With the Sun in Our Hands

Solar energy is the power of tomorrow. Can we afford it today?


I have not seen this bumper sticker, but surely it exists somewhere, uniting the environmentalist and the evangelist: God wants you to have solar energy. A solid pitch. And it’s hard to argue with the supposition, given the empirical evidence that there is indeed a gleaming ball of fire in the sky.

There is seductive logic to solar energy. Sun power is beautiful, ancient, available, unlimited—an astonishing gift. The Big Bang creates matter as we know it and somehow we, fortunate bastards, wind up with both a planet and an energy source. Picking up on the cue, Bell Laboratories invents the modern photovoltaic cell in 1954, and five decades later we’re still digging for dead dinosaurs. Faith in solar energy, like many ancient faiths, includes a basic assumption that we have been blind and that now we must see.

One can see the light for free. Powering one’s house with it is another matter entirely. Solar energy rewards long-term thinking. If you are buying a house today, and you intend to stay for 30 years, and you do not install solar panels on your roof and roll the cost into the mortgage, a reasonable argument can be made that you are a fool. The problem, and the reason you are not a fool, is that you are already in your house, and you have no idea how long you will remain in it, and you cannot find within you the chutzpah to finance an extra $30,000 at a time when financing the biggest, best and latest has brought the nation to its knees. You are guilty of short-term thinking, but only because you live in an age that punishes hope.

So, enough with you. You are becoming a drag. I will now introduce you to someone who is not a drag, and who, because she is not a drag, will tell me that I cannot afford not to go solar.


Photo by Anthony MairSolar NV President Deidre Radford at the Springs Preserve solar array.

Deidre Radford, the residential solar project manager for Bombard Renewable Energy in Las Vegas, was once the lead singer of an electronic dance music group known as Sipping Soma.

“Soma is the elixir of eternal life for the Hindu gods,” she tells me. “I had been to India, studied some Hindustani vocal music, and that got me into Hindu culture. I lived with an Indian family. I was really into Hinduism for a while.”

As I said, Radford is not a drag. We are driving toward the extreme northwest corner of Las Vegas, toward her clients’ 4,200-square-foot house that, beginning today, when the solar array turned on for the first time, is no longer draining the Valley’s energy grid, but actively contributing its excess energy to it.

Radford drives a Prius, and she drives too fast. “My friend gets 50 miles per gallon in his Prius,” she says. “I get 30. I’m a lead foot. My father was a racecar driver; he drove those little roadsters back in the ’60s. I have the lead-foot gene.” She hands me her cell phone. There is a picture of a green Nissan Leaf, an electric car, on which she has just placed a deposit. She has a solar house. She intends to plug her Leaf into her solar house. That, she says, makes it a solar car.

Wayne and Phyllis Torrey’s neighborhood has gorgeous gates, a marvelous metal sculpture of a spreading oak. The tree opens at the center, allowing us into a sort of a desert nirvana, the place where gluttony and waste have been overcome, but the living’s still fine. The Torreys have done this thing right. They understood that access to the limitless energy of the sun is limited by the number of panels you put on your roof, that more panels mean higher costs, and that the way to go solar on a budget is to make sure, before the first panel goes up, that your habits aren’t wasteful and the house is efficient.

Photo by Greg Blake MillerWayne and Phyllis Torrey, alongside the power meter, celebrate their array’s first day in action.

After eight years in Las Vegas, the Torreys had decided that there had to be a better way to power the house than the smorgasbord of natural gas, oil and coal from which NV Energy generates nearly 90 percent of its electricity. Wayne is a retired telecommunications engineer; he worked for IBM for 25 years, and he knows how to analyze a problem and see when conventional thinking is untenable. “Energy is a fundamental resource we don’t seem to be able to live without, at least not and have a civilized society,” he says. “And yet every form of energy we currently use seems to have a lot of problems associated with it.” Coal pollutes, depends on long-distance vehicular transport, and coal-fired plants suck up prodigious amounts of water. Oil is dirty, geopolitically problematic and finite. Atomic energy generates millennia worth of deadly waste that nobody seems to want to store or figure out how to recycle.

Renewable resources, on the other hand—well, wait a minute. Phyllis knows they can have drawbacks, too. “A long time ago, back in the late ’70s, we lived in the mountains of Colorado,” she says. “And there was a guy right down the hill from us who put up a wind turbine and it was right across the street from our bedroom window. And you could hear that thing running. And then it fell down. So it was very messy and very noisy. Wind was just not quite what we wanted. But this appears to be very clean, quiet, hopefully very reliable. Talk to us a couple years from now.”

The Torreys worked with Radford on the efficiency equation. They switched to fluorescent outdoor lighting, replaced their pool pump and set their thermostats at 83. The most impressive step, though, was their participation in Cool Share, NV Energy’s program that automatically turns off a volunteer home’s air conditioning for a few hours on weekday afternoons to help the Valley’s grid cope with peak power usage. On the surface, it sounds like willful sweating on behalf of the collective. But the well-put-together Torrey home is so effectively pre-cooled by the afternoons that Phyllis barely notices.

Having limited their energy intake and maximized their efficiency, the Torreys were ready to go solar. So they contracted with Bombard for a 10-kilowatt system—the rule of thumb is five kilowatts per 2,000 square feet—applied to NV Energy’s SolarGenerations rebate program, received approval, and stepped into the green future. Today, the south side of the Torreys’ roof has five neat rows of black photovoltaic panels. (The Torreys also have solar thermal pool heating, which uses different technology; photovoltaic electric systems are rarely used for water-heating.)

In an incentive-free world, the system would have cost $78,000 and, the Torreys’ zeal notwithstanding, would never have been purchased. That would have meant fewer jobs for locals who design, market and install rooftop arrays. It would also have meant nearly one million pounds of greenhouse gases expelled into the air over the next 30 years (the estimated life of a zero-emissions solar system). But the Torreys were not living in an incentive-free world. The NV Energy rebate came to $23,000. A 30 percent federal tax credit on the remaining $55,000 will return another $16,500. Total cost for a system that the Torreys expect will eliminate their electricity bills for good: $39,000.


Picture yourself, if you will, as fabulously powerful and utterly indispensible. You are responsible for the well-being of everyone you know, and plenty of people you don’t know. You get them what they need, and at the end of every month, you bill them for it. This makes them angry. What’s more, as you deliver the people what they need, you’re making a mess, and some of the very folks enjoying the stuff you provide think that you’re destroying the world. It has crossed your mind to give it all up, but the government says you owe it to the public to keep at it—just clean up your act, will you?

You, of course, are the local power utility, the loneliest 800-pound gorilla in town.

Whatever your feelings toward NV Energy may be—and you can start writing your letters . . . now—it is, by default, Southern Nevada’s great hope for a sustainable energy future. You can cover your rooftop with photovoltaic panels and put a pole-mounted array in the backyard while you’re at it, but you’re still going to need power at night. Which means that unless you intend to house prohibitively expensive and maintenance-intensive backup batteries, you’re not going to be grid-independent anytime soon.

The Solar Electric Power Association ranks NV Energy third in the nation among utilities for cumulative solar megawatts, a figure that includes both rooftop generation and power generated by large solar plants. NV Energy generates 10 percent of its electricity from renewable resources ranging from biomass to wind to thermal and solar energy. That number will go up. The most recent incarnation of Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, passed by the Legislature in 2009, mandates that NV Energy get 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025, with 6 percent of that power coming specifically from solar energy.

To jumpstart residential solar, the Legislature created the SolarGenerations rebate program in 2003. This year, the program, administered by NV Energy and funded by the Renewable Energy Program charge on your power bill, offered a $2.30 per watt rebate for households that acquired solar arrays. On April 21, NV Energy opened up the next three years’ worth of allotted capacity—13.4 megawatts, with an expenditure cap of $78 million—for rebate applications. Within six hours, the program was oversubscribed. By April 26, more than 1,000 applications had been submitted for a total of 23 megawatts of solar capacity. The SolarGenerations program is now closed for further applications, possibly until 2013, unless the Legislature makes additional capacity available. Meanwhile, 663 of this year’s applications have been approved, and NV Energy has petitioned Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission for permission to approve more.

All those rebates may seem like a burden, but NV Energy knows that rooftop arrays help it meet the Portfolio Standard. It also knows that the Southern Nevada sky is an indispensible commodity. Along with its private rooftop arrays, the region is home to seven major solar plants. (Another, to be built at the Nevada Test Site, was announced this summer.) The largest of the plants is Nevada Solar One, a 64-megawatt solar thermal CSP (Concentrating Solar Power) plant outside Boulder City. Owned by the Spanish energy giant Acciona, the plant spans 400 acres and generates enough energy to power 14,000 homes. While photovoltaic solar—such as the Torreys’ rooftop array—creates electricity from light, CSP solar thermal systems concentrate the sun’s heat on a liquid medium that, in turn, heats water to create steam. The great promise of CSP lies in recent breakthroughs in thermal storage—the storage of heat in any of a range of forms, from molten salt to compressed air—that will allow solar energy to be sequestered for nighttime distribution to the grid. Nevada Solar One, which came online in 2007, is the third-largest CSP plant in the world, but it has only 30 minutes of thermal storage capacity.

Southern Nevada is also home to the second-largest photovoltaic array in North America, the 14.2-megawatt Solar Star system completed at Nellis Air Force Base in 2007. The system has 72,000 panels, and the Air Force expects it to reduce electricity costs by $1 million a year. But in a way, the Nellis array is much like a household one—just for a much bigger household. It’s a plant that fuels its home, and only after home is taken care of does it send its leftovers to the grid.


This brings us back to the Torreys—to their side yard, to be specific, where we are standing beneath a low tree next to the family power meter. The meter looks just like the meter you have on your side yard—dials behind a glass cylinder and a needle to track the energy you’re using and the money you’re hemorrhaging. But there is one difference.

“Look!” Phyllis says. “It’s spinning backward!”

The tacit incentive at the foundation of residential solar—more important than the rebate program and the federal tax credit, which may be politically unsustainable in the long run—is distributed generation. Distributed generation depends on a renewable energy credit system called net metering. In essence, solar households are small power plants that sometimes produce enough energy to power the whole block but other times—nighttimes, cloudy mornings—don’t produce enough to take care of even their own needs. Under net metering, the Torreys draw from the grid when their system is not producing the electricity they need, and give back to the grid when it’s producing more than they need.

Net metering turns that side-yard dial into a market ticker: If the needle’s spinning forward, they’re buyers; if it’s spinning backward, they’re sellers. At the Valley’s peak energy-usage hours—which just happen to be the sunny afternoon hours when solar systems are at their most productive—the Torreys’ system really does help power the neighborhood, and helps NV Energy better manage the kind of demand that can blow out substations and cause blackouts. Under Nevada’s Net Metering Law, passed in 1997 and most recently amended in 2007, NV Energy credits households for the renewable energy they feed back to the grid. The key is to have a large enough system—and to use energy efficiently enough—that the meter spins backward as much as it does forward. If you provide as much energy as you use, you achieve what is called net zero, the sublime condition of receiving a monthly bill from NV Energy that asks only for an $8 grid connection fee. Bad news: NV Energy will not send you a check if your production goes beyond your consumption; your system may pay the power bill, but it won’t make you a profit unless Nevada, like New Jersey, institutes Solar Renewable Energy Credits that can be traded in the marketplace. Good news: The credits NV Energy does offer are like rollover minutes: You can stockpile credits in the sunny-but-cool springtime and they’ll be saved, quite literally, for a rainy day.

Even better news, if you are named Wayne or Phyllis Torrey: If conventional energy prices increase at 5 percent a year, the Torreys’ system will pay for itself in less than 10 years.


Eighteen minutes south of the Torreys, in Summerlin, rows of new homes await green-thinking owners. Villa Trieste is being built by Pulte Homes after consultation with UNLV’s Center for Energy Research. Each home is LEED Platinum-certified. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, the homes are 57 percent more energy efficient than houses merely built to code. And they’re powered in part by the sun: Together with UNLV and NV Energy, Pulte secured a $7 million grant to equip the homes with roof-integrated photovoltaic tiles.

These aren’t your father’s solar panels; they look like flat composite shingles, just a little blacker and shinier, and they’re not perched on your roof; they’re part of your roof. At 1.82 kilowatts, the systems at Villa Trieste are relatively modest and cover a portion of one side—usually the south—of the roof. The tiles are inconspicuous, and would have been even more so if it hadn’t been for the builders’ unfortunate choice of curved red Mediterranean tile for the rest of the roof.

The red tiles, though, are part of the Villa Trieste mystique. Here you can be forward thinking without looking the least bit avant-garde. It’s been a while since sustainability fans realized that capitalism and its cute sibling, consumerism, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon (although recent reports have them heading south), and it was inevitable that ecological consciousness should be rebranded as the new little black dress.

The models have names like Roma, Torino and Venezia, which collide in that peculiar suburban-good-life way with such street names as Morro Vista Drive and Pismo Dunes Court. The countertops here are granite. The Energy Star appliances are stainless steel. The patios of the model homes have little fireplaces and look out at Red Rock hotel-casino. The places seem ideal for the hip young couple with one child and a taste for upscale cocktail culture. But if you cut into the walls—and in one model home Pulte has done just that—you’ll find blown-in cellulose insulation that prevents air seepage and makes the houses efficient before the first solar panel goes up. And on the wall of each house there’s an “EcoConcierge Dashboard”—a digital panel that gives you detailed information of your energy usage throughout the day and allows you to adjust your habits to save money and power.

The homes range from 1,500 to 1,800 square feet, and from $220,000 to $260,000. The community is slated for 185 homes. Forty-five have been completed, and 43 have been sold. The down economy isn’t helping—then again, hard times might increase the allure of low power bills. The Villa Trieste rooftop arrays probably won’t get you to net zero, but on sunny days they will send that needle into reverse. And, even better, the arrays, as part of the house, are rolled into your mortgage—no need to make a financial commitment beyond the purchase of the home itself. There is deep wisdom in such building-integrated photovoltaics: Every house built with this stuff is one less house to retrofit. Unfortunately, the building boom has come and gone.


Robert Boehm, the director of UNLV’s Center for Energy Research and a key adviser in the Villa Trieste project, arrives at UNLV’s solar array on a red bicycle. He pulls his straw hat down low over his eyes, heads out onto the gravel and introduces me to the innards of a solar panel. “Look straight down in there,” he says. “That little black cube is about the size of my fingernail. The sunlight from a fairly big area is being concentrated right onto it. The sunlight falling onto that area is being concentrated by 500 times.” That’s a lot of sun power in one tiny solar cell. Cover a roof with them, or a big piece of Nevada desert, and you start to alter the way we power our lives.

NameRobert Boehm, director of UNLV’s Center for Energy Research.

As a professor of mechanical engineering, Boehm has been fascinated by solar power since its late, lamented 1970s boom. He has seen the promise of solar scuttled by changes in federal philosophy, roller-coaster prices for conventional energy, and the until-recently prohibitive price of household solar panels.

All that seems to be changing. Over the past decade, the push for solar has taken root in state legislatures across the country, so the technology won’t be marginalized by a power shift in Washington, D.C. The cost of conventional energy, meanwhile, doesn’t seem poised to go down anytime soon. And thanks to advances in solar technology, inexpensive thin-film solar cells are bringing down prices that have been kept high by traditional monocrystalline cells, which are highly efficient but expensive to produce. Lastly, increased demand makes a solar economy of scale possible for the first time.

“Solar is one of the few energy sources where prices are clearly coming down,” Boehm says. “The rule of thumb is that when you double production with photovoltaics, price comes down 20 percent.” The goal, Boehm says, is “grid parity,” when the price of photovoltaic solar power is equal to the price of conventional energy. And he says grid parity is coming soon. “The complexion of solar is changing very markedly. It isn’t where it’s dirt cheap yet, but when it is, boy, you’re going to see a lot of it.”


Deidre Radford remembers the beginning of the end of her singing career. It was the summer of 2006, she was visiting Los Angeles, and her friends took her out to the premiere of Chris Paine’s documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? “I was just blown away,” she says. “I was probably cursing out loud and people were probably looking at me funny. After the movie there was a line of electric cars outside the theater, the ones that remained, the ones that were not crushed. And I noticed that on the back of one of the cars there was a license plate that said SUNPWRD. I said to the owner, ‘I don’t understand, I don’t see any solar panels on your vehicle, and he says, ‘No, I have a solar-powered house.’ And it’s like a nuclear bomb went off in my brain. It was like, OK, I got it.”

Radford recovered sufficiently from this epiphany to ask one of the filmmakers how she could get involved, and he later sent her an e-mail linking to the website of Solar NV, the Southern Nevada chapter of the American Solar Energy Society. She volunteered that year for the organization’s Solar Home Tour, and soon after that she was hired by Bombard. She is now the president of Solar NV.

Radford’s experience—from the big metaphors to the sudden alteration of her life—is a classic conversion tale, and when she speaks to a crowd of 29 mostly elderly potential Bombard customers at one of the company’s monthly seminars at the Springs Preserve, she speaks with the authority of the saved.

The questions, though, are practical, almost cranky. Folks want to know how much this stuff is going to cost, and how much it’s going to save. Radford gets it. Global warming chat is off the table. This is not about saving the world, but about saving a buck. And it’s not about us; it’s about me.

But then a woman with pink hair raises her hand.

“Wouldn’t this be great for schools and public buildings?” she says.

“Yes,” Radford says. “And we’re seeing a lot of that because of the stimulus. We’re putting a lot of electricians to work. Which is good, because the Strip is dead.”

Radford has shown her political hand. The conversation, though, returns to dollars and cents. A woman in the third row asks whether Bombard has senior discounts. It does not.

After the seminar, I meet the pink-haired lady next to a recycling bin. Her name is Maggie Mooha. She teaches computer applications at Monaco Middle School. She has lived in Africa and the Philippines. She is a member of the Sierra Club.

“My motivation is 70 percent or more environmental,” Mooha says. “I just think it’s such a waste to have all this sunshine and not to use it. I hate the idea of putting up another coal plant. But because I’m a teacher, I don’t have a lot of money to throw around. The question has never been, ‘What can solar save me?’ but ‘Can I afford it?’ Now that I’ve heard this, I think I can afford it.”

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