Area business owner joins ranks of alternative-energy advocates
By: Don Kirkland
January 10, 2009

If T. Boone Pickens isn’t available when you’re looking for advice on alternative-energy solutions, who do you call? The next Pickens in line, of course.

That’s what Kyrene Corridor insurance agent Mary Contreras did when she began thinking about ways to reduce the $800-a-month electric bill for her State Farm office while reducing her “carbon footprint” at the same time.

Knowing area stockbroker Pam Pickens both as an insurance client and friend, as well as daughter of the nation’s most high-profile advocate for reducing energy consumption, Contreras asked for the distaff Pickens’ help in finding a solution.

The result: A fullscale solar installation sprawling across the tile roof of Contreras’ insurance offices on Warner Road just west of the Price/101 freeway.

“The first half-day it was installed we saved 6.2 kilowatts of electricity and one and a half pounds of carbon,” Contreras said, pointing to the wall-mounted digital controller that silently clicked through a series of continuous updates.

Although she hasn’t yet seen a bill from Salt River Project, Contreras said SRP representatives told her she should save $750 or more during the summer months and up to $400 during the off season, for a total approaching $1,200 a year.

Those amounts, she noted, are based on today’s costs of electricity, which she said some consultants have suggested will increase markedly in the next few years.

“At the current figures, it will take nine to 12 years for us to amortize our installation costs,” Contreras said. “If the rates go up, it will be even sooner.”

Of the total cost, SRP paid 35 percent. Coupled with state and federal tax rebates, Contreras was left with a balance of only 20 percent of the total, which she said made the installation financially feasible.

As of now, Contreras is the benefactor of one of only 20 commercial solar installations throughout SRP’s coverage area. SRP Engineer David Felix, who administers the utility’s Sustainability Initiatives and Technologies program, says he’d like to see others adopt the same technology.

“We have about 500 residential installations, but there’s still plenty of opportunity for commercial applications,” he said.

“With the incentives and the potential for future cost increases, coupled with prices on solar installations constantly going down, this is a great time to consider this kind of alternative,” said Felix.

He noted, though, that solar costs still remain higher than other, less expensive energy strategies—among them window replacement and having ductwork checked for leaks—that can provide a payback that is more immediate and less costly to accomplish.

Although Contreras says she’s optimistic about the cost- and carbon-saving results of the new solar equipment, she’s not finished with her one-person energy crusade.

Her next step will be to install solar-barrier ceiling materials and convert the office’s existing halogen lights in accent areas to light-emitting-diode, or LED, technology.

And while she rightly takes credit for being among the local pioneers of solar conversion, she says the real thanks should go to her dad, a longtime member of the rural electric board in her home state of South Dakota.

“He’s talked about this since I was a kid; now he knows I was paying attention.”

Information about solar conversion is available by contacting SRP engineer David Felix at (602) 236-2326.




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