Savoring the sun while saving some green

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Red or green?

Brent Ruffner-News-Bulletin photo: Pete’s Cafe owner Theresa Padilla, center, with Cindy Baca, left, and Cecilila Dominguez, right, sit underneath a solar panel shade structure at the Belen business. Padilla decided to have the 157 modular panels installed to offset energy costs.

For Pete’s Café in Belen, the answer to that question doesn’t have anything to do with chile. It’s about the 157 photovoltaic solar panels that sit in the parking lot of the long-time Belen business.

The restaurant’s owner, Theresa Padilla, decided to go green and invest in solar panels that are in the form of a shade structure at the 63-year-old business.

The structure takes up 18 parking spaces and helps offset the restaurant’s electric bill through the USDA Rural Energy for America Program.

To help with the cost of the installation of a renewable energy system, Pete’s Cafe received a $48,048 grant, or 25 percent of the total cost of installation, through the program.

The program provides assistance to rural small businesses for installing renewable energy systems, making energy efficiency improvements and conducting energy audits or feasibility studies, according to the United State Department of Agriculture’s website. The program is administered by the USDA’s Rural Development’s Business Program.

The solar project, which cost more than $190,000, was installed in less than three months. Padilla said she opted for the panels because of an “enormous” electric bill that was getting out of control. She said her bill had been as high as $2,400 during the summer months.

Padilla applied for a federal tax grant, which might pay 30 percent of the remaining cost.

“It’s a tremendous savings,” Padilla said. “I wish we would have done this five years ago.”

The Belen business owner is one of several Valencia County businesses to take advantage of similar offers from the federal government to help curb their high energy costs each month.

Other area businesses who have integrated solar panels into their companies include Blue Skies Consulting, Fat Sat’s Bar and Grill and Hydrocut, as well as other entities, such as both Los Lunas and Belen school districts that have capitalized on ways via the federal government to obtain solar panels to offset utility costs.

At Los Lunas High School, officials received money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to purchase a 50 Kw photovoltaic system that saves the district an average of $42,000 a year. Los Lunas and Belen were two of 15 school districts in the state to receive federal funding for a photovoltaic solar system.

According to Claire Cieremans, the finance director for Los Lunas Schools, the district has used almost 80,000 less kilowatt hours in 2011-12 than the year before without the panels.

The solar panels power an entire wing on the southwest part of the campus and engineering students played a major role in using software to determine where the solar system was to be housed.

Engineering teachers John P. Gabaldon and Mox Montoya said the solar system has been a good tool to teach students about solar energy. The teachers instruct students with a specific curriculum and also have a portable system they sometimes use for demonstrations.

Cieremans said officials have had “little or no issues” with the panels and would consider adding panels onto one of the other school sites if there happened to be a funding source. For this project, the district received federal funds through the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Belen Schools officials also took advantage of the opportunity to install panels at its Career Academy at Belen High School. The panels save the school district about $1,300 a month.

Belen Schools Superintendent Ron Marquez said there have been instructional opportunities for students since the installation of the panels. High school students have opportunities to take pre-engineering classes at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus that focuses on solar systems.

“School districts, cities, businesses, communities — all of the budgets in these economic times are tight,” said Marquez. “One of the main reasons we did that at Belen High School was to lessen our electrical costs. (So far), it has.”

He said up-front costs for solar systems will make it tough to add solar systems in the future.

But Marquez said officials are considering adding solar elements to the district’s proposed indoor swimming pool to help maintain operational costs.

In the private sector, Dr. Claudia Baretto is a new co-owner of a solar-powered home in Belen. The house, a 2,400-square-foot structure, was built with insulating concrete forms and has a seven-kilowatt photovoltaic system that has reduced her electric bill to the point where she is generating electricity that goes back onto the grid. There are about 30 panels on the roof of the house.

In addition, the house has high insulation levels and a high-efficiency heat pump that creates energy. For the past six months, Baretto has received an $80 check from PNM for the electricity she’s generated. The system cost $35,000 and is expected to be paid off in the next five years.

Baretto expects to live in the house with her sister in the coming years. She currently lives in a home adjacent to the property.

“It seemed suitable for the both of us,” Baretto said.

UNM-VC instructor Alex Sanchez, who helped to design the home and pick out energy-efficient appliances, said homeowners such as Baretto should benefit if similar elements are installed in their home.

Even without the solar panels, the home is energy-efficient with south-facing windows that help keep the heat out during the summer and thicker exterior walls that provide better insulation.

The insulation levels make it easy for state-of-the-art appliances to heat and cool the home and windows help keep winter weather outside of the house. Sanchez said all of the elements make up what is an energy-efficient system.

“It’s a considerable savings, just from an economic standpoint,” Sanchez said. “It’s one of the many reasons for (homeowners) to do it.”

Sanchez, who teaches a course on green building, said this particular home would be three times more expensive without the solar system. In order to sell energy back to PNM, systems should be oversized to produce more electricity than the home uses.

He said nowadays, solar systems are becoming a trend for people who want to save money. Even car dealerships are offering photovoltaic systems with new electric vehicles to make deals more enticing, he said.

As for homes, most systems come without a host of complicated controls and pumps.

“It’s a simple, clean solution,” Sanchez said.


-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.