Randy Metcalf/EXPLORER -- City of Tucson energy manager Doug Crockett explins to Mayor Bob Walkup about the new aray of solar panels.

No one considers it the “magic bullet,” but area leaders and utilities think that expanding the region’s solar power offerings will put a dent in our dependence on fossil fuels.

At least that’s the message that came across during a recent event organized by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-CD8) aimed at building the public case for increasing the use of solar power.

“We need to jumpstart the industry,” said Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bill Mundell (R), who spoke at an April 16 “Solar Power 101” event at the Nanini Branch Library. “(Arizona) should be the Saudi Arabia of the world for solar energy.”

The Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utility companies, in recent years has mandated that power companies get at least 15 percent of their energy from alternative sources, including the sun, by 2025. Utilities need to gradually meet that 15-percent threshold over the years, increasing their alternative energy take by a few-tenths of a percent per year. The mandate took effect in 2001.

It’s a mandate that some in the utility industry claim will be difficult to meet. In fact, according to the state, power companies currently get just 0.5 percent of their energy from alternative sources, making them already behind in their task of meeting Arizona’s 1.1 percent 2008 quota.

“If they don’t comply, we have a hammer,” Blundell told the crowd last week. “But we also like the carrot approach as well.”

Mandating the use of solar power, however, won’t make it happen, at least not on scales large enough to make it cost-effective, according to Joe Salkowski, a spokesman for Tucson Electric Power.

The utility provides electricity to the majority of the region’s homes and businesses.

“We certainly want to expand our use of renewable energy,” Salkowski said in a telephone interview.

Installing photovoltaic arrays on rooftops is but “one way” to do that, he added.

The company’s Sunshare program, which aims to get more people to take the solar plunge, saw its participation rate increase by 31 percent in 2007, according to TEP records.

By December 2007, 426 TEP customers had begun participating in the program. To do so, the customers contracted with a solar panel installer to erect an array of the mirror-like panels on their rooftops. All told, program participants so far have installed arrays capable of producing 1,171.99 kW of electricity, according to TEP.

But the real payoff for solar energy, which remains costly to produce, will come in the form of “utility-scale installations,” according to Salkowski.

Another local utility company, Marana-based TRICO Electric Cooperative Inc., which maintains 38,000 meters in the area, pointed to the solar field that Tucson Water has installed off Thornydale Road, south of its intersection with Tangerine Road.

“To really get into economies of scale, it takes large systems,” according to TRICO spokeswoman Romi Carrell Wittman. “The bigger the system, the cost per watt goes down.”

A kilowatt, like the dollar, doesn’t stretch as far as it used to.

Every home and business runs more appliances that ever before, and with more users than ever before, the grid requires more wattage.

“We offer the best rebate in the state,” Wittman said this week.

If a customer makes the initial investment of installing a photovoltaic solar array — which can cost more than $10,000 for the smallest system — that person can get $4 per watt produced back from TRICO under its SunWatts program. Add those savings to the money a customer can get back in the form of federal and state tax credits and going solar, at least to help power a small portion of your home or business, can start to pay off over time, in 10 to 15 years, according to most estimates.

In about three years, TRICO has signed up 30 customers for its SunWatts program, according to Wittman. That’s not enough, she said, but the company continues trolling for more participants.

But the federal tax credits that help offset the costs associated with going solar are set to expire at the end of 2009. If they’re not renewed, according to most utilities and solar advocates, the industry that many have touted as the future for Arizona could be DOA.

“Solar power is still more expensive, in some cases much more expensive, to produce than traditional forms of energy,” TEP’s Salkowski said.

Without a federal boost, for example, venture capitalists who may opt to finance major advancements or invest in utility-scale installations could recoil in the face of sticker shock, he explained.

What’s at stake then? For one, according to Salkowski, a possible 250-MegaWatt solar field that TEP hopes to build in Arizona or Nevada along with the help of other power companies.

All the ingredients for a robust solar energy-producing economy in Arizona are there, Salkowski noted, including the abundance of sunny days needed to fuel production.

Technology for extracting energy from the sun must improve, however. For that to happen, it takes money — lots of money, more than even an army of environmentally conscious homeowners can fork over.

Congresswoman Giffords has made the creation of a meaningful solar-power industry in Arizona one of her key campaign themes this year. But for the industry to take hold, the federal government will have to start creating the kinds of incentives it already has put in place for fossil fuel production, according to Corporation Commissioner Blundell.

“It has to be a public-private partnership,” he explained.

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