Vail Valley Voices: Harnessing the sun |

Vail Valley Voices: Harnessing the sun

Jennifer Eliuk
Vail, CO Colorado

Solar systems are quickly becoming a popular way to reduce or eliminate monthly electric bills while also reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

While most people have heard of photovoltaic systems (“solar panels”), many are just learning about solar thermal systems which heat water to be used for domestic hot water, pools, some snow melt systems and more. Solar systems capture the free energy that is being provided for by nature. To help homeowners take advantage of this energy properly, the town of Vail has a solar permitting program to ensure safe and proper installation.

How it works

Photovoltaic systems include an array (group of solar photovoltaic panels) that collect and create energy. “Photo” means light, and “voltaic” means electricity. Sunlight hits the panel, where semiconductors convert the quantum energy of photons, or “particles of light,” into moving electrons, which form a current and energy that can be used by the home.

Photovoltaic systems work particularly well in cold climates with lots of sun, making the Colorado High Country an ideal location for solar, as long as our winter snow is considered in the design.

Solar thermal systems also have an array of panels. But beneath them are pipes carrying water that is heated by the solar thermal energy collected in the panels, and the hot water is pumped back into the house where it can be used for almost any hot water need.

Want to learn more about solar systems? Colorado Mountain College is offering a workshop on solar hot water-thermal systems on July 18. Visit for more information.

Rebate programs

Projects installed anywhere in the Holy Cross Energy service area (which includes Eagle County) can receive a rebate of $2 per solar PV watt of photovoltaic installed, while reducing monthly electric bills, with a cap on systems of 10,000 watts.

For solar thermal, rebates of $1,500 per panel (four panels maximum) are also available. Customers who are currently using an electric water heater are encouraged to install solar thermal panels, since electricity is a costly way to heat water.

To qualify for Holy Cross rebates, you must first submit a pre-application before installation, and funds must be available. Rebate program requirements and reports on funds available can be downloaded from

For more information on how to apply, call Steve Casey at (970) 947-5430.

Eagle County has a similar rebate program, offering $2-$3 per watt of photovoltaics installed, and up to 50 percent of the total cost of solar thermal systems.

The IRS also offers a tax credit, and when all rebates are combined the savings are staggering.

Adam Palmer, green building specialist for Eagle County, installed a 2-kw photovoltaic system on his family’s home in 2007.

Their initial cost for the system was about $17,000. But after a $4,000 rebate from Holy Cross, $4,000 from Eagle County, and a $2,700 tax credit from the IRS, their final cost was only $6,300. If you’d like to know more about Eagle County’s rebate program, please call Adam at (970) 328-8734.

Thanks to recent changes in federal law, both solar thermal systems used for domestic hot water and space heating and photovoltaic systems now qualify for a tax credit of 30 percent of the full, installed cost.

This tax credit also applies against the individual alternative minimum tax credit for the first time. Check with your tax specialist to find out how a solar system can greatly offset your other federal income taxes.

While these rebates are great, you may be wondering how long it will take for your system to be paid for and really saving you money every month. Payback time depends on the upfront cost of the system, its efficiency, your financing costs and your monthly energy costs.

Solar thermal systems can have a very fast payback time (between 3 and 6 years in many cases), especially on pools due to the amount of energy required to keep them at such high temperatures outside. It’s difficult to calculate payback on photovoltaics since we don’t know how energy costs will rise, although many experts agree it will be more than the historic 4 percent a year due to dwindling natural resources and legislation. The Palmer household system provides for 50 percent of their electrical needs and generates about $350 of electricity a year.

“Our meter spins backwards during the day and forwards in mornings and evenings,” Palmer says.

Kristen Bertuglia, environmental sustainability coordinator for the town of Vail, points out some other benefits of solar: “Solar power is clean and quiet, and can add to the value of your property. It requires no maintenance, and by removing your demand from the electrical grid, you help reduce the need for additional power plants resulting in fewer carbon emissions, water and other resources used in electricity production.”

Ultimately, by using solar power you help reduce your contributions toward global climate change.

Currently, there is no state licensing agency that governs or oversees solar system designers and installers. When choosing a contractor, be sure to ask for references and find out if they specialize in the system you’re interested in installing. Bill Sepmeier, who is teaching the upcoming workshop at Colorado Mountain College, suggests it might be best to obtain several bids and have them reviewed by an engineer or out of town solar specialist. Solar systems installed properly can last 30 to 40 years, however poorly designed or mounted systems can fail in costly ways. Be sure to do your homework!

Should you decide to install a solar system of any kind in Vail, approvals by the town are required. The first step is to complete an application for Design Review Board approval, then apply for permits. Depending on the system you install, you may need building, electrical and/or plumbing permits. The Town of Vail requires that a state-licensed electrician apply for the electrical permit for photovoltaic systems, and a licensed plumber must apply for the plumbing permit for solar thermal systems. To discuss the specifics of what your project will need, please call Jennifer Eliuk, development review coordinator, at (970) 479-2128. If you’re outside of Vail town limits, contact your local planning and building departments to find out what the requirements are in your jurisdiction.

Jennifer Eliuk is the development review coordinator for Vail.

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