Homemade energy sparks savings and juices power grid

Unlike most utility customers these days, Thomas Allsopp smiles when he watches his electric meter go around. And why not: Every time the sun shines, the meter goes backward.

Allsopp meets about 80 percent of his electricity demand with solar panels on his south-facing roof. And he is Seattle City Light's first "net metering" customer: His system is hooked up to the power grid and runs his meter backward whenever it makes more power than he uses.

Under state law, Seattle City Light credits Allsopp for the excess power he generates, at the same retail rate that it bills him.

By generating his own electricity, Allsopp reduces his bills. He also helps out the utility, the environment and the community by providing electricity to the grid from a renewable, nonpolluting source: the sun.

Better still, the power is generated at some peak-use times, when the sun is out, which is just when the power grid needs it most.

Net metering offers alternative energy generators of all kinds — from solar to wind — the best of both worlds: They can make their own power, and the sunny, windy and wet days help pay for the cloudy, calm and dry ones:

Solar, hydro and wind power or fuel cells are all eligible as generating sources for net metering under Washington's law, enacted in 1998.

"I feel great about it," Allsopp said of his setup. "It's an environmental thing to be more energy-independent, and to create energy and not use it."

Allsopp says he paid about $8,200 for his system, including installation. It can produce about 1.5 kilowatts and is built of interlocking silicon panels that cover the south-facing roof.

Even on a rainy, dark day, the system produces a little power. Installed Aug. 26, the system soaked up so much sun that Allsopp's electrical meter didn't budge for another month. With the onset of fall, his energy production has dropped, but Allsopp has still used only 9 kilowatts since Sept. 27. The average household uses 20 kilowatts a day.

Open House

Thomas Allsopp's house at 801 N.E. 75th St. in Seattle will be open to the public for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow as part of the National Tour of Solar Homes. For information about the tours, call 206-706-1931 or see www.pugetsoundsolar.com.
He doesn't use much power

Now for full disclosure: Allsopp lives alone. His hot water and heating system are fired by natural gas. He has an electric stove but rarely cooks. He unplugs appliances activated with a remote control; otherwise, they draw a "phantom load," using as much power as if switched on all the time.

So his electrical use is very low.

A total of 34 states, including every state in the Northwest, has a net-metering policy. Washington state also just sweetened the solar pot, passing a law this year that drops sales tax on the equipment and labor for installation of small solar systems.

Some states do more: Oregon allows a deeper tax incentive, provides technical support through its energy office and exempts home solar-energy systems from property-tax assessments.

Some see the possibility for much greater use of solar energy, even in the Puget Sound region, with its infamously murky climate.

"We are squandering an opportunity," said Mike Nelson of Western Sun Cooperative, a consortium of 27 Northwest public-utility companies that provide solar systems at cost.

Only about 150 kilowatts of power are produced with solar energy in the Northwest — a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the total energy consumed.

An additional 50 kilowatts of solar power are under construction by Energy Northwest at Hanford, the largest single installation anywhere in the region.

Solar power remains costly

Cost continues to be the barrier to wider use of solar power, said Jeff King, senior resource analyst at the Northwest Power Planning Council. King said, "It's just incredibly expensive."

Solar power costs about 20 cents a kilowatt-hour, compared with Seattle City Light's 6.5-cent average residential rate.

The difference is due in part to the infrastructure costs. The homeowner bears all the cost of a home solar system, while a homeowner plugging into the grid enjoys an existing infrastructure paid for by all customers.

There also are hidden costs associated with conventional power: dead salmon, polluted air or degraded and ruined landscapes.

Solar power, by contrast, "is about the cleanest energy you can imagine," King said.

And costs are expected to come down: Production of the collecting cells is becoming more mechanized, and a boom in solar power elsewhere, especially in Germany and Japan, will drive further innovation and economies of scale.

Lynda V. Mapes can be reached at 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.