Sports car or enhanced roof?

November 5, 2010 • Local News

Betty Ann Heck wanted a Ford Mustang convertible. She ended up with an electric car and an enhanced roof. Surprisingly, she’s pleased. The convertible, she explains, would have lost money as soon as she drove it off the lot. Instead, the electric car gets her around. And her roof remodeling? It will pay her.

Betty Ann and husband, Jerry, purchased a solar array for their East Monterrey Drive home. This Wednesday, three Positive Energy Solar Electric Systems workers began installing their 20 solar panels. By the weekend, assuming the sunny forecast holds up, the Hecks will begin profiting from their purchase.

Heck, an Army reservist who will deploy to Iraq for the third time later this month, says, thanks to generous tax incentives, he expects the solar array to pay for itself after nine years. And the contract he signed with Xcel Energy, the parent company of his utility, will pay him for generating the renewable energy source through 2024.

In addition to its economic benefits, the Hecks were inspired by their desire to “unplug” from the grid. While everyone might not feel the urge to achieve self-sufficiency, Jerry considers the project “doable” for the [auth] average Joe (no offense, Joes) and encourages others to follow suit. But is installing a solar array actually feasible for a broad cross-section of the populace?

Let’s investigate the Hecks’ experience closer to find out. This spring, Jerry started researching his options intensively. “Originally, it was kind of difficult,” he admits. The tough economy made obtaining financing difficult, and he found that the “vast majority” of solar panel installers were outof- state. A tour of a solar project in Albuquerque convinced him and his wife to go with Positive Energy.

Then they decided on a 4.3-kilowatt rooftop array — a typical size for a residential project according to Claudia Cavel, Positive Energy’s sales manager — that would cost $40,000. That number might scare most people away, no matter the benefits. However, in addition to a 75 percent saving on their energy bills, a 40 percent tax credit — 30 percent from the feds and 10 percent from New Mexico — made the up-front price more palatable.

The Hecks will reap profits from their utility company, too. They will earn 20 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity their panels produce, more than double what they pay. Over the course of a year, those payments will add up to $1,300. Wes Reeves, an Xcel spokesman, refers to Solar Rewards, the program through which the Hecks and more than a dozen other New Mexicans are getting paid to generate electricity with their solar panels, as a “partnership.”

Southeast New Mexico customers can offset energy costs, make money and do something good for the environment — the Hecks’ solar system will save 11,100 lbs. of carbon dioxide and 3,200 gallons of water — while helping Xcel meet New Mexico’s renewable energy standards, he says. (In 2011, New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Act, which currently requires utilities to generate 5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, will require utility companies to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, of which solar must provide at least 20 percent.) Heck insists that the process, with Positive Energy and Xcel, was easy.

When a few hiccups did arise, a quick request for help smoothed things over. Were he to do it all over again, though, he would do a couple of things differently. For one, he’d start by looking for solar energy contractors in a New Mexico phone book to filter out all of the national companies that dominated his first Internet searches.

He’d consider pursuing other means of financing, maybe even a cash advance on a credit card, too. Also, Reeves made a strong case for customers to move on their solar projects sooner rather than later. He pointed out that the lucrative 20-cent rate the Hecks are earning would drop to 13 cents in 2011. Applications for systems received by Dec. 31 could qualify for the higher rate, depending on their size.

Heck doesn’t want to come across as a crusader, but he does think that the solar industry is a burgeoning one. “It’s going to get easier and easier,” he says. Positive Energy’s Cavel, who points out that New Mexico is among the top three states in solar energy received, summarizes the feeling of all those involved: “It is an excellent financial choice, as well as an environmental choice.” And, in between rides in her electric car, Betty Ann echoes that sentiment. “It’s good for the Earth,” she begins.

“It’s good for the environment. It’s the right thing to do.”

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