It's still winter, but Charles and Bonnie Evers are seeing just how powerful the sun can be.
The Modesto residents have a new solar electricity system that produces more than their home consumes this time of year.
Their surplus goes onto the Modesto Irrigation District's grid. In exchange, they get credits for conventional power they might need during high summer demand.
"It's nice to see the meter run in reverse," said Charles Evers, whose $30,000 system was among the first enrolled in the MID's new solar program.
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This is just one of the ways that renewable energy is taking hold in California. Utilities also are offering substantial rebates on the cost of installing home solar systems. And they are looking to large, centralized projects that tap sunlight, wind and other alternative sources for their customers.
The goal is to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, which are believed to increase the level of carbon dioxide and other climate-changing gases in the atmosphere.
"To me, one of the big things is you're cleaning up the air," Evers said. "I'm definitely into the green stuff. I've got two Toyota Priuses."
State lawmakers have mandated that renewables, which were 11 percent of the electricity supply in 2006, rise to 20 percent in the next decade. Some are calling for 33 percent or even 50 percent.
Doing this will take money, whether for solar collectors on home rooftops or the large projects that the MID, the Turlock Irrigation District and other utilities are pursuing.
MID officials said all the options -- including solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and manure -- will cost more than the hydroelectric and natural-gas plants that predominate today.
The renewable mandate could add 20 percent to 30 percent to MID customer bills on top of inflation, said Greg Salyer, manager of resource planning and development, during a board meeting last week.
As of now, 12 percent of MID power is renewable, most of it from wind turbines in Solano County and Washington state.
The district is a few months away from hooking into a system at Fiscalini Cheese Co. that will burn methane derived from cow manure.
The options include burning methane extracted from sewage treatment or landfills, or using the huge amount of limbs pruned from the area's orchards each year.
There are caveats. Biomass -- woody material from orchard pruning, forest thinning and construction sites -- can be expensive to transport and unavailable during parts of the year. Solar and wind produce only when it's sunny or windy.
Solar installers expected price drop
Jim Metropulos, a renewable energy advocate with the Sierra Club in Sacramento, acknowledged the challenges. But he said new taxes might be imposed on fossil fuels to discourage consumption, making renewables more attractive.
"It makes sense if the cost of carbon emissions is taken into account," he said.
Richard Harriman, a Modesto attorney who advocates for MID ratepayers, told the board that the cost of solar systems will drop as they are produced in larger numbers.
"If we drive that process, we can get it to happen sooner," he said.
Solar installers said they expected the cost to drop, but this hasn't happened. They blame the rising cost of copper wire and other components, along with the willingness of Europeans to pay high prices for the systems.
But even with this, solar makes sense, the installers said. Rebates can knock out a quarter to a third of the typical cost. Then there's a $2,000 federal tax credit.
On top of that is the reduction in monthly power bills, enough to pay for a system in perhaps 10 to 15 years, said Aram Alexander, owner of Aram Solar in Manteca. The payback time depends on electricity rates and the home's consumption habits, he said.
Last year, Alexander installed a 15-kilowatt system, relatively large, for Sonora-area ranchers Wally and Bev Arends. They had been paying $1,100 to $1,200 a month to PG&E to power their home, barn, shop and other parts of the ranch.
"We're satisfied with it," Bev Arends said. "So far, our biggest PG&E bill has been $28."
The couple got a rebate that cut about $70,000 from the $200,000 cost, she said.
Evers said he and his wife chose a system with a $46,000 base price but got a rebate of about $14,000 and the $2,000 tax credit. He expects the 5.67-kilowatt unit to cover most of their needs, falling short only in air-conditioning season.
"I don't think there will be a bill until summertime," he said.
'No flash in the pan'
This system was installed by Acro Electric of Oakdale. Steve Vella, president, said demand has been strong this year, thanks to an increase in power rates and people's growing familiarity with solar.
"This is no flash in the pan," said Vella, who expects sales to keep up even as the rebates are phased out in several years.
Installers suggest homeowners take out loans to help with installation costs, because the monthly repayments likely will be less than what they will save on utility bills.
And the systems will continue to function for years after they are paid off, said Jason Hanson, president of Sierra Pacific Solar in Sacramento, which serves Stanislaus and other counties.
"There are no moving parts," he said. "They just sit there and convert sunlight to electricity."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.