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Guest Column - September 2009

Design Corner

Clean & Free Power

By Dave Hammel

Also available for use by recreation centers are a wide variety of solar photovoltaic systems, which convert sunlight directly into electricity. A typical system uses roof- or ground-mounted panels of cells comprised of poly-crystalline silicon that activates the movement of electrons. An inverter transforms the direct current (DC) power into alternating current (AC) for direct use by the recreation center or for back-feeding (reverse metering) into the power grid and an eventual credit from the local utility.

In bright sunlight, a square foot of a conventional photovoltaic panel will yield approximately 10 watts of power. The approximate cost for a typical silicon cell system, before incentives, is $80 to $100 per square foot of collector or $7 to $8 per watt of capacity.

The important words here are "before incentives." The relative high initial cost of installing a photovoltaic system can be considerably reduced through a variety of incentives and credits aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and dependency on fossil fuels.

In Colorado, for example, it is possible to save a significant amount off of the cost of a solar installation, resulting in a very short payback time. The incentives include rebates from the local utility (Xcel Energy of Colorado) of up to $3.50 per installed watt.

The incentives could include a federal renewable energy grant equal to 30 percent of the total cost. Created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the grants may be taken in lieu of an investment tax credit. Since most recreation centers are non-taxpayers, these federal incentives may only be accessed through a solar power purchase agreement (SPPA). Also, these grants can only be used for solar photovoltaic systems. Solar pool-heating systems are not eligible.

An SPPA is an alternative to financing and owning a solar power system. It offers public agencies an opportunity to install solar power at their recreation center without paying upfront costs or worrying about system operation and maintenance. Essentially a third-party "for-profit" entity will pay for the system and then sell the power back to the municipality or nonprofit for a period of 20 years. Since the third party owns the system, they take advantage of the incentives and pass it on through the agreement.

Solar incentives vary considerably from state to state and among utility providers. To get particulars on incentives and programs available in your state and community, visit The comprehensive database for energy renewables and efficiency is a project of the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

In addition to incentives and rebates, there are a number of other financing options available in various parts of the country, including power purchasing agreements (discussed above) and contracts with energy service companies that can cover all the upfront costs of installing solar energy systems. Consider a no-interest bond available from the Treasury Department called Clean Renewable Energy Bonds or CREBs. This is a great way to pay for a system over time at no interest. The bond holder receives the federal tax credit in lieu of the traditional bond interest. Renewable energy certificates, which recognize solar as a preferred environmentally friendly source of energy, can also be sold for another source of revenue.