By Colter Hettich, Features Editor
Despite having access to many local resources, West Texans have yet to embrace solar energy.
Robert Little, founder and owner of EFG Mechanical, said he has yet to install any solar panel systems in Abilene.
“I have an average of 400 hits on my Web site every day,” Little said. “Maybe three of them will be from people in Abilene.”
Little, a licensed renewable energy contractor, worked in Iraq for two years and decided he wanted to make a difference when he returned.
Solar energy supports a home using either a grid-tied or battery system.
In the battery system, a panel simply charges a battery. The battery system is preferred for powering single appliances, such as water heaters or air conditioners.
According to Little, water heaters are responsible for 33 percent of the average American homeowner’s electric bill. He encourages using solar panels for air and water heaters and air conditioning because they pay for themselves quicker.
“Most of my customers are interested in helping the environment, but it’s not the driving force,” Little said. “Electricity prices are what’s most important.”
With a life expectancy of 45 years and current electricity prices, a solar panel system will pay for itself in 12 years. But as the price of electricity goes up, the payback time goes down, which means at least 33 years of free, renewable energy.
The other, most popular option, grid-tying, involves wiring the power into the electricity grid so the customer experiences no “blinks” in power. The process is simple: sunlight hits the panel, the panel sends the energy to an inverter, the inverter converts the energy from DC to AC power and that power is sent to a breaker, where it turns the meter backward.
Solar energy technology has developed significantly since its conception, beginning in the 1980s when Trace, now Xantrex, developed an inverter far superior to anything available at the time.
Virgil Kester began selling Trace products in California and moved his business to Abilene 12 years ago. Now his son and grandson work with him at Kester’s Inverters
Because many cities, including Abilene, do not allow wind turbines inside city limits, city dwellers are limited to solar panels. Even with the latest technology, most people cannot afford the expensive panels.
Kester believes the fault lies not with the consumer but with power companies and the government.
According to Kester, the average California home owner gets a 50 percent rebate from the state on whatever they spend on renewable energy for their home. Today, Texas only offers a $2,000 rebate to its citizens, for which not everyone qualifies.
“If the government would give even a 20 percent rebate to Texans, we would be flooded with customers,” Kester said.
Also, grid-tied systems must be approved. Local electric companies (Kester specifically mentioned Taylor Electric) don’t even accept grid-tied systems, though there has been talk of change for the last five years.
Though Abilenians have yet to embrace renewable energy individually, many organizations are making an effort. Kester has already worked with many schools and is in the planning stages with “a fairly large Catholic church” in the area.
“The teaching profession as a whole is doing a good job of teaching the new generation the importance of renewable energy,” Kester said. “Solar panels are real easy for a do-it-yourself kind of person. You can start with a smaller system and add panels whenever you want.”