Energy adviser: Take a long view in terms of renewable energies

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Imagine living free off the grid, tapping the sun and the wind to generate your own power, selling it back to the utility company, shrinking your environmental footprint to size 0. You feel great about your positive impact on the world. Unfortunately, neither sunshine nor wind is very predictable in Clark County and the reality of living in the Pacific Northwest seems to trump your dream.

But wait. Even though alternative energy depends upon unpredictable resources, resorting to renewable and alternative energy isn't out of the question. Twenty new alternative energy installations have been added in Clark County during 2013, bringing the countywide total to 114 solar, eight wind-generated and two micro hydro renewable systems.

The driving force is tax credits. With a federal tax credit expiring in 2016, incentives lapsing in 2020, and the state incentive program ending four years later, many local homeowners are calling Clark Public Utilities' energy counselors with questions on renewable energy.

"For anyone wanting to take advantage of the tax credits and incentives that shorten the payback time on renewable projects, now's a good time to start," said Sam Walker, who administers alternative energy programs for Clark Public Utilities.

"Homeowners just have to lower any expectation of free energy," said Walker. "For anyone pursuing a renewable energy project, we recommend a careful step-by-step process to determine if a renewable energy project is right before they invest in any expensive equipment for their home."

When homeowners ask about alternative energy projects, Walker queries them about completing energy-efficiency measures first — adding a heat pump, CFL or LED light bulbs, energy efficient appliances, good insulation, weatherization and windows. "It makes the most sense to have a home energy analysis and install the lower-cost energy efficient measures and then you have a real shot at lowering your utility bill by later adding an alternative energy project," said Walker.

Expensive equipment

The cost of a renewable energy system includes expensive equipment -- solar collectors or a wind generator, inverters to create alternating current and, if you do not tie the system into the utility's electric system or to a load center in your home such as with a solar water heater, you may need batteries to store the system's output. Generators with lower outputs can push investment costs up even more.

To complete a project requires many steps and each step needs to be documented. To help, the utility has built a process checklist covering each step including submitting an electrical design, a site plan and nonrefundable fees ranging from $100 to $500 that need to be paid based on the system's kilowatt production. Written approval from the utility must also be in hand before any work can start, Walker said.

Once the project is installed and ready for operation, applicants must submit a certificate of completion to the utility. Then the utility checks the electrical production and installs a production meter. Depending on size, the utility charges a meter fee of $250 to $500. You can learn more about the process at www.clarkpublicutilities.com, the utility's website.

To further decrease utility bills, renewable energy customers can tap into the "net metering" program by connecting their generating system directly to the utility's electric system. By doing so, they can gain credit whenever their generation exceeds their consumption from the utility — usually during the summer season.

Customers considering the move to renewable energy should first contact Walker by email at swalker@clarkpud.com or phone at 360-992-3354.

"People don't just do this because it's the right thing to do. They're doing it because it's a good long-term financial decision." Walker said. "With existing incentives, you can expect a decent payback of seven to 10 years on these projects."


Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.