Red Rock Bakery has become the first bakery in Utah to be powered by 100 percent solar energy. Owner Howard Trenholme installed 76 rooftop solar panels in June. Despite miscommunications with Rocky Mountain Power that delayed the project, the solar panels are now functioning and have produced more than a megawatt of energy for both the bakery and the Main Street Office Building where the business is located.
The panels have the capacity to produce 25 kilowatts of power and have been generating electricity since the utility company set up Trenholme’s meter on June 29. The panels are mounted on top of the Main Street Office Building, which Trenholme also owns. Gardner Energy, the same company that installed the solar panels at Moab City Hall, also did the installation for Red Rock Bakery.
Trenholme is participating in Rocky Mountain Power’s net-metering program, meaning that any energy generated by the solar panels will offset the bakery’s energy use. After the bakery’s electricity needs are met, any additional electricity generated will subsidize the power needs of the other tenants of the office building. Trenholme estimates that the panels will generate approximately 80 percent of the building’s overall energy needs.
Trenholme said he was motivated by economic factors to install the panels. The panels, which have a 25-year lifespan, will pay for themselves after seven years, without considering tax incentives, he said.
“Ultimately you’ll get to the point where you’re not paying anything for electricity,” he said.
Environmental considerations also motivated Trenholme.
“It behooves the nation to do this because it cleans the air. Using green energy is less coal being used, less water, less fossil fuel,” he said. “For future generations it seems to be the way forward.”
Trenholme decided to install panels this spring, he said, before prospective changes in the rate of solar energy reimbursement in Utah might go into effect, he said.
“I was told as long as businesses engage in a contract, even a verbal contract with a solar provider, they’ll be grandfathered into [current rates]. … I’m a commercial enterprise so that rate is frozen in place,” Trenholme said.
The Utah Public Service Commission will consider Rocky Mountain Power’s request to adjust rates in August. The changes would make solar more expensive for net-metering customers like Trenholme, who would be paid for their solar energy contributions at a lower rate than they would pay the utility company for conventional energy from the grid.
Rocky Mountain Power has defended its request for the rate change for solar users.
“Rocky Mountain Power supports renewable resources as long as an appropriate rate is in place that allows customers to use private generation without adversely affecting other residential customers,” said Gary Hoogeveen, Rocky Mountain Power senior vice president, in a statement on the company’s website. “Customers partially relying on renewable energy through the net-metering program must still pay their fair share of the costs to serve them.”
State lawmakers also voted this year to phase out solar tax credits for commercial and residential users.
Trenholme had some difficulty working with the utility company, Rocky Mountain Power, during the solar panel installation process. Trenholme said he received “mixed messages” from the utility company about whether he would be required to pay for an upgrade on a transformer that serves six buildings on Main Street.
“It took them a really long time to make up their mind about what they wanted to do and they gave us varying, different responses and it ended up being an $8,000 bill at the end of it that we weren’t necessarily anticipating,” said Gardner Energy employee Alex Jahp, who was the project manager for the Red Rock Bakery solar installation.
Ultimately, Rocky Mountain Power refunded Trenholme 75 percent of the cost of the $8,000 transformer replacement.
“I think they learned a lot out of the experience. I was happy with the resolve from my standpoint,” Trenholme said.
Jahp said that for Gardner Energy, Rocky Mountain Power has become more difficult to work with in the past several months, and that such delays and miscommunications are common.
“They would essentially say that [the delays are] just because they’re so backed up. … It’s really frustrating because they don’t get back to us with information about like, whether a project would need that effective grounding,” Jahp said. Effective grounding, which the transformer replacement provided for Trenholme’s solar panels, is a type of electrical grounding that can make solar installation projects more expensive.
“Some other utilities don’t require it, some others do. … Some engineers say that you should do it and others say that you shouldn’t,” Jahp said. “From my perspective, and from the solar industry’s perspective there’s very little that shows that it does anything and there are a lot of studies that show it can actually cause problems.”
“It sometimes has taken months to get that information from them,” Jahp added. “It’s really hard on us because then we have to come back to a customer and say, you need to pay this additional money. And that’s kind of what happened with Howard.”
The company has told Jahp and Gardner energy that they require effective grounding because they have to be as careful as possible to protect the electrical grid.
“It would be unfair for me to say that it’s something unjust or really wrong that they’re doing,” Jahp said. However, he said he believes the delays and miscommunications are part of a pattern.
“The things that are completely fair and that most people would agree upon, is that they are becoming progressively more anti-solar and they are really not helping the industry and maybe making things difficult,” Jahp said, adding that Rocky Mountain Power’s request to change rates for net-metering customers and their decision to end the Solar Incentive Program are examples of that trend.
Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson David Eskelsen said that the company regrets the misunderstanding that led to Trenholme being required to pay more than originally anticipated.
“There was anticipated a relatively simple installation at a little additional cost and the company regrets that this misunderstanding occurred before the complete evaluation of the job was finished,” Eskelsen said. “What happened was we reviewed the technical requirements for the safe operation, adequate grounding, and the type of equipment that’s necessary to connect the net metering equipment and this is something that’s required by the … rules with the Utah Public Service Commission that governs these installations. As a result of that technical review, it was determined that the replacement of the transformer at the customers expense was required. … Very often the equipment involved serves more than one customer so that adds to the complexity.”
Eskelsen added, “It was a reasonably complicated case and we have learned some things about the technical nature of this installation and we’re actually grateful for Mr. Trenholme’s feedback for us to improve the process of net-metering installation and customer service.”
Infrastructure modifications are sometimes necessary, Eskelsen said, because the utility system is built to handle moving energy in one direction only, from a central station.
“When you introduce power generation out on the end of the distribution system, you introduce a complexity to power flow that the system was not originally designed for… we have come across instances where additional safety and protection measures are necessary,” he said.
Eskelsen said Rocky Mountain Power supports net-metering and private generation, but safety rules exist to protect both customers and utility equipment. He added that the transformer upgrade the company asked Trenholme to pay for was both necessary and less expensive than other options.
“The company is absolutely committed to work with all customers who want to install their own generation, and while it does sometimes produce a rather complex work requirement, we’re committed to see that through and help our customers get what they want,” Eskelsen said.
Rocky Mountain Power has completed approximately 19,000 net-metering installations so far in Utah, Eskelsen said, serving many wind and solar energy-producing customers.
Trenholme said he is happy with his decision to install the panels.
“It’s amazing how much [energy] it’s cranking out. Very pleasing,” he said.
Trenholme joins a number of businesses and organizations in town that generate solar energy, including Moab city, Canyon Voyages, Moab Cyclery, Grand Rental Center, KZMU, the local Rocky Mountain Power office and Moab Brewery.
Trenholme suggests that any commercial enterprise interested installing solar panels begin the process soon.
“As long as businesses engage in a contract, even a verbal contract with a solar provider, they’ll be grandfathered into before the law changes,” Trenholme said. “As businesses you’re guaranteed to be the rate that you subscribe to to begin with … as a commercial entity.”
Rocky Mountain Power also provides tips and resources for customers interested in the net-metering program at: www.rockymountainpower.net/netmetering.
ByBy Rose Egelhoff