Looking to go solar? Find an alternative through Southwest Gas

“Go solar”… “Save money and energy”… “Help preserve the environment.” Sound familiar? It should, especially if you’re one of the more than 17,000 Nevadans who got suckered into believing those and other positive catchphrases when you either bought or leased the solar energy panels sitting on your roof.

Now don’t get me wrong about clean, renewable solar energy. It’s great stuff — inexpensive, void of fossil fuels, and potentially plentiful in Nevada, where the sun shines more than 300 days a year. There’s only one problem, and the sun that provides all this clean energy is not the problem, nor are the companies that were welcomed by the state to sell or lease the solar energy panels.

You’ve read enough about how Nevadans were duped by political and special interests into believing there were no gimmicks attached to promises to spread sun-produced energy on a grand scale, promises that ultimately went awry.

But this column is not intended to swirl into those reasons. They’ve been hashed and rehashed for months. The purpose here, instead, is to tell you about a solar system that has been around for the last five years, a system provided by Southwest Gas that allows you to heat your water cleanly and inexpensively, a system that’s ideally suited for a predominantly residential community such as Summerlin.

It’s the offspring of several bills that were enacted by the Legislature in 2011. In fact, Nevada was in the forefront in enacting such legislation at the time, as nine other states also adopted similar kinds of systems that year.

Now, to put your mind at ease, the legislation was not something like SB-374. That’s the “pass-the-buck” bill adopted in last year’s legislative session, the bill that sent net metering to the Public Utilities Commission, so that our elected officials would not have to establish a law by dealing with the solar energy issue head-on.

The solar water system is both economical and sensible. According to Southwest Gas literature, “by replacing your old water heater with a solar water heater you can cut the cost of heating water in half … All it takes is a solar collector and a storage tank, and you can literally soak up the sun.”

The principle is fairly simple, as Southwest Gas literature goes on to explain: “Solar collectors outside (rooftop panels) capture sunlight, heating liquid inside the collector. Heat from the liquid is transferred into hot water. The heated water is stored in an insulated tank until you need it.”

In addition, Southwest Gas is offering rebates of as much as 30 percent for private residential and small business customers who qualify for installing the system, with natural gas serving as a back-up.

Celine Apo, manager of the solar water heating program at Southwest Gas, explained that the cost of installing the system “varies, based on a number of conditions, including the size of the water heating system.” However, she added that while installation of a solar system could generally cost more than a conventional system, “it will more than pay for itself over time through energy savings.” Apo also noted that only eligible, licensed contractors are qualified to install the system.

She said homes that already have rooftop panels that produce solar energy would still require the water heating panels. “It’s an entirely separate system, and the solar water panels, which take up little space on the roof, won’t interfere with the solar energy panels. In fact, depending on size, you would normally need only one or two panels.”

But what about the potential for bureaucratic interference? Can the PUC step in and throw a blockade once you install such a system?

For one thing, as Apo stated, “solar water heating is a law. The 2011 Legislature spelled it out in the form of legislation that has become law. They then sent it to the commission to develop the regulations that tell us how to do the program. Of course, we are always at the mercy of the commission. They develop the rules for such programs, and we implement them.”

Southwest Gas is a utility and is thus bound to adhere to PUC regulations. But at least the solar water program continues to thrive after five years.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His most recent novel, “Double Play,” is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.

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