Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative has two solar fields in northern Cochise County and plans two additional fields in the next few years.

The effects of climate change are beginning to surface and society is rethinking the way it uses fossil fuels. This has paved the way for utilizing renewable resources, particularly solar energy.

Eric Petermann, public relations manager of Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative, describes the Arizona desert as a great place for establishing solar panels and using solar energy, thanks to constant days of sunlight.

The rates for SSVEC are significantly lower than Tucson and Phoenix, which enhances the return on investment for solar power. The size of the solar panel system plays a crucial role when it comes to being energy efficient.

Petermann encourages residents to consult with SSVEC when taking the solar energy route and installing solar panels so that residents can learn if they will benefit from the investment with payback from power savings.

There are two solar fields in operation by SSVEC in northern Cochise County with plans to create two additional solar fields in the next few years.

Seventy-five percent of power in Cochise County comes from the Apache Generating Station, a power plant between the towns of Benson and Willcox. The plant not only powers much of the county, but also contributes energy to six other co-ops in the state. The property has three natural gas turbines, one coal driven turbine and one solar field.

With the rise in usage of solar power, SSVEC went from 7% to 12% solar energy last year and will pick up an additional 4% from each of the two solar fields that will be constructed and online in the coming years.

Each solar field in the county is a 20-megawatt field with battery storage. One solar field can power an average of 400 homes.

A permit is required in the county when installing a solar panel at a residence, a one-time fee of $124. There were 264 permits issued in 2021 and the number of permits issued has been steady over the years.

Petermann said that SSVEC is under the regulation of the Arizona Corporation Commission, which in 2013 had plans in place to increase the contribution of solar power in Arizona. ACC mandated that utility companies pay the retail rate for electricity at 12 cents per kilowatt-hour as part of a new incentive program. Companies such as SSVEC buy electricity at 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. Due to companies not being able to make a profit, ACC revised the rules to allow solar users to be grandfathered in for 20 years while new customers would pay 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“It isn’t that we didn’t want people to have solar, we think it’s great when they have solar,” Petermann said. “It’s less maintenance for us, it ends up being a good deal for us, but it changed the payback; it changed the return on investment and lengthened it considerably. Especially for co-ops like ours that have extremely competitive rates.”

In terms of providing power for a community, the availability of solar energy tends to fluctuate.

“The only challenge is that it’s not consistent,” Peterman said.

If there’s not enough sunshine out on a particular day, and with the sun not being out during the nighttime, it can lead to a shortage for power needs that a residence or a business may require.

Petermann said the absence of sunshine could lead to lack of consistent power for starting up or using appliances in one’s home. He said that solar energy is not a supplement and considers it a reliable source of power, but only when the sun is out.

With an increase in manufacturing, the price of solar panels has decreased considerably over the years.

Petermann believes the technology will continue to get better in addition to the availability. However, the biggest challenge with solar energy will be coming up with ways to increase battery storage so there’s not a financial loss when exporting power.

California is a prime example with its progressive approach toward pursuing solar as a renewable energy source. While being able to generate an overabundance of solar power throughout the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., there is a loss involved when exporting energy and having to buy power at nighttime. The inconsistent supply of power can end up being expensive, which can override the benefits.

In terms of becoming energy efficient at home, Petermann recommended improving insulation and running electrical appliances during an hour of the day when demand for energy is low. An example would be running the dishwashers past 7 p.m. after a good portion of businesses are closed and aren’t tapping into the electrical grid.

Power consumers can also reduce their electricity bill depending on the size of the solar panel installed. The larger the solar panel system, the more power one is able to generate and save on the electricity bill.

From 2016 to 2026, SSVEC will have gone from 80% to less than 25% usage of coal and will be operating at 20% renewable solar power.