Uploaded: Tuesday, February 20, 2001 2 p.m.
the lights on:
An ongoing report of local power conditions
Residents, businesses combat energy crisis with solar power
by Marv Snow
In the face of a huge statewide energy crisis, Larry Hassett, owner
of Palo Alto Hardware, is preparing to flip a 6-foot-high electrical
switch to turn on a new solar electrical power plant located on
the roof of his downtown Palo Alto business.
It will be the largest solar installation between San Francisco
and Los Angeles, according to Hassett and his son, Eric, who works
with him on solar systems.
Workers have spent the last several weeks installing the panels
on a specially designed network of steel framing, and the new "green
power" unit is almost ready to go into service. When the plant goes
online Feb. 28, Hassett can watch his power meter rotate backward.
The 32,000 volts the solar panel array generates will enable him
to power his store at 875 Alma St., and put excess power back into
the Palo Alto utility grid for others to use.
The meter will reverse itself at night when he uses standard power.
The Hassetts estimate it will take more than 20 years for the photovoltaic
system to pay for its cost at existing Palo Alto electric-utility
rates. If the store were in a neighboring community served by PG&E,
it would take only about eight years at current rates, Eric Hassett
"Photovoltaic" is the scientific term for solar semiconductors.
Photovoltaic cells (thin slivers of semiconductor material) convert
sunlight directly into electricity. The cells offer high reliability
because there are no moving parts.
Operating costs are low (they do not use any fuel) and there are
obvious environmental benefits. Cell arrays can easily be expanded
in modular fashion, and they don't cost much to construct unless--as
in the Hassetts' case--special designs are required.
The Hassetts' system cost $219,000 to install, but Palo Alto offers
rebates and financial assistance to those putting solar-energy systems.
The Hassetts' rebate check should be about $111,000.
The city's PV Partner Program offers a $4-per-kilowatt rebate to
customers who install qualifying photovoltaic systems. Excluding
Palo Alto Hardware, there are five photovoltaic demonstration sites;
three at private homes, one at Gunn High School and one at the Peninsula
Conservation Center at 3921 East Bayshore Road.
Although the cost for putting in a system can be expensive, the
prices are dropping as more companies enter the field and cost-cutting
technology is developed, Larry Hassett said.
Hassett said that because his roof is not flat, installation called
for special steel framing, driving up costs considerably.
The costs for putting in the systems at the three Palo Alto demonstration
homes ran from a high of $57,000 to a low of just more than $18,000.
The Conservation Center's array cost $33,000 while Gunn High School's
system came in at $43,408 and includes a special "envirometer" installed
in the school to show students power production and the reduction
The Hassetts' impressive array covers most of the roof of the building.
And just down the street is one of Palo Alto utilities' power substations,
where the store's excess electricity will be directed. Larry Hassett
said his system is probably 15 times larger than one that would
be installed at a home.
"This system is designed for a minimum 95 percent (of his power
needs), but we may actually get closer to 100 percent," he said.
Unfortunately, even though Hassett will have his own power source,
rolling blackouts will still affect him. Due to safety and technological
constraints, he will have to shut down the system and go dark, just
like everyone else on his block.
Using alternative energy isn't new for Hassett, who has relied
on solar power to heat the water at his home just off Skyline Boulevard
for the past 25 years. "I've always had an interest in solar," he
"A year ago we were recognized as Santa Clara County's first 'green
business,'" Hassett noted. "This is kind of an extension of that."
Hassett said he initially was interested in using electric vehicles
at the hardware store. But after he was told that electric trucks
would not cut back on pollution--and merely shift the problem from
the vehicle to the power plant--he looked for a better solution.
Hassett decided that solar power could charge the batteries of
an electric truck and cut down on pollutants in the process. "It
doesn't change the environment one way or the other," he said. "You
just charge up the batteries.
Proceeding from that concept, Hassett soon partnered with Siemens
Solar Industries, a business based in Camarillo in Ventura County
that he describes as a major player in the alternative-energy field.
"Looking at the numbers and looking at the city of Palo Alto's
rebate program, we decided it was the right thing to do," even before
the energy crisis hit, he said. "Environmentally it was certainly
the right thing to do."
With the energy crisis dominating the attention of the media, state
government and California residents and businesses, Hassett is even
more convinced made the right business decision by switching to
solar power, because it will get worse before it gets better.
"The power shortage, traditionally, is always in the summer...
when the air conditioners kick on. That is exactly the time when
this system is at its peak power."
Hassett thinks his project is going to create high interest among
businesses, which are being hard hit by increased rates, especially
those who use PG&E. For instance, Hassett said Hewlett-Packard is
interested in his system.
"It would make a lot of sense for them," he said. "They will have
the ability to do projects of such a scale that it would make even
more economic sense."
Hassett is now a representative of Siemens and sells their products.
"We have a lot of systems being installed right now and the phone
is ringing off the hook with inquiries about solar."
Most of the packages he is selling are going to PG&E service areas
such as Brisbane, Fremont, Los Altos Hills and Menlo Park.
"The major utilities have fought the interconnect that small power
producers really needed to make this thing viable," Hassett said.
"They have been kicking and screaming--which is why, I feel, that
solar in California has been set back and not promoted as highly
as it could have been. "The utilities have been dead set against
it and subsequently we've suffered," Hassett said.
With the prices coming down for solar systems, are they now affordable
"They are realistic right now for any PG&E customer," Hassett said,
but in Palo Alto the economics of solar power depends in part upon
whether homeowners do the work themselves or hire someone else.
Hassett said a good part of the expense involves labor costs.
"What we are finding is that people who are do-it-yourselfers are
installing these things and saving $3,000 to $4,000 on installation.
When they do that they have a system that has a substantial cost
payback," he said.
Although Hassett's initial customers were environmentalists, he
is finding his new clients are most interested in having assured
"So the systems we are recommending in both cases are different,"
he said. "We don't recommend a system that requires batteries to
survive offline. It adds lots to the expense."
Hassett said the power shortage has also opened the door to con
artists, guys going from door to door offering to install solar-panel
systems cheaply if they are paid up front.
The best way to avoid scams is to go to a reputable dealer, Hassett
"What gives us credibility in this area is our bricks-and-mortar
building here, and the reputation that this business has had over
the last eight or nine years," he said. Customers "can walk into
my office at any time."