- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) - Tim Smith will never look at a cloudy day the same way again after installing 30 solar panels on the roof of his workshop in north Hastings.

Tim and Pam Smith became the first Hastings Utilities customers to take advantage of LB 436, which allows participants to connect co-generation installations.

When the law was passed in 2009, its intent was to encourage private investment in renewable energy, stimulate economic growth and enhance diversification of energy resources in the state.

At the end of the year, the customer is paid for unused power at wholesale cost - in this case 1.5 cents per kilowatt.

The Hastings Tribune (https://bit.ly/1NyNBYY ) reports that the Hastings Board of Public Works approved the agreement during the board’s Jan. 14 meeting. Smith installed the panels last December.

Working at full capacity, the solar panels are anticipated to generate up to 5 kilowatts of electricity an hour. The Smiths anticipate the panels ideally will replace 80 to 90 percent of their energy consumption at home.

On a recent cloudy afternoon, the 30 panels were producing just 750 watts, which Tim said was enough electricity to power a couple fluorescent bulbs or 10 LEDs.

He blames himself for the area’s lack of sunshine over the past month.

“I’ve never seen so many cloudy days until I put up solar panels,” he said.

He plans to add another 30 panels this year, which will get them closer to covering their entire energy consumption.

The couple has long sought to be environmentally conscious.

They installed water-filled solar panels on their first house more than 30 years ago. Those solar panels generated energy as the water heated.

They hope their descendants look back at them as trendsetters.

“You want to save it for the next generation,” Tim said. “You plant a tree for the next generation. You do all these things for the next generation.”

Benefits of panels come not from the buyback agreement but from the energy savings and a 30 percent federal tax credit.

With those incentives, the Smiths expect the panels to pay for themselves in about 10 years.

“Let’s put it this way, I could buy a really nice, brand new pickup for the system here,” he said.

While the pickup will depreciate in value, Tim said the panels’ value will increase as utility rates go up over time.

When it comes to energy efficiency, the Smiths point out that switching from fluorescent bulbs to LEDs is more effective than adding solar panels.

“Solar panels will do exactly the same amount of good because it’s exactly the same amount of kilowatts, but there are faster ways to reduce your energy consumption than this,” Pam said. “Faster would be to change your draw, which is LED lights.”

As retired teachers of Hastings Public Schools - Tim in automotive technology at Hastings High and Pam as an elementary science teacher - they had the interest, experience and time to take on a project like this.

Pam has been retired four years. Tim has been retired six years.

Throughout his teaching career, Tim engaged in projects similar to his solar panels.

With his mechanical background he was able to help with the install, which made the process less expensive.

Assisting his vendor, Tim helped install the panels over a two-day period in December.

Besides the solar panels, Tim’s shop includes two new water heaters powered by the solar panel that pump heated water through the floor to heat the building.

It came as a surprise to the Smiths that they were the first Hastings residents to follow the LB 436 process to the finish and sign a contract with Hastings Utilities.

“I knew I didn’t see solar panels around town but I just hadn’t really thought about it that nobody else is doing it,” Pam said.

A lot of work went into establishing the contract, the couple said, but that work was primarily ensuring the installation complies with all necessary safeguards to ensure the safety of Hastings Utilities’ employees.

It helps that as a long-time automotive technology teacher at Hastings High he had existing relationships with HU employees and utility board members who are his former students.

With the Smiths being the first HU customers to complete a co-generation, it was a new experience to Hastings Utilities as well as the Smiths.

While it was a big undertaking, the Smiths said Hastings Utilities was agreeable to work with on the arrangement.

Tim describes it as a “joint adventure.”

“It’s always up to the rate payer,” HU Manager Marv Schultes said. “This has been in place and Tim’s got a desire to do something like that and if it works for him that’s great. We want to work with our customers.”

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Information from: Hastings Tribune, https://www.hastingstribune.com

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