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Alternative sources of power are in business

Nov 5, 2000 - Dan Weisman, Staff Writer - North County Times

ESCONDIDO ---- San Diego County's status as an energy disaster area has propelled the few North County alternative energy companies into seeing green ---- green as in environmentally-friendly systems and green as in increased income.

"Business has picked up tremendously," said Mark Snyder, whose Mark Snyder Electric has been a North County leader in alternative energy systems since the mid-1980s.

"We have a lot more systems going in now," Snyder said. "Right now the demand is as great as it was for Y2K, maybe higher. We had a half-dozen calls a day before interest died down over Y2K Then it was maybe 2-to-3 calls a week. Ten out of 10 of them want to cut their bills. We start with energy efficiency and of those 10 have been selling to 50 percent of them."

Solar energy systems are far and away the most popular with North County homeowners. Wind powered systems and other "off-the-grid" energy solutions are hardly used locally. Not enough wind around here for windmills and continued issues about efficiency and costs with other systems, said Snyder, who sells those systems mainly in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

"Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency," Snyder said as he looked across his self-built home on 20 hilltop acres overlooking the San Pasqual Valley. The Snyder place also has an extensive "permaculture" farming operation that uses no chemicals and is aided by a dozen distinct ecosystems that enable the growing of apples, blackberries, artichokes, guava, papaya and hosts a healthy flock of free range chickens, among other delights.

"Efficiency is really important," Snyder said. "The average home can have energy-saving appliances, evaporative cooling and solar panels and save on 50 percent of the power used in the home. We generally tie solar panels and utility inter-ties with an overall efficiency program."

Typical job: $10,000

The standard solar energy units Snyder sells can provide 8,000 watts at a time through 4-panel solar units installed on the roof. A typical installation costs around $10,000 with a new state "buy down" program providing a $3-a-watt subsidy that accounts for about 30 percent of the costs.

Considering a 25-year lifespan for the units, Snyder calculates the costs end up at 12 cents a kilowatt while the current rate for conventional energy stands at 13 cents a kilowatt.

Of course, this summer, as San Diego Gas and Electric squared off in a newly deregulated market, North County energy consumers found rates exploding from 4 cents per kilowatt to more than 21 cents per kilowatt.

Snyder has built a significant presence in the alternative energy marketplace with 15 to 35 employees ---- depending on available jobs ---- and contracting projects in 22 states.

Alternative energy accounts for 25 percent to 30 percent of the business, generates $150,000-$200,000 annually and has tripled in the last year, Snyder said.

"I think next year it will continue to increase," Snyder added, referring to new commercial work, remodels, and project roll-outs handled by his company that generates much of its business from a network of informed customers and a MarkSnyderElectric.com Web site.

"When a solar power system is mounted on your home's rooftop, not only do you get electricity at a competitive price but you also avoid the distribution and transmission charges that now represent more than half of your monthly electric bill," Snyder added.

Snyder estimated that five or six companies now provide alternative energy systems that continue to evolve.

One of those is Horizon Energy on Mission Avenue in Escondido. Business has "always been busy," said office manager Carol Landry. "But now we're really busy.

"We have had so many inquiries we now have a seminar Wednesday nights at 6 p.m. for those," Landry said. "Most of the new inquiries have been about solar electric systems. We're installing one a week lately. We do service as well and are booked two weeks in advance right now."

Wind systems also for sale

Horizon specializes in 16-20 solar panel systems that generate 10,000 watts a day; 2,000 watts at a time, and cost around $26,000 with the state "buy-down" subsidies covering up to 30 percent of installation costs.

"We sell wind systems, too, for $600 ---- mainly to people in Mexico," Landry said. "Baja is always having brownouts."

The only other significant application of solar energy technology in North County appears to come in the form of pools. Swimming pool owners have increasingly turned to the sun for heating water and away from natural gas powered heating systems that now are found in the vast majority of pools.

North County companies specializing in installing solar panels for pool heating reported a heavy increase in calls about alternative power in general and a slight increase in overall business.

"We've gotten a ton more calls, probably because of the electric bills," said Lisa Esposito of Performance Solar of Escondido. "Overall, I think business has increased a little bit."

Ted Mount, owner of what is believed to be the largest solar energy contractor for swimming pools in the West, said his company, Natural Energy USA, had a lot of people calling about installations and business was increasing.

Mount said his company also fields several calls a day about solar power for homes and the company's Web site has "gotten a lot more hits."

Consumer interest in savings on water heating, in general, also have contributed to the company's doubling of sales in the last year, Mount said, adding the company projected doubling sales again this year.

The business, based near the Escondido Auto Park on South Vinewood Street, generated $2 million in sales last year, employed 35 people and is expanding into major Arizona and Nevada markets, Mount said.

"Solar electricity today for homes is too costly, so our main market is solar for swimming pools," Mount said. "The energy costs are so high people can't afford to heat their pools. With solar heat, they can heat the pool for nine months a year and using solar panels to heat (home) water can save 80 percent on their annual water bill."

Solar panels to heat pool water are installed in a day by a small crew and average around $4,255 an installation while installing a storage tank heating system that contains 80 gallons of hot water runs around $3,500, Mount said.

Contact staff writer Dan Weisman at (760) 739-6644 or e-mail to dweisman@nctimes.com.