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Tapping the sun
by Gary Kent
Mar 26, 2011 | 1902 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The sun beats down on a balmy March day on the solar panels that adorn the southern side of the roofs of Al and Kay Past’s home and garage. The panels generate electricity that is sent back to the San Patricio Electric Cooperative’s electric grid. Past said that the savings are nice but she really appreciates doing her part for the environment.
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There are no blades turning in the wind, no paddles being driven by the flow of water, no humming generators sending valuable electricity into the wires at Al and Kay Past’s house.

But when the Pasts drive down the caliche lane to their Mexican hacienda in the hills northwest of Beeville, they see shining panels on the roof and smile. Those panels are reducing their electric bill.

They are letting the sun generate electricity and doing their small part toward cleaning their beloved corner of the planet.

“During the summer when the sun was beating down so hard, I figured why waste all this,” Kay Past said last week as she sat in the big room at the family’s home.

Certainly, nobody appreciates the power of the summer sun more than someone living in South Texas. At the Past home, the water in the cistern out back gets so hot in the summer, people can get a warm shower without having to turn the hot water spigot.

Kay said she had been looking at the prospect of using solar cells to generate electricity for some time. But it was when she spoke to a consultant at the Dudley T. Dougherty Conference Center at the San Domingo Ranch near Beeville that she began to realize her dream.

The consultant gave her the names of two companies in Texas which specialize in solar electricity. One was in Houston and the other was located in Austin.

After talking to representatives of each firm and learning that the price for the system would be about the same, she chose Meridian Solar of Austin, simply because that company’s representatives had better answers for her questions.

“A man came to evaluate the site and determine the number of panels we’d need,” Kay said.

Using a special scope while perched on the roof of the house and garage, the specialist evaluated the shadows in relation to the different times of the year and figured out the best placement for solar panels.

“We have to trim the wisteria,” Kay said. But the installation required no special trimming of the vegetation.

Like Russell Graham, the retired engineer who builds his own wind generators to supplement his energy needs south of Beeville, the Pasts were the first customers of the San Patricio Electric Co-op to become co-generators. They had the first-ever solar panels.

“We had some money to spend,” Kay said. And she and Al had decided that they wanted to invest the funds in helping to improve the environment.

It cost the Pasts about $33,000 to have the system installed. But they will receive an $11,000 tax credit from the government this year, bringing the investment to a little more than $20,000.

Currently, the system is not saving the Pasts much money, even though the panels often send electricity back into San Patricio’s electric grid.

The company charges them an extra $12 a month just to figure out their monthly bill. Then the Pasts pay the company seven cents a kilowatt hour for the electricity they use from the grid. But San Patricio only pays the Pasts a little less than three cents a kilowatt hour that the Pasts send to the grid.

A fancy metering system at the back of the house keeps up with that they use and what they send back to the company.

“But even so, you can see we cut our electrical usage,” Kay said as she went over the figures she has been keeping since the system was installed in March 2010.

“Last July, we cut our usage in half. In August, it was down about a third,” Kay said.

The Pasts have had a swimming pool built on the property and running the pump for that has increased the monthly bill some. But they like to run the pump on sunny days to save money.

“We’re cutting our usage in half,” Kay said. But she admitted that she and Al have been careful about how they use air conditioning and other amenities around the house.

Monthly electric bills can still run about $300 during the summer.

“We knew we’d never be able to make it pay in the summer months,” Kay said.

Although the system generates electricity, even on cloudy days, the length of the days and the number of clouds in the sky make a difference. On a long, rainy day the system will generate only about eight kilowatts of electricity. But on a long, hot, summer day the system will generate 31-32 kilowatts.

On Sept. 19, 2010, the rainiest day of the year, the system generated only two kilowatts.

“One of the other great advantages of solar is that it has no moving parts,” Kay said. “There’s not really much that can go wrong with solar panels. There’s no maintenance.”

Of course, the panels may need to be dusted off occasionally. But so far, all the Pasts have had to do is trim the wisteria bushes that grow on the south side of the house.

Like Graham, the wind generator-building engineer, the Pasts are hoping that the San Patricio Co-op people will eventually work out a better agreement for purchasing the power that they send back into the grid.

But Kay smiles and says that is not the real reason she and Al had their solar system installed. They like to know they are doing their part to save the planet for themselves, their children and others.

At an instrument panel installed at the back of the house, Kay looked at the information provided, smiled and said, “This shows how much carbon dioxide we’ve saved since we had the panels installed.”

And that means a lot to them.

Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.

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