With help from his wife Deanna, Craig Wiles, owner of Preferred Energy in Wright County, prepares to set the first solar panel at the home of Barabara Byrd on Dewey Street in Houston. (File photo)

The concept of solar electricity may well be more familiar to residents of many parts of the world other than the Missouri Ozarks.

Nevertheless, solar power has made some headway in the region and homes and businesses exist that don’t rely on electricity generated by coal-fired power plants.

As of last week, one such home lies within the city limits of Houston.

Last May, Barbara Byrd attended the annual Sustainable Living Festival in West Plains. There, she found out about Craig Wiles and Preferred Energy in Mountain Grove, the festival’s host and co-sponsor.

Having already had an interest in sustainable living and a “green” lifestyle, Byrd decided to have Wiles bring solar power to her Dewey Street home.

“I’ve had interest in environmental actions like this before, but I didn’t realize there was anyone around here who did this,” Byrd said. “I may not live long enough to recoup the entire cost of doing this, but at least I’ll be getting electricity from someplace other than coal-fired plants. I try to live as sustainable as I can, and this seemed like a good thing.”

“She wanted to lighten her footprint on the planet,” Wiles said, “and this is a great way to do that.”

After Byrd’s 18-panel system was up and running last weekend, it immediately began paying for itself. The home’s electric meter was spinning backward and electricity generated by the system was being sent onto Houston’s power grid.

“Because the City of Houston produces no electricity, and Barbara’s system is the only one in town feeding back on their grid, 100-percent of the energy that Houston produces is from solar energy,” Wiles said. “That’s pretty cool.”

Wiles, who had help installing Byrd’s system from his wife, Deanna, and father, Charles, lives on a farm on the Gasconade River in northern Wright County. He takes what he does for a living seriously and has lived off the grid since 1997, powering his farm with 100-percent solar electricity.

“I think it’s time more people stopped renting their power and start owning it,” Wiles said. “Solar is the best way to make that happen; we really believe it’s no longer an alternative source, but actually the preferred energy.”

Wiles started Preferred Energy in 1998, fueled by peoples’ concerns about Y2K.

“We went from being the weirdos who lived off the grid to being the experts,” Wiles said. “We were swamped then.”

As Y2K came and went without issue, interest in solar power waned. But several more things happened over the next decade that each ratcheted up the interest, including the sharp rise in oil prices in 2000, the 9-11 attack in 2001 and hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Each of those built it to where it has now been a full-time business for several years,” Wiles said.

Even utility companies are getting more involved using solar power, which can often alleviate problems that occur during time of peak-usage.

“About 90 percent of all panels being installed in the United States are being done by the utilities,” Wiles said. “The price is getting down to where it’s competitive with coal plants, and there are huge solar farms popping up all over the country.

“Of course, solar won’t give you 24-hour-a-day power. But they’ve already got a coal plant, and the issue they face is called ‘peak-shaving.’ In the middle of a hot afternoon, when everyone has turned on their air conditioners, that’s when they need extra power. Solar is perfect for that – that’s when it’s making its most power.”

When Wiles and others in the solar power industry install a system, they must show the local government that what they’re doing is legitimate.

“We have to give them a paper that shows that the equipment we’re tying to their grid is safe, and that it won’t feed back on the grid if there’s a power outage,” Wiles said. “I have to say that Houston has been a joy to work with compared to some of the municipalities and co-ops.”

Wiles has installed solar power systems in more than 100 homes around the Ozarks. Some, like Byrd’s, run the entire house, while others are smaller and provide partial power, often to heat water or run an outdoor wood stove.

Based on U.S. Department of Energy information indicating that an average home in America uses 932 kilowatt hours of electricity per month, Wiles said a ballpark cost to outfit an average home with 100-percent solar power is $20,000 to $30,000.

“But an energy-efficient home could cost half of that,” he said.

Energy efficiency not only has to do with windows, insulation and weather stripping, but up-to-date appliances and electronics that use less power than older models. Wiles said much of the focus in efficiency should be placed on the four biggest power loads in an average home: air conditioning, heat, hot water and refrigeration.

The “pay-back time” of a solar power system in an average home (when the system has paid for itself through electric bill savings) is about 15 to 20 years.

While its up-front price might seem high in some cases, solar power can actually offer a financial break to residents of rural areas who can no longer take advantage of government programs that pay for part or all of the cost of getting electricity in their homes.

“A lot of my customers live beyond the grid, and the rural electric subsidies to run power anywhere to anybody are gone,” Wiles said. “I recently did a system for a gentleman who was one mile from the grid near Fort Leonard Wood. They quoted him $40,000 to run that one mile.

“And a lot of my customers live so far out at the end of the road that reliability of the grid becomes an issue.”

Through the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), businesses can obtain grants that cover up to 25 percent of the cost to install solar electric power. Federal tax credits of 30 percent also exist, for both private individuals and businesses that use solar power.

While do-it-yourself solar kits are available, Wiles recommends against using them, because they are usually made up of cast-off and discarded parts that didn’t meet specifications in manufacturing plants.

“They’re not worth the postage to have them shipped to you,” Wiles said. “I’ve known of 30 people who ordered do-it-yourself kits, and out of those only one man successfully complete his panels to where he has any usable power.

“If someone wants to be a do-it-yourselfer, I have the parts they need. And if someone is framing up a greenhouse or something and they’re good with carpentry, it’s a viable option.”

While the U.S. might be slow in adopting solar power as a regular source of electricity, other countries have already done so. Wiles said that Germany is recognized as a leader in solar, and is so far along in the process that the country has stated it will no longer build new nuclear plants as current ones are retired.

“And after what happened in Japan last year, Germany started shutting down their nukes, even before they’re ready to be retired,” Wiles said. “That’s how successful their energy program has been.

“And if you think about it, we’ve spent a trillion dollars overseas where people hate us. That would have done it.”

Wiles has jobs booked for the rest of the year and will be working in many locations, including Salem, Gainesville, Springfield. He’ll cap off 2011 with a 40-panel install near Columbia in December.

Wiles often does solar power presentations for interested groups. He can be reached at 417-818-6057.

Most states, including Missouri, are “net metering” states whenit comes to privately produced electric power.

Net metering basically enables the customer-generator to exportpower in excess of immediate on-site needs to offset an equalamount of power supplied by a utility company at a different timein a given billing period.

The customer is billed for the “net” amount of power used thatis in excess of power generated on-site.

If the customer generates more power than is used during thebilling period, the utility provides the customer a credit for thesurplus power. The credit is based on the cost the utility wouldhave incurred to purchase the fuel consumed to generate an equalnumber of kilowatt-hours.

In addition to solar, wind and other alternative power sourcescan qualify for net metering.

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