financial adviser, said that hitching Newark to sunlight on a large scale could prove tricky.

"You'd have to have a lot of people on board," Yerger said. "But these projects are eminently more viable on a smaller scale."