The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Are you ready to start generating electricity?

—JEFF RADFORD, Corrales Comment
Having decided to add photovoltaic panels for her 27 year old passive solar home, Martha Cushing offered to share the installation process step-by-step with Corrales Comment readers.

The owner-designed home is filled with features to maximize solar gain, to direct sun-heated air where needed and to stabilize indoor temperatures year around.

For nearly three decades, the home’s domestic hot water for bathroom, laundry and kitchen use has come from ground-mounted solar panels that employ a scientific principle known to every child: black objects in the sun get really hot.

Earlier this year, Cushing decided to take the leap to solar electric.

She contacted the Albuquerque-based Direct Power and Water Corporation in July; she began generating electricity for Public Service Company of New Mexico’s (PNM) power grid in September.

One of the first steps was to provide the company with the previous year’s PNM bills so that the home’s typical energy needs could be calculated. Once the electricity usage was determined, the number of photovoltaic panels needed to produce that was calculated.

The analysis by Chris Karsa of Direct Power and Water continued with a comparison of electricity costs with and without the solar cell panels. Running Cushing’s PNM meter backward with sun-generated electricity would reduce her annual power bill from $977 to just $93.

With state and federal tax incentives and PNM’s “net metering” and “renewable energy credits” program, Karsa projected the Cushing solar panels would pay for themselves in approximately 12-15 years.

“And after the payback period,” Cushing said enthusiastically, “you’re good until the sun stops shining… hello?”

She said she was convinced to install her photovoltaics after she saw the system put in this spring by neighbors David and Sondra Hammack. “What Sondra said sold me on the idea,” Cushing recalled. “She said it was just the right thing to do.”

Cushing, recently retired from the U.S. Social Security Administration, said her decision was based on “energy and environmental concerns, social consciousness and economic incentives.”

She added: “We need to be good stewards of Mother Nature’s abundance. And sunlight is very abundant in New Mexico.”

After he was contacted by Cushing, Karsa submitted a proposal for a grid-tied (feeding into and backed up by PNM’s grid) photovoltaic system producing an average of 13 kilowatt-hours daily.

“The PV equipment is state-of-the-art and you wouldn’t notice any difference from a conventionally powered home,” he wrote in his August 2 proposal. “There is no maintenance required once the system has been installed (other than occasionally cleaning of the module surface).

“PNM and local electric cooperatives allow its customers to generate electricity and send it into the grid (existing utility lines). In essence, as you generate more electricity than you consume, the meter registers the difference by turning in the reverse direction. This ‘net-metering’ permits customers to reduce their monthly electric bills considerably, and at the same time provide pollution free power.”

Karsa added, “For the calender year 2006-07, you will be able to utilize a 30 percent ($2,000 cap) federal income tax credit on installed PV and solar thermal systems. The state of New Mexico provides an income credit of 30 percent of the price of the system, or $7,000 cap for photovoltaic and solar thermal systems.”

On top of that, he explained, from March 1, 2006, PNM offers “grid-tied customers a production incentive program (REC, Renewable Energy Credits) to buy back all kilowatt-hours produced by their PV system at a rate of 13 cents per kilowatt-hour. This rebate is in addition to the net-metering that will already be in place.”

Karsa calculated that Cushing’s 13 kilowatt-hour production would earn $350 in net-metering and $610 in renewable energy credits in its first year of operation.

“Savings and rebates for the first 12 years (factoring in the state income tax that can be carried over a 10 -year period, the federal tax credit, and the 12-year contract with PNM for the 13 cent per kilowatt-hour buyback program) are approximately $20,500,” Karsa explained. “As the price of electricity increases in the future, then the payback period decreases.”

When Cushing was satisfied with the system design, she contacted Davito Hammack, son of David and Sondra Hammack, who managed the project for Direct Power and Water.

Cushing’s property, east of Corrales Road in the “bosque” area, has lots of naturally growing cottonwood trees, so finding the right location for a photovoltaic array was a little tricky.

Hammack employed a hand-held domed, tree-shadow mapping device called a “Pathfinder” to determine the optimal location in an open area to the west of the home.

Then a trench had to be dug from that spot to the home’s PNM electricity meter so that electrical cable carrying power from the solar panels could be buried.

Cushing said she was pleased that the trenching operation avoided cutting crucial cottonwood tree roots, tunneling under them rather than cutting through.

Shortly thereafter, short concrete pillars were poured as foundation for the the frame that would hold the photovoltaic panels.

Days later, on August 18, Hammack fixed 14 panels capable of generating 180 watts each into place, wired them to the buried power cable at a junction box… and the cells began to produce electricity.

As he was wiring the panels, Hammack reflected on the PNM program. “The neat thing is you get paid at 13 cents a kilowatt-hour even if you use that power yourself.” But it’s a good deal for PNM, he said, “It’s a win-win situation because PNM has virtually no capital investment, but yet they get to meet their requirement for ‘green’ energy.”

A week or so later, following an electrical inspection, PNM officials visited the site to certify it for net-metering and renewable energy credits.

PNM’s Charlotte Otero-Goodwin explained at that time, September 8, “The benefit for her is that she is tied to the grid, and when she’s generating more electricity than she’s using, she’ll run her meter backward.”

She explained the home now has two electrical meters, the usual one which can now run backward, and a second one that “measures every kilowatt-hour that her system produces. That’s for PNM’s new program that pays 13 cents per kilowatt-hour.”

As of September 2006, she said about 94 customers in PNM’s service area were generating electricity for the company’s distribution grid. “The majority of them are in Corrales, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and a few in the East Mountain area.”

Cushing was pleased that the solar array had been installed discreetly in a manner that the PNM officials had not even seen it as they drove onto her property. “I think that is encouraging for people who might be afraid that solar panels have to be so big and stand out so much.”

PNM Senior Engineer Robert Broderick stressed that point. “That’s a great point for the general public to understand. People perceive that photovoltaic technology takes all this room to produce a reasonable amount of energy.

“Her system takes up some space, but compared to the overall lot here, it’s only a small, postage-stamp on the lot.

“Her system is typically, about a 2.5 kilowatt system, and that’s right in the middle range of the applications we’re seeing. Cost is the biggest factor determining what size system people install. Most people buy a system sized to meet their yearly energy usage.

“Generally people don’t buy a system that will produce more electricity than they will use. So generally we see 2.5 to 3 kilowatt systems for a typical residential home,” he explained.
Otero-Goodwin outlined PNM’s program of buying renewable energy credits.

“We’re paying 13 cents per kilowatt-hour generated for the fact that energy is ‘green’. We’re not actually buying power… we’re buying “the greenness” of it,” she explained.

PNM is required by State regulations to have 10 percent of its retailed electricity from renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar by 2011. “We can meet that requirement in several ways. We can build our own generation facilities, like we did with out little plant in Algodones, or we can purchase renewable energy from somebody else, like some wind farm, or we can buy these renewable energy certificates, or credits from people.

“What we decided to do was buy credits from people like Martha, who own renewable energy credits when they put in photovoltaic systems.

“We can buy credits from her and use them to satisfy PNM’s portfolio standards for ‘green’ energy.”

Otero-Goodwin said PNM is hooking up an average of three to four homes a week for renewable energy credits.

She said PNM expects to be producing 18.7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity from photovoltaic panels within 12 years.

Reprinted with permission from the Corrales Comment, Monday, October 23, 2006. It is the fourth article in a series on solar energy.

Recycling: keeping the “chips” straight

Placitas recyclers have been wondering lately just how many different ways paper can be sliced and diced. Over the past months they have seen kraft paper separated from newspaper, as distinguished from mixed paper, and isolated from white paper. While it seems there have been a lot of changes lately, they are actually part of a move to simplify paper recycling. The first milestone was reached a few months ago, when the vendor who receives the paper dropped off at the Placitas Recycling Center agreed “what comes with the newspaper stays with the newspaper.” This brought an end to separating out the kraft paper inserts that were difficult for many people to recognize.

Recently the vendor agreed to accept a proportion of mixed paper with the newspaper, ending another separation requirement “with a few exceptions: white office paper, brown paper bags, and ‘chipboard.’”

Chipboard, as the vendor calls it, is the noncorrugated cardboard used for cereal boxes, beer and soda containers, paper towel rolls, and other food and drug packaging. Chipboard still needs to be separated from other paper, as well as from corrugated cardboard. In addition, the center continues to prefer white office paper be separated from other paper, and brown paper bags are recycled with corrugated cardboard. The rest can be thrown together, provided that contaminants such as tissues, paper towels, and waxed, coated, or laminated paper are kept out.

The Placitas Recycling Center also accepts aluminum cans, polystyrene peanuts, printer cartridges (laser and ink jet), and No. 1 and No. 2 plastic (look for the numbers inside the recycle logo on the bottom of the container). Recyclers may notice a separate container at the site for plastic bags. Those are being collected by students at the Placitas Elementary School who are participating in the Wal-Mart Kids Recycling Challenge. They are collecting all types and colors of plastic bags except black.

One thing the center will not be accepting this year is old phone books. “We have nowhere to take them,” explained Placitas Recycling Association Board president Len Stephens. “If we collected them, we would just have to dispose of them in the landfill, and that’s not what the association is about. However, we have heard that DEX will be collecting the old phone books in Albuquerque between December 28 and February 17.”

The Placitas Recycling Center is on Highway 165 a quarter mile east of Interstate 25 and is open every Saturday from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m. More information, visit


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