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New solar energy model ready for Santa Fe

The Heath Foundation has announced that its new alternative energy project, HeathSUN, is ready to “solarize” Santa Fe. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Heath Foundation has announced that its new alternative energy project, HeathSUN, is ready to “solarize” Santa Fe. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Heath Foundation, which has been building its profile in Santa Fe by staging concerts with big-name artists like Lyle Lovett and free music shows in the Railyard, is getting started on a much bigger project.

At a Heath concert – last Saturday night’s raucous performance by Los Lobos at a nearly sold out Lensic Performing Arts Center – foundation president Jim Heath announced that the HeathSUN Project to “solarize” Santa Fe is ready to go.

Concert-goers could pick up cards to express interest in the foundation’s solar plan and help provide an indication of the project’s “actual market potential” in the Santa Fe area.

Heath’s plan is designed to get homes onto solar power, but without a homeowner having to buy a solar system and also without the incentives that other models provide. For instance, HeathSUN customers won’t make money by selling any energy back to utilities like PNM and they won’t get tax credits.

Diane Bardal, executive director, said HeathSUN’s motive is “we want to do good – we are not out there to make revenue or make a profit.” The organization wants to develop something sustainable and support the community, she said.

Here are key features of the HeathSUN plan:

  • HeathSUN will provide a complete rooftop photovoltaic solar system for homeowners in Santa Fe County at no charge to the customer. HeathSUN owns and maintains each rooftop solar system, and the ancillary metering and control equipment, and there’s no lien on the house.
  • Under HeathSUN’s set-up, customers will continue to have access to electricity from PNM when needed. For solar energy from the rooftop system, the customer pays HeathSUN 80 percent of the going PNM rate, so the solar power’s cost would rise and fall with how much PNM is charging. The customer gets separate bills from HeathSUN and PNM.
  • In a new twist, HeathSUN says there will be no “net metering” in this model, meaning no HeathSUN solar power would flow through a PNM meter, the standard way to provide a seamless household electrical system. When someone turns on an appliance in a HeathSUN house, technology in the home’s own electrical control box decides whether to pull from the rooftop solar system or from PNM, according to Bardal.

That absence of net metering also means HeathSUN customers won’t sell or get credit for any extra power supplied to PNM for its grid. If a customer’s solar system makes more energy than the household needs, that power is lost. But HeathSUN’s plan is to “undersize” its systems. The idea is get people onto solar and to diversify their energy supply.

  • Customers’ payments to HeathSUN, beyond what’s needed for maintenance and management expenses, will go to a so-far unnamed “third party investor” expected to provide all the startup money for the project and who will benefit from government tax incentives. If there’s money left over, it will go to area charities, including many already supported by the Heath Foundation.

The HeathSUN set-up is in some ways similar to existing solar models used by for-profit companies like Tesla founder Elon Musk’s Solar City company, which launched operations in Albuquerque earlier this year, but without net metering and without customers owning their own household solar systems.

“In other business models, they relied on net metering as a revenue stream” via the credits for excess solar power going to the utility, said Bardal. But “if your business model depends on incentives to make you over the red, you don’t have a sustainable business mode,” she said, noting that Hawaii has recently clamped down on net metering and California is considering restrictions.

“If you want to own the system, you get the benefits and tax incentives, but you are assuming the risk,” Bardal said. “What if the incentives change?”

PNM last year proposed a fee on home solar systems, on grounds that solar homeowners need to help offset the cost of the grid that keeps them supplied when the sun isn’t shining, and it wanted to eliminate the banking of credits from net metering. The proposal was dropped.

There’s no connection between the HeathSUN solar system and PNM’s grid, said Bardal. “We’re working alongside (PNM), not with and not against,” she said.

PNM officials contacted for this story weren’t familiar with HeathSUN’s system, said spokeswoman Jodi McGinnes Porter. “However, we care about the safe interconnection of all solar systems. PNM supports customer-owned and utility-scale solar systems – it’s an important part of our energy mix.”

Bardal said her company’s system operates “similar to a backup generator installed at a home.”

A spokesman for the Public Regulation Commission said it does not appear that the HeathSUN plan would fall under PRC regulation.

The photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of the Artistic Homes zero-energy technology house, 2729 Walsh Loop in Rio Rancho. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

The photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of the Artistic Homes zero-energy technology house, 2729 Walsh Loop in Rio Rancho. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

A new option

HeathSUN is offering a new option for people considering solar, says Bardal. Homeowners still can buy their own solar systems, weighing the costs versus benefits.

“You have every opportunity to do nothing; you can continue to rely on PNM; you can go and purchase or finance or lease a system,” Bardal said. “This is just another alternative.”

Foundation founder Jim Heath moved to Santa Fe in the 1990s from California, where he in 1976 founded a company that leased planes to airlines, and was original team member and senior executive of U.S. Windpower Corp.

He’s been involved with other wind energy efforts, including Entegrity Wind Systems of Boulder, Colo., which collapsed in 2009 and has been in re-organization since 2010 as The Entegrity Wind Corp. He started the Heath Foundation in California in 1993, to honor his late wife Linda Heath. Since the move to Santa Fe, he’s married artist Rachel Darnell-Heath and founded Heath Concerts in 2011.

Bardal said Heath has a long history in renewable energy and was one of the first wind farm developers in California.

“He’s spent two or three years looking at business models for distributed energy,” she said. “That’s how this (HeathSUN’s plan) came about.”

20-year contracts

Contracts with HeathSUN will be for 20 years, with provisions for termination under certain conditions, such as sale of a house to someone who doesn’t want the solar array. The rooftop systems should last 30 years, Bardal said, and contract renewal would be available.

If HeathSUN were to fold, “there are a variety of possible options that currently happen with projects – it could be sold to another party, contracts could be cancelled and systems dismantled, systems could be sold to the customer,” she said.

Bardal said HeathSUN expects to put up some test model systems early next year and will begin promoting the project in various ways.