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Planet Main
In This Section
pdf September/October 2006
e-mail June 30, 2006
e-mail April 28, 2006


Studying for the Midterms
Renewables in Action
Just Transition
Blue and Green in Ohio
Battle of Blair Mountain, Again
Unseating an Environmental Foe
Gaining Ground
America's Wild Legacy
Car Talk, Sierra Club Style
Sierra Club Insider
Who We Are:
Loyd Cortez
Christine Williamson
Erica Langenbahn


Sewage 101
States Take Lead on Mercury, Global Warming
I Want My MPG
Postcard from Puerto Rico
The Birdman of Baghdad
Advocate for Safe Weapons Disposal Honored
Stop I-3
Family Planning Key to Sustainable Future
Sierra Club Insider
Who We Are
Ken Smokoska
Larry and Vicki Patton
Claudia Hilligoss
Search for a Story
Back Issues

The Planet
Renewables in Action

Spicy Businessman Goes Solar

Ralph Maltese, a McCormick Spices employee from Santa Cruz, California, installed an array of solar panels in his yard just before Christmas 2004. “We had a modest chunk of money and we didn’t know where to invest it because the economy was lousy at the time. I’d studied solar energy in college and business school and I wanted to do something good with the money.”

They put in a 2,500-watt system, which originally cost $23,000, but dropped to half that after rebates and tax credits, and they expect to pay it off in 14 years. He says the payback time is where a lot of people get cold feet, but he views it as a long-term investment, like a bond where you get back a certain amount every year.

Their annual electricity bill used to be $900 a year, now it’s a little more than $100 -- that’s a 10 percent annual savings, about 6.9 percent after taxes.

Because of the way Pacific Gas & Electric charges for electricity based on when you use it, they try to limit their electricity use during the day – at peak solar collecting hours – so they get the maximum credit.
“At peak hours in summer, we maximize how much we send to PG&E at 30 cents per kilowatt hour. When we buy electricity at night, we pay around 9 cents per kilowatt hour. Plus direct conversion from solar to electricity right on the spot is much more efficient than if the electricity had to be shipped to us, so we’re saving energy as well as money.”

Maltese says maintenance is minimal – four times a year he spends half an hour washing the collectors. There are no moving parts, just a fuse in that prevents a voltage spike from damaging the equipment. Maltese’s son Jesse and daughter Maia monitor the system regularly, reporting to the family how many kilowatt hours it’s generated. “We feel we’re doing something good, and we’re teaching our kids something in the process.”


Gene Coan's home solar project
Gene Coan shows off the solar project on his carport and house in Palo Alto, California. He recently installed a new 3.0 kW solar electric system.

Two Decades of Solar Success

Gene Coan, a staffer in the Sierra Club's national headquarters in San Francisco who lives about 40 miles south in Palo Alto, has enjoyed solar water heat and a solar greenhouse to partly heat his house for more than 20 years. Now he's updated it with a new 3.0 kW solar electric system.

"The solar hot water system is entirely separate," says Coan. "It generates about half the required hot water for the house. The solar electric system is brand new, and Palo Alto, which owns its own utilities, does net metering. For the last two summer months, I've generated more electricity than I've used."

Coan explains that there are complications and trade-offs to be taken into account. First, a system needs to be sized to fit the electricity used by a house given reasonable projections for conservation.

"My system generates a maximum of 3 kW. A friend of mine has a system that generates about 3.2 kW, but he has two kids and heavy simultaneous use of 2-3 computers," he says.

Secondly, not every house has roof slopes that are optimal for the solar panels. He has some panels that are on roof slopes that are just right; the rest had to be on a carport roof, which then required frames to tilt them to the correct angles. That costs a bit more.

Also, depending on the roof, some additional costs to hire roofers to seal where the frames join the roof may be needed, Coan says. Finally, it may be necessary to remove some vegetation--even whole trees that are in the wrong place, which can be a sad trade-off.

"My system became operational towards the end of summer," says Coan. "From mid-August to mid-September. 2006, my meter ran backwards, whereas during the same period in 2005, the electricity cost me $27 (remember, city-owned utilities, thus less than the average in this area, plus maximum conservation already in place). The next month, I earned $13 selling electricity back to the city, whereas the previous year it cost $33."

When Coan turned his system on, he had friends over for a "solar party."

"It was a great excuse for a barbecue last summer," he says.

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