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U. program generates new interest in solar energy

By Sandra Olney  |  Posted Aug 3rd, 2016 @ 7:25pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. solar energy market is expected to grow almost 120 percent in 2016. How does Utah fit into the national picture? One local program is boosting interest and energy production across three counties.

Jodi McRaney-Rusho gets excited when she talks about the solar panels on the roof of her Salt Lake City home.

"We have seven here and we're thinking of putting another few on the opposite side if we need them," she said.

McRaney-Rusho and her family are harnessing the energy of the sun.

"It's an important part of what I do to be environmentally friendly all the way through the process," McRaney-Rusho said.

The family is powering not just their home but also Jodi's unique business.

"My job that I do full time is as an artist and I use exclusively recycled glass, and glass is an energy intensive material," McRaney-Rusho said.

Melting shattered glass into artwork takes up to 18 hours in a kiln heated to over 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

"It's a high energy use art form, but I strongly believe in the recycled side of it," she said.

The artist shared that the family's power bill has dropped from an average of $125 to $18 a month.

In fact, tracking the savings and energy production is a hobby now for McRaney-Rusho.

"So, it starts out at 6 a.m. down here where it's very low and then it just rises gradually right over the day," she says as she points to a computerized graph that measures energy production every minute of the day.

The Rushos signed up in 2014 for the University of Utah's inaugural "U Community Solar Program," and installed rooftop panels on their home.

Amy Wildermuth, chief sustainability officer at the U., got the program up and running. "It's good for the environment, it makes economic sense, it then becomes a sort of shared value for all of us," says Wildermuth.

In 2014, 380 homeowners, many of them U. faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of the university, took advantage of the discounts offered. The program created enough clean energy to keep 13 million pounds of greenhouse gasses out of Utah's atmosphere.

"We are connecting and we are showing how we can do things in the real world that make a real difference," Wildermuth said.

Now, the U.'s solar program is back and geology professors Gabe and Brenda Bowen are getting panels installed on their home.

"We got to the point this year where it was the right time for us," says Gabe Bowen.

It made financial and environmental sense, according to Brenda Bowen.

"It's a great chance for us to run our home on sunshine," Brenda Bowen said.

Creative Energies is the solar panel installer. The company is the U.'s partner for the program.

"The industry has really taken off, it's on fire right now," said Scott Jones of Creative Energies.

Having guidance and support throughout the process proved helpful for the Bowens.

"I think for many people, just not knowing quite how to get started is a challenge," Brenda Bowen said.

That's why the U. vetted Creative Energies and arranged for the discounted packages. Dozens have already signed up for the 2016 program.

"We know that in Utah we're abundant in sunshine and have a lot of this resource that's going untapped right now," Brenda Bowen said.

This year, U. solar participants will pay an average of $15,000 for a 16-panel system. But with a $2,000 state tax credit and a 30 percent or $4,500 federal credit, the bill will be closer to $8,500.

"We want to make these kinds of programs possible and accessible to all folks that are out there and interested," Wildermuth said.

Anyone interested in possibly going solar should plan on attending the next U. solar workshop. Most people who live in Salt Lake, Summit or Davis counties will qualify.

The workshop will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 16, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Health Science Building on the U. campus at 25 South and 2000 East. Go to the U. Community Solar program's website to get more information and RSVP for the workshop.

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