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Environmental group urges solar energy for new homes

Rep. Lucy Mason, R-1, talks to a half-dozen reporters about legislation she has sponsored to promote solar and other renewable energies. She is joined by Tom Alston of American Solar Electric (left) and Erik Magnuson of Environment Arizona, which sponsored the news conference on the Senate lawn. (Photo by Bill Coates)

Solar-energy proponents are targeting new home construction as a way to make Arizona more energy independent.

With Arizona’s rate of growth, homes using solar energy could quickly become part of the landscape, said Erik Magnuson, program associate for Environment Arizona, in a news conference Jan. 25 on the Senate lawn.

With 213,000 people moving into Arizona each year, Magnuson said, “the state is in a great position to install solar-powered water heaters.”

Environment Arizona is associated with the Arizona Public Interest Research Group, a think tank that takes on social and economics issues, in additional to environmental matters.

Magnuson was joined briefly by Rep. Lucy Mason, R-1, who is sponsoring some 20 bills that promote renewable-energy use and greater energy efficiency.

In addition to solar-powered water heaters, Magnuson’s group is also pushing for more homes and businesses to install solar-energy systems. They don’t just heat water. They convert sunlight into electricity.

One panel could power five light bulbs, Tom Alston of American Solar Electric said after the news conference.

With a large solar-energy system, the home can generate more power than it needs. While a home might draw electricity off the grid on high-usage days – like when the air conditioner is going full blast – it pumps extra electricity back into the grid when solar panels generate more electricity than needed. The meter actually runs backward, Alston said. The consumer then gets a credit from the utility.

A report released in conjunction with the news conference said a small system retailing for more than $18,000 could generate a third of an average home’s electricity consumption. According to Arizona Commerce Department surveys, cited in the Environment Arizona report, the actual cost to homeowners would be half that amount – given rebates and tax breaks accorded for installing solar-energy systems.

The cost of electricity from the smaller system is about equal to what the large utilities charge, the report said.

The report adds solar power is becoming more competitive with “conventional energy generation.”

Mason told a half-dozen or reporters that conservations with fellow lawmakers has given her encouragement about the prospects for passage of her proposed energy legislation.

“I think we’re going to have a good year,” Mason said.

Even with existing laws, homeowners’ associations are an obstacle to homeowners who want to put solar water-heating panels on their roofs, said Michael Neary of the Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association.

“We still have homeowners’ associations routinely denying solar-heating systems applications – and this has to stop,” Nearly said.

For one thing, he said, prohibiting installation of solar panels is against the law.

Besides energy independence, solar energy use could help reduce pollution and greenhouse gases, supporters say. And, according to a recent state Commerce Department report, developing solar energy in Arizona could create thousands of jobs.

Magnuson said his group is not pushing for the Legislature to mandate that all new homes include solar-heating systems – at least not this session. He said it was a long-term goal, however.

The Corporation Commission has voted to require that by 2025 utilities must generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources.

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