Positive Energy 

Katherine Fichtler wouldn’t trade her solar panels for anything. She still uses them, even after being hooked up to a power line for more than five years.

“When the electricity goes off in town, we don’t even know it,” she says. “We’ll have lights when other people don’t.”

Fichtler is one of many people who have chosen solar energy, or another alternative energy source, over traditional electric power because of the cost. When the Fichtlers first moved into their home eight miles east of Florence in 1988, they could have paid $10,000 for the power company to extend power lines to their property, only a little over one mile away.

Instead, the Fichtlers paid $6,000 for nine solar panels, a bank of batteries and an inverter, which converts the DC solar power to AC. They also purchased a generator to supplement the solar power.

When neighbors moved in nearby and paid to extend power lines to their property, the Fichtlers took advantage of the opportunity and hooked up to the grid.

“Up until recently, renewable energy was for people who lived far away from the power lines,” says Lee Tavenner of Solar Plexus, a renewable energy system store in Missoula.

But that could be changing.

A net metering bill that passed this legislative session, making Montana the 25th state to take part in the trend, allows residents to gain credit for producing their own energy. Residents can generate up to 50 kilowatts from alternative energy sources, with the excess going back into the main utility grid.

When electricity is fed into the grid, the meter runs backwards and the resident receives credit for that energy. So people who use alternative energy could actually reduce their utility fees to zero, though they would still be responsible for any other charges and taxes that appeared on the bill. And residents who produce more energy than they need one month could receive credit on their bill in the following month.

But alternative energy advocates hope that in the future people choose solar, wind or hydroelectric power sources over traditional power lines for another reason: the need for clean energy.

“We don’t produce enough power over the year,” Fichtler says, referring to her solar panels. “In August, we probably generate an overabundance, but nine months out of the year we might not. But if you can put some power back into the system to help conserve—I think that’s great.”

Solar, wind or hydroelectric power are often referred to as “clean” or “environmentally-friendly” because they don’t burn fossil fuels. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), using fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas—to make electricity dirties the air, pollutes water, creates toxic wastes and causes global warming.

“Renewable energy resources can provide many immediate environmental benefits by avoiding these impacts and risks and can help conserve fossil resources for future generations,” states a UCS report titled Seven Ways to Switch America to Renewable Electricity.

Dale Horton, an architect who works with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, agrees that renewable energy is necessary for a healthy environment. Right now, however, renewable energy is not cost-effective for households connected to the utility grid—especially when it comes to solar panels, or photo voltaics.

“Photo voltaics are several times more costly than current energy,” Horton says. “In the Northwest, we have really cheap electricity. It will be a while before you can argue that photo voltaics are as cost effective as electric power.”

But that day may not be far away. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 1.5 million Americans have already invested in solar hot water systems for their homes or businesses, and more than 10,000 homes in the United States are now entirely powered by solar energy. Also, about 200,000 homes use some type of photo voltaic energy. “I remain very optimistic despite current economics that suggest prices need to come down to be competitive,” Horton says. “If we want to take advantage of this clean resource in the future we need to do things now to make it cost effective.”

Fortunately, the net metering law eliminates some of the costs of renewable energy. Residents can purchase solar panels, for example, without buying the expensive batteries that store the energy, since any excess is transferred to the grid.

But the future holds even cheaper alternative energy sources, Horton says. Costs of photo voltaics have dropped dramatically over the last 15 years and costs are expected to continue to fall.

The future also holds new technology that may make it easier to incorporate alternative energy at home. Fuel cells—small, quiet generators that use small amounts of fossil fuels—may become another common on-site source of power. In the future, window pane glass may be able to produce electricity. Already, solar shingles are available. Residents may even be able to choose their power company someday soon, Horton says, allowing “green” power companies to compete with the more traditional ones.

“In the near future, there may be opportunities where we can’t afford to have green power on our house, but we would have the option of getting power from a utility that has a wind generator,” Horton states. “We can look forward in the 10- to 15-year range to good possibilities—green or environmental options.”

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