As Utah coal slumps, solar energy booms

Source: By John Hollenhorst, Deseret News • Posted: Friday, March 4, 2016

CENTERVILLE — The sun is becoming big business in Utah.

Whether it’s in the sun-drenched deserts of Dixie or the sometimes smoggy valleys of northern Utah, more and more homeowners are taking the plunge and betting that solar energy will pay off for them in the future.

The boom has pushed employment in Utah’s solar industry to a point well beyond the job numbers in a more traditional energy sector, Utah’s coal industry.

“Well, I figured I should just own my own power,” said Kerry Zacher, a Centerville man who got his rooftop solar system up and running at the end of September. “I got sick of paying high electric bills.”

He saw immediate benefits.

“September’s bill was roughly 150 dollars,” Zacher said. “October? Nine. Nine dollars.”

Zacher monitors the energy production from his solar panels with an app on his cellphone. He’s already learned that in northern Utah, there are good days as well as occasional very poor days when there’s not enough sunshine to provide for his power needs. On those days he has to rely on power from the grid. On sunny days, though, he often produces excess power that is traded back to the grid.

It might seem obvious that the economics of solar power would work out better in southern Utah. But the difference is not crucial, according to Shaun Alldredge Sr., co-owner and co-founder of Legend Solar, which specializes in rooftop installations.

“Yes, there’s absolutely enough sun in northern Utah,” Alldredge said. “You’ve got about 5 ½ good solar hours on average throughout the year in northern Utah, versus a little over six in southern Utah. So it’s not that much different.”

Like many solar companies, Legend’s business is on a steep upward curve. Company workers installed nearly 500 rooftop systems last year. The boom is getting some of its juice from state and federal tax breaks that were recently renewed as a way to encourage cleaner energy.

“It’s a huge benefit,” said Legend Solar co-founder Shane Perkins. “Thirty percent of the gross cost in tax credit is a big benefit. A dollar for dollar trade on their tax liability is a nice benefit.”

Zacher describes his decision to put up solar panels as purely a financial strategy and not as a reflection of his political or environmental views.

His cost of installation — about $33,000 — dropped to about $20,000 because of the tax breaks. With his lower power bills, he figures he’ll get that investment back in about seven years. He thinks of it as a slam-dunk deal. “In my opinion it is,” Zacher said.

Solar power is generated more efficiently when a home has plenty of roof space that is facing south. But Legend Solar’s founders say the company only rarely encounters a house where it just won’t work out.

With the boom in customers, solar jobs are booming, too.

“I mean we started out with just Shane and I, and now we’ve got over 100 people,” Alldredge said. “Every week we’re employing new people. So it’s actually been a very big deal.”

The solar energy industry claims it employed 2,700 people in Utah last year, a number that sounds credible, according to Mark Knold, senior economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. By contrast, Knold said, Utah’s coal mines employed just 1,250 workers in the third quarter of 2015. There were another 290 jobs in businesses that support the coal industry.