Keeping the lights on: An ongoing report of local power conditions
Uploaded: Tuesday, February 20, 2001 2 p.m.

Fighting back
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 said.

"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 in pollutants.

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 said.

"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 for homeowners?

"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 power, period.

"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 said.

"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."


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