Federal grant spurs residential solar and wind energy in Wyoming

Nov 10, 2011

Listen to the story

Wyoming received a federal grant to help people install residential renewable energy systems for their homes. With prices for things like solar and wind systems still high, and Wyoming power some of the cheapest in the country, it’s not always clear if these installations always make sense economically. But if you’re thinking long term, the investments do pay off. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports.

Mike Schmidt recently finished putting up a wind turbine by his house.

SCHMIDT: “It’s kind of interesting, people used to go by this place so fast, it used to irritate me so much, you know it’s a gravel road here and they throw up so much dirt and dust. Now, when they’re coming down the road they slow way down and look at the turbine when they’re driving by. ”

The turbine stands on an eighty foot tower, looking like a giant bumblebee with three black blades and a yellow generator.

While Schmidt’s unit is bigger than his neighbor’s wind turbines down the road, they are smaller than the Duke Energy owned commercial turbines that spread out over the plains in the visible distance.

SCHMIDT: “It’s a great view of different types of wind isn’t it?”

Schmidt received a grant from the Residential Renewables Program, run by the Wyoming State Energy Office, to help him install the system. The funding for the 2.5 million dollar grant comes from the U.S. Department of Energy, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act State Energy Program. Schmidt is one of 310 Wyoming beneficiaries. Grantees have to install a small wind, solar, or ground source heat system for their own residential use.

Wyoming has some of the best wind and solar resources in the U.S. That makes renewable energy a realistic option. But it also has some of the cheapest power in the country. So, why are people installing it?

Milton Geiger, University of Wyoming’s Energy Extension Coordinator, gives a few reasons. Some people value environmental sustainability and a sense of independence, he says.

GEIGER: “Another aspect would be the technical. To some people it’s just fascinating, just like it is repairing cars… But the big one is, a lot of folks look at it to save money. ”

Schmidt’s system cost just over 42,000 dollars and would have been significantly more if he hadn’t done most of the work himself. Another grant recipient, Ed Werner, installed solar panels for 30,000 dollars. The grant reimbursed them each 10,000 dollars. With price tags like that, the savings aren’t immediately apparent.

But Extension Coordinator Milton Geiger says it’s important to think long term. Our old, depreciated coal-fired power plants, aren’t going to be enough, soon.  

GEIGER: “The cost of energy that we should be comparing it to really isn’t what we’re paying right now, it’s what we’ll pay for that next additional unit. And when you look at that then renewable energy has a better chance of competing. ”

Ed Werner works as an energy consultant and does contract work promoting renewable energy in Wyoming. For him, installing the solar system fit very much with his line of work. But even for him, economics came first.

WERNER: “So fundamentally, as much as it makes you feel good about protecting the environment and everything else, the bottom line came down to, it was economics. It needed to pencil out. I could never make the solar arrays pencil out, just cash out of my own pocket, given our low end cost of energy in Wyoming, until this grant came along. ”

For Schmidt, who has the wind turbine, it was a little more complex. He’s a tinkerer, for one. But he also installed a large system because he wants to produce enough energy to charge an electric car in the future.

SCHMIDT: “I drive 70 miles to work. My intention is over the next 5 years, and my hope is, that they’ll come up with an electric car that has an extended range. Right now the range is right around, you know, for an electric charge, about 125 miles. And I’ve got to believe in the next several years they’re going to be able to extend that range.”

It’s not going to take long, says Schmidt, to pay the turbine off if he’s not paying for gas.

The grants distributed by the State Energy Office were claimed almost immediately after they were announced and there are over 100 people currently on the waiting list. The interest is there.

But Shannon Stanfill, who manages the Residential Renewables program, wonders how strong the interest in residential renewables will be once the grant money is gone.

STANFILL: “Will home owners still proceed with these types of renewable installations? Because obviously payback periods are going to be a bit longer.”

Ed Werner says that the payback starts right away. Even if you’re borrowing money in order to install a renewable energy system, monthly payments on the loan will be less than power bills pre-system installation. And manufacturing costs for many of these systems are going down.

So people like Werner think they’ve made a good investment - one that, with time, will make sense for more and more people.

WERNER: “My cost of power will remain essentially the same now for the next 20 years while everybody else’s bills will slowly inch up as utilities have to cover their costs of doing business. ”