Bring in the Solar Batteries

By Russell Lowes, Rincon Group Energy Subcommittee Chair, April 2, 2017

Have you ever wanted to get off the electricity grid? You might have a number of reasons to do so. What about saving money? The economic breakeven may be here sooner than you think. There’s an interesting and eye-opening thing you can do with energy usage and cost numbers (step 4, below) to make your own cost estimates.

Let’s say that you have decided there are four things you want to do at your house. One, you want to reduce your energy use. Two, you want to buy solar. Three, you want to buy a battery system to back up your solar when the sun is not shining. Four, you want to go off the electricity grid.

This is how the process of battery-backed solar might work in the near future. However, you can get started with step 1 & 2 right now, and later with steps 3 & 4.

1) Reducing Energy Consumption

  • Let’s say you use 575 kilowatt hours (kWhe) of energy per month, a typical usage rate in southern Arizona;
  • 200 kWhe is a typical reduction per month by using energy efficiency techniques like insulating shades for your windows, weatherization, insulation for your attic, or getting a an evaporative cooler “piggyback system” added to your air conditioning system.

This translates into:

  • Your usage has been 575 kWhe X 11¢/kWhe, a typical energy cost in So. AZ, which equals $63.25 plus basic service charge, and other charges per month, going down to:
  • Your new usage, with a 200 kWhe reduction, would be 375 X 11¢/kWhe, or $41.25/month + other base utility charges.
  • If you were to leave it at that and not do the next steps, you savings would be $22.00/month, $264/year, $5280/20 years.

2) Adding Solar to Your House

Now that you have reduced your energy consumption, when you add solar, you won’t have to buy as many panels. Instead of paying for maybe 5.6 kilowatts of capacity (the average used by the National Renewable Energy Lab, at, you now would buy around 3.9 kWe.

Your new solar panel array would deliver energy at about 7.0¢ per kilowatt-hour to your home, plus financing, so maybe 8.5¢.

Solar Prices Continuing to Fall

Solar Prices Continuing to Fall “NREL Report Shows U.S. Solar Photovoltaic Costs Continuing to Fall in 2016” September 28, 2016 *
Solar Prices Continuing to Fall “NREL Report Shows U.S. Solar Photovoltaic Costs Continuing to Fall in 2016” September 28, 2016 *

3) Adding Battery Backup to Your Rooftop Solar

Batteries are the big unknown in this process. Costs are falling quickly, and there is a goal by the industry to bring them down to 14¢/kWhe, when combined with solar. This is a bit more costly, when compared to the roughly 11¢ average cost of electricity by the utilities of southern Arizona. However, you only have to get a portion of your energy from batteries, and with lower solar costs here in the Southwest, the deal gets sweeter. For example, you can get 35% of your energy needs met with energy efficiency, from step 1 above, and 45% from solar, from step 2, and 20% from battery energy, from step 3, well that leads us to that point I opened with. . .

4) Going Off-Grid . . . “There’s an interesting and eye-opening thing you can do with energy usage and cost numbers.”

First, you have to boost the number of solar panels a bit to power the batteries, so your cost of solar would go up from 8.5¢ to roughly 10¢/solar kWhe, fully financed. Let’s project that future battery costs are 20¢/kWhe, fully financed.

Take a look at the following table and if you copy these values and formulas onto a spreadsheet (or ask me for a copy at, you can change the percentages in column D, and as long as the total equals 100% at the bottom of that column, all the figures will automatically and accurately update! Likewise, if you change any of the projected costs/kWhe in column E, the spreadsheet will auto-self-adjust. But, you math wizards out there already knew that!

This has been about the process of going off the grid, but there are reasons to stay on the grid. The main one is so you can share your electrons with others so they don’t have to use coal, gas or nuclear energy from the grid. However, if the utilities resist the solar revolution, we may not have much choice. If the utilities keep fighting solar rooftop and keep putting onerous charges on our bills, the best choice for you and your family, and for you and your business, might be to go off-grid.


*A side note about the above NREL chart: One interesting thing about the residential-size solar (rooftop solar) versus centralized utility scale is that with rooftop there is much less non-power-generation cost. With centralized solar there are new transmission requirements, more distribution costs, land acquisition costs, switch yard and substation and a myriad of other costs that are not required, as much, as with rooftop solar. Right now, rooftop solar is cheaper when you consider these non-generation costs. I believe that rooftop solar will widen the gap of cost benefit over large utility-scale centralized solar in coming years.


An Update on the War on Solar at the Arizona Corporation Commission

by Russell Lowes and Keith Bagwell

            Two utilities, Tucson Electric Power and its sister subsidiary UNS Electric, are applying for rate hikes with the Arizona Corporation Commission. Included in these rate cases is a troubling and unprecedented restructuring of how rates are applied. These proposed rate reshufflings are bad for the families and businesses in these monopoly areas. Additionally, these proposals are assaults on family and business-owned rooftop solar energy installations.

            TEP and UNS have engaged in a public relations campaign to promote the inaccurate idea that rooftop solar energy is costing non-solar customers more than if there was no additional rooftop solar installed.

            Tucson Electric Power has recently made a number of erroneous statements about rooftop solar costs. However, we will focus here on the most glaring blunder, in what has NOT been said. The utility company does not consider the “opportunity lost cost” for not going with rooftop solar. TEP again made this error of omission in a recent exchange with our County Board of Supervisors, who are opposing the proposed rate shuffle. That is, what happens if families and business owners, schools and local governments in the TEP service area do not install solar panels? TEP is installing centralized utility-owned solar energy plants, and this solar is costing non-solar customers much more than the customer-owned rooftop solar. See the table below, which further explains this.

Examples of Typical Un-Subsidized Energy Costs for New Power Capacity in Southern Arizona, in Cost Per Kilowatt-Hour

Energy Production & Efficiency Options

Initial Un-Subsidized Cost

Trans-mission & Distribution Component

Total Cost

Cost Covered by  Rooftop Solar Families & Business-Owners

Maximum Cost Borne by Ratepayers


Homeowner Rooftop Solar Financed with Homeowners Equity Line of Credit, 5%






Homeowner Rooftop Solar Financed with Lease






Medium-Size Business Rooftop Solar Financed with Commercial Loan, 6%






Utility-Owned Rooftop Solar, Financed with Blend of 50/50 Rate of Return and Corporate Bonds, 9% (per IRP)*






Utility-Owned Centralized Solar, Financed with Blend of 50/50 Rate of Return and Corporate Bonds, 9%






Utility Solar via Power Purchase Agreement (Subsidized Fixed Contract)






Utility-Owned Centralized Gas Plant Financed with Same Finance Mix






Energy Efficiency**







 * The vast majority of this cost will be borne by the ratepayer directly benefitting from this installation.

**Energy efficiency comes in many forms and at many different costs and benefits. The ratepayer-

   borne portion of this, on average is likely under 1¢ per kilowatt-hour saved.


            Recently TEP just secured more fossil fuel power capacity. This will cost much more for non-solar customers in total dollars, and in cents per kilowatt-hour.

            TEP claims that family-owned solar energy increases costs for its non-solar ratepayers. In this claim TEP is probably really talking about what the utility company losses will be. The company financial losses to customer energy efficiency and solar investments are real, if you do not count the gains to the company in terms of grid diversification, performance fees TEP earns on customer energy efficiency investments, etc. However, these gross costs (before these other offsetting benefits) are very minor, at this point of grid penetration, well under 5 percent.   

            What TEP and UNS Electric ignore, in this “solar costs non-solar customers argument,” is that all the other options of electricity generation expansion are more expensive than customer-installed rooftop solar. Centralized solar built by the utilities costs non-solar customers far more than rooftop solar. Fossil-fuel generation is even more expensive, as well as polluting and climate-changing. In addition, the 0.5¢/kilowatt-hour cost that is purported to be shifted to non-solar customers, is actually returned to customers numerous times, by diversification of the grid, reduction in peak gas-generated electricity, and by many other benefits that solar provides to all families and businesses.

            Consequently, it is in the best interest of our families and business-owners that customer-owned rooftop solar continues to be installed, under the current net-metering system. This is not best for the utilities only under the current business models that are now outdated. These models need to change. The Commission needs to require that TEP and UNS update their business models to mesh with the new technologies, the new ways in which people are living, and the improving costs of options customers did not have until recently. Additionally, the business models need to be changed to reflect the far lower impact the newer technologies have on the environment and on human health.

            When a rooftop-solar customer invests in solar, that family or business pays all of the construction cost, all of the interest and all of the maintenance costs. These costs add up to about 11¢ per kilowatt-hour if financed through a home equity loan, or a business loan. When a utility builds solar, it pays for these three categories and more (land acquisition, transmission lines, etc.), but then passes it on to the ratepayers. Similarly, when TEP acquires more natural & fracked gas capacity, it pays for these components of overall cost and passes them on to the ratepayers.

            TEP and UNS should not be allowed to ignore the fact that if solar rooftop is not invested in by families and businesses, the utilities will have to invest in other more expensive power-generation options and pass those costs on to their customers. To ignore this is deceitful and only works to further undermine the trust of ratepayers in the TEP and UNS Electric monopolies.

>>>      Action to take! For anyone wanting to comment before these cases close, you could address your comment as follows. Nobody knows when these two rate cases will close, but it will probably be open through July or August of 2016.

Re: Rate Cases E-04204A-15, E01933A-15-0322 and E-00000J-14-0023

Dear Commissioners Little, Burns, Stump, Forese and Tobin,


Methodology and References  

  1. a) This is calculated based on typical sale price of $3000/kilowatt of D/C electrical capacity, .8431 conversion rate to A/C electricity, a lifetime average degradation rate of 13.2% over the 30 year minimum life span, with a capacity factor (average output, compared to A/C rating) of 20.85% with 5% APR financing for a home equity line of credit (HELOC).
  2. b) Based on reviews of leases for solar homes in Tucson, Arizona, by one of the authors, Russell Lowes.
  3. c) Based on lower cost per kilowatt installed but higher loan rate, 6% APR.
  4. d) Based on $2800/kW D/C, 0.8431 conversion rate to A/C, a 13.2% average degradation rate for a 30 years, with a capacity factor of 20.85%, with 9% average financing, per Tucson Electric Power Integrated Resource Plan, which lists 8% as the average corporate bond rate, 10% as the average rate of return on equity and a typical 50/50% blend of the two financing options.
  5. e) Based on $2200/kW D/C, 0.86 conversion rate to A/C, a lower 9.5% average degradation rate for a 30 years, with a lower capacity factor of 18.3%, with X% average financing, based on the Tucson Electric Power Integrated Resource Plan, which lists X% as the average corporate bond rate, X% as the average rate of return on equity and a typical 50/50% blend of the two financing options.
  6. f) Based on what TEP is typically getting for Power Purchase Agreements and what it uses as the basis for its proposal to reimburse solar rooftop owners.
  7. g) Gas-produced power from Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis—Version 9.0, at:, p. 2 (click on “View the Study”). This is at the lower end of the two combined Gas Peaking and IGCC (more toward baseload) options. The average of these two is 16.6¢/kWhe. Additionally, see table below for similar approach to gas-generated electricity costs. This has to take into consideration more peaking energy costs for electricity that rooftop solar would displace. These costs can be as high as 21.8¢/kWh, according to Lazard, p. 2.
  8. h) , p. 2, energy efficiency is taken from the top of the range from Lazard’s (see g).

Cost for Conventional Combustion Turbine Gas Electrical Generating Plant

Using O&M & Fuel Costs from Table 8.4*, 2012 Dollars



kWe capacity scenario


cost per kWe**


Capitalization Rate (including principal, interest, taxes and fees)


Cost Per kWe Per Year



Cost Per kWhe for Capital


Hours Per Year


kWhe/Yr Generated



Cost Per kWhe for Capital








Subtotal O&M & Fuel


Total Cost Per kWhe


Non-Generation Utility Costs (incl. transmission, distribution, etc.)


Total Cost Per kWhe Delivered




Solar Under Siege | Alert: Three Arizona Electric Utilities Trying to Stop Solar Energy Rooftop Installations

UNS Electric, Inc., is the first of three utilities in Arizona to file a rate case to kill off the booming residential and business solar industry.  The utilities, UNS, Tucson Electric Power and Arizona Public Service, are undertaking a coordinated effort to increase rates, increase basic fees and wipe out family-owned solar energy rooftop installations. They hope to achieve this by implementing a new rate structure for consumers that includes three nasty components. These tactics are particularly detrimental to families and businesses in Arizona.  UNS is the first to propose it, but if the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) approves UNS’s proposal, the other two utilities are sure to follow.  The ACC is the regulatory commission for Arizona energy utilities.

First, UNS Electric wants to virtually eliminate a long-standing Arizona policy to put solar on parity with other energy options. This policy, called “net metering,” has been adopted by almost all states in the U.S.  Now UNS wants to reverse it in Arizona. Currently under this policy, your electric utility pays you the same rate for the excess solar electricity that you produce as you pay to buy energy from the grid when you need it. In other words, under the current system, if you have solar panels, the utility buys and sells energy from and to you at the same retail rate. UNS Electric wants to cut what they pay you in half. And then they would turnaround and sell the power that they buy from you to your neighbors for twice the price.
    Second, UNS  wants to increase the basic fee from $10 to $15 per month. This is bad in so many ways. It means a much bigger (50% bigger) portion of your bill would be beyond your control. When you reduce energy consumption, a move better for your pocketbook and for the planet, the fee would not go down. When you put solar on your house, which is better for your pocketbook and better for the planet, your fee would not go down. It is a disincentive to using your energy more wisely. And, because UNS gets the vast majority of their energy from coal and gas, it is a penalty to families that do the right thing by reducing their coal and gas-produced energy.
Finally, UNS wants to implement a demand charge for residential customers—something that no other major Arizona utility has imposed on residential users and is typically only used for commercial customers who are better able to control and track their usage. The “demand charge” would be a rate (cost per kilowatt-hour) calculation that would be assessed by UNS, and without notice to the customer, based on each customer’s highest energy peak usage over the worst 15 minute period in each month. So if your overall usage for a given month is lower than usual, if during that same month someone ran a number of appliances while the A/C was on over a 15 minute period, the cost per kilowatt-hour for the entire month would go up based on those brief 15 minutes. This would happen even if your peak was of no consequence to UNS.
    Not only have TEP and APS intervened in the UNS rate case on the side of UNS, all three companies have recently put forth the supposition that rooftop solar energy installed by one family is the cause of increased costs to other families. UNS and the other two utilities have been throwing out this concept, without referring to the other alternatives. Statements of costs of solar rooftop without comparing it to the other options are meaningless in the bigger picture. Energy costs for most other UNS options are much more expensive to these families without the participation of rooftop solar.
    If for example, UNS purchases solar energy at a large centralized solar facility, the cost per kilowatt-hour is currently about 6¢ for production, and going down each year, plus 6¢ for transmission and distribution, totaling 12¢/kilowatt-hour. This is after taking out about 2¢ from subsidies. New gas plants are about 13¢/ kilowatt-hour, with a likelihood of increasing fuel costs. This gas plant price is also is after subsidies are subtracted. New coal plants are about the same cost per kilowatt-hour.
    When UNS buys solar, or for that matter, gas or coal, the cost of construction is entirely passed on to the ratepayers, which includes families with and without solar. With utility solar, all ratepayers pay all the utility-solar-plant land acquisition costs, the environmental permit costs, the siting costs, equipment maintenance costs, increased transmission and distribution (T&D) costs, grounds cost, insurance, switch yard costs and more.  
    When a family or business decides to go rooftop solar, there are also system costs. However, instead of passing on these costs to other families, that solar family pays all the construction cost, all the interest costs, all of the other costs except a small portion of the normal transmission and distribution cost. The non-solar family would only pay a small added transmission and distribution cost. But this cost is very small compared to centralized plant T&D costs. The rooftop solar energy does not have to be transported on long-distance high voltage transmission lines. Rooftop solar largely uses existing lines. Under the UNS proposal, rooftop solar gets sold locally by UNS at a virtually 100% profit over a time span that is in an instant, not even the normal measurement of a year for return – that is price-gouging.
    In sum, the non-solar family pays much less for system expansion when the neighbor next door expands the system by 5 kilowatts, for example, compared to when the utility expands the system by that same 5 kilowatt of capacity.  Thus, the message that the Arizona utilities are crafting, that rooftop solar is costly, is false.  The much higher costs are with the other options of utility power plant construction and acquisition.  Moreover, solar energy offers substantial environmental benefits.  However, even without addressing these important advantages, solar rooftop costs less to all families, families with and without rooftop solar energy, than the alternative utility power plant expansion.
    I am hoping that many many ratepayers will submit comments to the ACC on this rate case. Please look over the action section below and at the URL in this section.


TAKE ACTION to keep the solar rooftop option thriving in Arizona! Send your comments to the ACC to the Sierra Club Chapter Director, Sandy Bahr (, as she has offered to get the 13 copies of our testimonies to the Arizona Corporation Commission, so that they will be a permanent part of the “docket,” or rate hearing case. Put at the top of your comments:
Regarding: UNS Electric Rate Case Docket # E-04204A-15-0142
You might address it with something like: “Dear Chairman Little and Members of the Arizona Corporation Commission:”
You can also find out more and comment at the Sierra Club’s

It is Time to Nuke the Nuclear Option!

Nuclear Electricity Makes No Sense.

By Russell Lowes, 11/18/2014

The Obama administration is already doing all it can realistically do. Despite its “all-of-the-above” façade, it favors nuclear power. To start with, the Energy Department is essentially a nuclear department. Professor Moniz is [was] Secretary because of his nuclear ties. DOE’s national laboratories are basically nuclear labs. It organizes international nuclear R&D groupings to encourage worldwide commitment to nuclear power. The Obama administration has created an inter-departmental Team USA, including State and Commerce, specifically to encourage domestic nuclear industry by promoting nuclear exports. The White House dedicates a staffer to this task. Secretary Moniz emphasizes his commitment to “jumpstart” the U.S. nuclear power industry. DOE subsidizes new domestic nuclear plants through loan guarantees. The nuclear Navy provides government-trained operating personnel. And to facilitate the licensing of new plants, and extend licenses for existing ones, the administration’s appointments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have ensured that it remains industry-friendly.

–Victor Galinsky, ex-NRC Commissioner, National Journal, February 2014

We keep hearing from certain people that nukes are essential to solve energy and global warming problems. They say that nuclear energy is carbon-free, or some say low-carbon. They are neither. They say that nuclear is low-cost. They say building another round of nuclear reactors is essential for the U.S. and the world. It is neither low-cost nor essential. To build more megawatts of nuclear energy would be a mega-distraction.

Such an emphasis would weaken our response and ability to stem future climate chaos. I will take on the mission here of showing how the horrendous costs of nuclear energy makes this source an unpractical one. It is especially unpractical now, during our quest to truly course-correct on climate change.

The bottom line is that electricity generated from new nuclear reactors is about 24 cents per kilowatt-hour. About this 24 cents per kilowatt-hour:

1)    This is double the electricity price for the U.S. on average .

2)    The cost of 24¢ for nuclear electricity is more than twice the 10¢ cost of solar electricity in Arizona, about twice the national average for solar.

3)    It is more than twice the cost of wind-generated and delivered electricity.

4)    Most important, nuclear electricity is 8 times the 3¢ national average cost of energy efficiency.

5)    It is about twice the cost of new coal and gas-generated electricity.

You might ask, well how do we know how expensive a reactor will be? We have nuclear plants scattered across the nation, so how much did these plants cost in the last round?

First, I have been using empirical analysis of the cost of nuclear energy since 1977. We used regression analysis in a book released in 1979. This book was instrumental in convincing investors to pull out of the Palo Verde Generating Station Units 4 & 5, America's largest nuclear plant, west of Phoenix. Our analysis projected the cost of the Palo Verde to be $6.1 billion in 1986 actual completion dollars. The managing utility company, Arizona Public Service Co. (APS), projected $2.8 billion at the same time, and they never waivering on its projection until construction was well under way. 

That down-graded plant of 3 reactors was finished for $5.9 billion. The APS projection was overrun in costs by 111%, while our projection was slightly over the final cost by less than 4%. Of all the reactor projections done across the land that we could find, ours was the most accurate nuclear reactor projection in the nation.

We used empirical approach to costing reactors, with regression and other modeling techniques. Apparently APS used the tried and true method of sales pitch estimation.

So how do we jump from then, when the final reactor at PVNGS was completed in 1986 to now? The method I use is four-fold.

1)    First, find out what the average cost of the last rush of reactors, which happened around 1987;

2)    Then apply general inflation to that cost to bring it up to today’s cost;

3)    Third, apply a projected inflation to the year that a new reactor might be completed; and

4)    Finally, weigh a series of factors that might increase or decrease this figure.

For step 1, a low/conservative estimate on reactor average cost for 1988 was $3100 per kilowatt of net plant size.

Putting that $3100 into 1987 dollars at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Standards inflation calculator yields $6105 per kilowatt of electrical capacity in 2013 dollars.

For Step 3, I project a common 4% inflation rate through 2022, the first year it is likely for the next small group of reactors in the U.S. to be completed. This yields a completion cost in 2022 of $8689/kWe.

For Step 4, I have come up with a survey of 27 reactor construction cost factors. This is the most varied and numerous list of items I have seen, so far, from all my reading on reactor costs. I estimate that the reactors of the early 2020s will cost about 20% more than the reactors finished in the last big wave of the mid-late 1980s.

In this 4th step, I have considered factors that would make nukes cheaper than in the real (inflation adjusted) dollars of the past, like labor cost declines in America. I have also taken into consideration factors that would increase the costs like certain material cost increases, and increases in plant robustness requiring more cement, copper, steel, etc.

After comparing the changing conditions since the time the last reactors were completed, I have come to what I consider a fairly accurate projection.  It probably won’t be as accurate as our PVNGS <4% accuracy level, but I am fairly sure it will be in the ball park.

After going through this process, the final figure I project for the next round of nukes built in 2022 is $9149/kilowatt of plant size. This is in sharp contrast to most sales pitches from utilities today, where they project more like $4000 per kWe. It would be good to remember that the average overrun was 220% in the last round. They sell these plants by unrealistically lowballing the construction cost.

What does that come out to in cost per kilowatt-hour? Just like with solar and wind, you can break this down to the kilowatt-hour of electrical capacity (kWe) level, and then apply production time (hours) to it to get kilowatt-hours of electricity delivered (kWhe). You can also multiply these kWe units to the typical sizes of the wind turbines, solar panels, or coal or nuclear plants.

Here are the calculations.

This is what it would cost roughly, to install 100 reactors in the U.S., a figure being brought up from time to time by members of Congress.


X 1,350,000 kWe plant size

= $12.351 billion

X 100 reactors occasionally proposed

= $1.2351 trillion total construction cost for 100 reactors

X 14% loan payback per year (capitalization rate)

= $172.9 billion per year for 30 years

X 30 years

= $5.187 trillion paid just for construction and loan and tax expenses, not counting fuel or operation & maintenance, nor transmission and distribution.

That $172.9 billion/year will cost the average person in the U.S. (assuming an average of 350 million people into the future):

$494/person/year for 30 years if we have a 350 million population, or

$988/taxpayer/year if we have 175 million taxpayers.


So, how do we get to cost per kilowatt-hour? For each kilowatt of plant capacity, you can calculate the cost to construct, the capital cost and then calculate the electricity the plant produces over a typical 40 years (before major costs of renovation add to the equation). Then simply divide the capitalization cost by the kWhe. Here we go (simply). . .


Cost Portion of the Equation:


X 14% capitalization rate =

$1,281 in capital cost/year

X 30 years

= $38,426 capital payback over 30 years for each kWe of size – This is just the total capital cost over 30 years.


Electrical Output Portion of the Equation:

1 kWhe

X 8766 hours/year on average

X 85% average capacity factor (electrical performance) over the life of the reactor

X 40 years

= 298,044 kWhe over 40 years – THIS is the e output over 40 years. Note that the capital payback is 30 years and the plant runs for a projected 40 years (before major capital upgrade, if it runs longer).


The Final Capital Cost/kWhe Calculation:

$38,426 Capital cost over 30 years per kilowatt of installed electrical capacity

/ 298,044 kWhe e output over 40 years

= 12.9¢ per kilowatt-hour of electricity.


There was a multi-disciplinary report put together by the nuclear industry, along with governmental and non-governmental entities called the Keystone Report.

This report projected fuel and operations and maintenance costs at:

4.3¢ per kWhe for fuel and O&M. That, plus. . .

+ 12.9¢ capitalization cost

= 17.2¢ production cost (pre transmission & distribution)

+ 7.0¢ per kWhe for transmission & distribution

= 24.2¢ per kilowatt-hour to your meter


What are the implications of such a high cost to your household, and to the larger society, the U.S. in this case?

I’ll leave that up to your imagination, as you ponder that solar is currently less than half the cost, while it continues its cost plunge, energy efficiency is about one eighth the cost and wind is also about half the cost. Getting back to Victor Galinsky’s quote from the beginning, the only way in which nuclear energy can compete in the market is in a skewed way, with the U.S. Government favoring it all the way along. That in fact is how nukes have gotten as far as they have. It’s time to nuke the nuclear option!

Install Solar at Your Home?

By Russell Lowes, Sierra Club Rincon Group Energy Chair, August 4, 2014

    A year and a half ago my wife, Lhasha, and I took the leap! After 17 years since buying our house, we finally installed solar panels.

Some of the crew members that installed our solar panels, picture by R. Lowes

    This article shows how solar is affordable now. Prices have come down even more, since we installed our solar panels. The costs of owning a solar array to power your home are now far cheaper than buying power from your utilities.
We had done a number of things to get ready for solar. We thought it would be best to first reduce our energy needs, so we engaged in a number of energy and water-saving techniques:

  • Added an evaporative cooler onto our air conditioner, so that we could switch back and forth with this piggyback system – we also put in a barometric damper between the AC and cooler so we would not have to do anything but turn one off and the other on (no getting up on the roof or putting metal sheets in place);

“Piggyback, or dual, evaporative cooler/HVAC system” picture by R. Lowes

  • Had insulation blown in to our attic;
  • Installed insulating blinds;
  • Installed double-pane windows (the noise reduction alone was worth it);
  • Replaced our lawn with desert landscaping and put in a grey-water system on our clothes-washer (with a Watershed Management workshop more water than energy-saving);
  • Replaced our A/C system with a much more efficient HVAC system; and
  • Insulated behind the cabinets on our kitchen cabinets.

    We did all these efficiency things first, to save energy and to reduce the panels we would need to buy. After saving up for solar by late last year, we decided to get three or four quotes. We received quotes from Sungevity, Technicians for Sustainability and Net Zero Solar, and a ballpark quote from Geo Innovation. These quotes were for similar products, and had similar contracts.

    I was hoping to go with Sungevity, because they linked with the Sierra Club in donating $750 to the Club per installation. However, Net Zero Solar in this instance provided the best bid. Their cost, pre-tax reduction and rebate, was $8925 (without the utility rebate, which we signed over to them). Technicians for Sustainability gave a $11,029 quote, and Sungevity gave a $16,910 quote (gross cost, pre-tax benefit reductions).
    So, you might ask, how quickly does solar pay for itself? How good of an investment is it?
    Here is a breakdown of how I would answer this question.
    First, it largely depends upon how you pay for the system. If you are buying the system and are comparing the cost of the system to what you would pay in electric bills, that would require a projected interest rate for a loan, and an electric price prediction.  
    If you are borrowing to buy the system, and are borrowing money at say 6%, it will be different than buying with cash. For my personal approach (after all, it is a personal approach), I do not think that investments will yield very much in the future, as the stock market is very high, so here I focused instead on the electric grid comparison. I also believe our U.S. economic foundation is weak and that we are likely to go into hyper-inflation in several years, similar to the early 1980s. I believe this will increase electricity bills substantially.
    It is important for me to emphasize to you: once you invest in solar, there is a good chance that your investment will be good for well over 25 years. Some solar panels are now still in use after 40 years. Your solar investment is not likely decrease in value like stocks or bonds during an economic downturn. It will keep its value and maybe increase in value if the cost of electricity does what I think it will do.
    This is how I personally approach it. If you are borrowing or leasing, you could come up with a different approach, or you could modify the table below. If you have positive equity in our house, home equity loans are a good way to go. The positive impacts on the environment are matched by the positive impacts on your wallet. Solar energy is economical now.



SunZia: The Making of a Slave State, First Power then Transmission

Why does Arizona tolerate it? Why do its citizens tolerate it? Who benefits by creating a slave-state status for Arizona?

by Russell Lowes, and

Energy Chair for the Sierra Club Rincon Group, August 9, 2012

Some states in this fine nation export goods in such a way as to benefit all or many within the state. Let’s take the examples of maple syrup from Vermont, fish catch from Alaska, honey from Utah, or high-technology solutions from California. All of these examples incur some handsome benefits for many or all of the state population in export revenue. That revenue can come in the form of tax revenue or in the form of business income, and perhaps high numbers of jobs provided or even more intangible benefits, like crop pollination.

Not so with energy exports of Arizona. With more than a third of our electricity being exported, there is very little benefit to any significant population of this state. Sure there are some construction jobs that actually don’t go to out-of-state construction workers, and really do go to in-state residents. Sure there are some maintenance jobs for running these plants that also go to in-state residents of Arizona.

However, there are a scant number of jobs in coal, gas or nuclear power production. For every million invested in coal production, only 6 jobs are produced. Fossil-fuel and nuclear plants are capital intensive industries, where the money goes largely for capital-intensive power plant and construction components, many of which are produced overseas.

In contrast to 6.9 jobs for coal and 4.2 jobs per million dollars spent on nuclear energy, solar energy installation produces about 13 jobs per million dollars spent.  Whenever you put money toward low job-producing options, you deplete funds for higher jobs-producing options. To put money into coal and nukes reduces overall employment, because that money would have gone to other projects, or perhaps even just into more discretionary spending, which has a much higher jobs output than 4.2 or 6.9 jobs per million dollars spent.

Energy exports from Arizona are not taxed in any significant way that would bring further benefits to the state, except for property taxes that benefit the local areas a bit.  We do not tax the payroll that goes for power plant components from out-of-state -– and mostly out-of-country -– workers who create these parts and machinery for the coal, nuclear and natural gas plants. We do not put a sales tax on the exported energy. We do not tax the income of the out-of-state corporations like Bechtel, GE-Hitashi, Toshiba-Westinghouse or others who build these plants.

Then comes SunZia, which some think of as Sunzilla, a monster transmission facility. This system would transport electricity from coal and natural gas producing plants right through Arizona. The company behind SunZia, SouthWestern Power Group, would have you believe that the 16-story high transmission lines would primarily transmit renewable energy. However, every one of their many options for routing their transmission lines goes by a planned fossil-fuel plant in southeastern Arizona and other potential gas plants in New Mexico.

The owners of the Bowie, AZ fossil-fuel plant and SunZia apparently own no renewable energy facilities to speak of. This is a good example of green-washing, where they promise renewables and then you actually deliver dirty energy. Explicitly put, they are using renewables as a cover to deliver their dirty fossil fuel plant.

It is SouthWestern Power Group that wants to build a large natural gas plant north of the Chiracauhua Mountains, near Bowie. It would pollute the air of Chiracauhua National Monument, the Coronado National Forest lands, the Wilcox Playa and the Wilcox area. This plant is east of Tucson, toward the New Mexico boundary line.

The wind from this facility would blow pollutants to Tucson during our hot summer months. This fossil-fuel plant would pollute a large region including parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico.  Of course, winds don’t stop at boundary lines, so the pollution, like all pollution of fossil and nuclear plants, would thin out and spread globally.

There is no need for this huge transmission line. Instead, there is a large precedent for energy efficiency improvement in the U.S., in the Southwest and in Arizona. The Arizona Corporation Commission, which is a top regulator for electricity and its transmission in Arizona, has established a requirement for Arizona of 22% reduction in power production in Arizona by 2020. This large electricity reduction is going to make new transmission lines much less viable. On the other hand, to build transmission lines essentially refocuses attention on production, rather than reaching our energy efficiency potential.

All the while, if Arizona were to use its energy as efficiently as California, which has focused on EE programs for a long time, it would reduce its overall electricity production by 52%!

Source: New Rules Project, Energy Self-Reliant States, October 2009, p. 25.

With all this energy reduction going on, why would it be beneficial to build SunZia?  It is highly beneficial for out-of-state and overseas corporations. For typical Arizona residents, it is the opposite of beneficial.

Arizona stands to lose environmental quality, and the economic negatives that go along with these environmental quality reductions. The towers and lines themselves contribute to visual blight of the beautiful natural settings of Arizona, and New Mexico. The lines will contribute to transporting more electricity from natural gas – an absolute certainty, with the tie-in to the natural gas plant near Bowie.

Economically, this is not the way to go. Many studies have been done on the average cost of natural gas electricity, on coal electricity, on wind and on the cost of energy efficiency. Here are rough cost estimates for each of these delivered electricity options, or in the case of energy efficiency, saved electricity costs:

Costs Per Kilowatt-Hour of Newly Constructed Power Plant Electricity Delivered or Electricity Saved
Coal               13 cents per kilowatt-hour
Natural Gas    11 cents
Nuclear           24 cents
Solar PV          6-12 cents, depending upon solar gain for each area
Wind              11 cents
Energy Saved/Efficiency   3 cents (yes, as in one eighth the cost of nuclear energy or one fourth of coal)

We have enough base load electricity generators for our current use in Arizona, regionally and nationwide, on average, already. We will have even more than enough base load electricity generation with the reduction in load that will occur with nation-wide and state-wide energy efficiency portfolios.

The least-cost approach is energy efficiency. The next least-cost approach is EE mixed with renewables that are distributed generation, in other words, renewables that are generated and distributed locally.
The federal Bureau of Land Management is the agency that is controlling this environmental impact statement (EIS) process. The Draft EIS for SunZia has been done now. It is very biased. For example it makes the claim that this line is for renewable energy transmission, without any significant justification for this claim. The BLM is clearly in cahoots with the company promoting this highly profitable but destructive energy system.

I ask the BLM to clarify what the cost is of the “no-build” option for Arizona and New Mexico, compared to the cost of the SunZia project. I want the BLM to go back to the drawing board and get perspectives on what a no-build option would ultimately do to the total energy cost outlay from the citizens of Arizona and the region. The BLM should contract with reputable firms that do not have a hand in perpetuation of the 20th Century technologies of coal, nuclear and natural gas electricity production. They should consider companies like Synapse, the New Rules Project and others that are not enmeshed in the technologies of the past.

The BLM knows that this system has variable boundaries, as electricity marries electricity, once it gets on the western grid system. However, the BLM also knows that it can reasonably quantify what electricity will cost with a system that is unneeded versus what it will cost with a grid system that is not unnecessarily expanded. The BLM knows that if we put the energy dollars into energy efficiency and distributed generation renewables, the overall cost of energy to citizens in the West will be lower.

So, is Arizona headed to becoming a resource-depleted slave state, a third-world country-like state? Is this beautiful state going to be beholden to outside interests that profit from this potential deterioration? Or is Arizona going to start taking the reins in hand and steer away from this outside domination?

Do we want to go down the tired path of fossil and nuclear energy, or do we want to ramp up our energy efficiency and blend it with renewables, cleaning our environment and reaping economic benefits of cheaper energy costs and more jobs?

A deadline of August 22nd has been set for this important phase of opposition to this project.

To let the BLM know what you think about this project, you can go online to download a comment form at:
This form has directions on where to send it, or you can e-mail your comments to:
You can also obtain a good perspective on this project at the website of the Cascabel Working Group, where you can obtain the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (in numerous pieces, several hundred pages of primary sections and addendums) at:

America has saved more energy than you might think. YOU are saving more energy than you might think.

Saving Energy Comes in Many Forms
“Saving Energy Series, Part I”

by Russell Lowes, April 2, 2011

In 1973, at the height of the OPEC Oil Embargo, America was coming to grips with the concept of limited oil reserves. During that year, all companies, citizens and governments in the U.S. used a total of 77 quads of energy—that is, 77 quadrillion British thermal Units (Btu).(1) 

Thirty-eight years later, the country’s annual consumption is 98 quads,(2) only 27% more than in 1973.

“Wait a minute,” you might ask, “our economy has expanded much more than that, right”?  You would be right. Our economy expanded from $4.93 trillion to about $13.19 trillion. These figures are in 2000 dollars with the inflation adjusted out.(3) Yet, all of the energy that we use as Americans — living in houses, driving everywhere, producing goods and services, governing our nation, states, counties and cities — adds up to just 96 quads, just 27% more than almost 4 decades ago.

That means that we had a 267% increase in economic output, an increase that is radically more than the 27% energy growth.  When you factor in our conversion from a medium manufacturing country in 1973 to a lighter manufacturing country today (manufacturing uses more energy than services) the energy equivalency needs to be adjusted downward. However, still, our improvement in energy consumed per dollar of economic output since 1973 is undeniably impressive.

This is illustrated by the table below.

So how did we do that? How did we increase our economic activity with so little energy expansion? We did so by saving energy. Saving energy falls into two categories: energy conservation through cutbacks in the use of energy, and what I will call energy efficiency, through improving the way goods and services are produced.  This article and the table above, address only energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency includes producing more services like delivering packages around the country for less energy. It also includes producing more goods for the same buck, like reducing the plastic and metal in a radio that performs the same function.

How Are YOU Saving Energy Through Energy Efficiency?

In all likelihood, you are contributing to this increased energy efficiency.  You may not even know that you are buying something that has been manufactured in a way that has improved in efficiency. 

Take the clothes you are wearing. Since 1973, that first year of increased energy awareness in the U.S., clothing has been dyed using more effective technologies, like using electrostatic adherence techniques. That has allowed manufacturers to use less dye, which means producing less dye and reducing all the energy that used to go into manufacturing. You may not have even known it.

On the other hand, if you have changed the type of light bulbs you use, you probably do know that compact florescent lights save about 75% of the energy that old-fashioned incandescent bulbs use. These CFLs have improved in recent years to give better lighting.  For example, the U.S. Government Energy Star-rated CFLs now start out with the same amount of light almost the instant you turn them on, the amount of mercury has been reduced, the light spectrum has improved, and the annoying hum has been eliminated.

Even some power plants have contributed to our energy efficiency gains.  These power plants have increased their thermal efficiency, which means that for every 100 units of heat they produce, they now convert more of that heat to electricity.  That reduces the need to produce so much heat (raw energy production) and pump so much water to cool these plants, which uses a tremendous amount of energy.

With that in mind, below is a graphic of the energy efficiency categories that will be helping America reduce its energy use per dollar of economic activity, or per average item bought. This is a projection of what might happen between now and 2020. The point of presenting this is to show the vast array of efficiency techniques that we both have been using and are still improving upon.

The improvement in energy efficiency since 1973 has saved more energy than all the additional energy expansion since that year. This will continue on into the future, and negate the need for additional power plants and oil consumption for transportation and more.

Above table: McKinsey Report finds that U.S. could save $1.2 trillion through 2020, by investing $520 billion in improvements. Kate Galbraith, “McKinsey Report Cites $1.2 Trillion in Potential Savings from Energy Efficiency,” New York Times, July 29, 2009,


(1)    U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration,…/All_25th_Anniversary.xls and
(2)    Data360,