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Ventura County

Garage Owner Sees the Light

Energy: After the state power crisis dented his profits, the Ventura businessman installed solar system and saw his electric bill plummet.

May 24, 2002|AMANDA COVARRUBIAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An auto shop in Ventura that harnesses the sun's power to create electricity may be on the cutting edge of energy technology, but what really impresses owner Lee Lizarraga are his shrinking utility bills.

At his one-story repair shop on Market Street, every electric device-- from the overhead lights in the front office to the hydraulic lifts--is capable of being powered by the 120 solar-collecting modules resting on the roof.

ABC Auto Care is one of about 50 businesses in the state that operate on solar power and probably the only auto repair shop on the list, said Sandy Miller, a spokesman for the California Energy Commission's renewable energy program.

The panels were installed at Lizarraga's 8,000-square-foot shop in September after longtime customer Michael Cordell, who sells solar energy systems, convinced his mechanic that they could translate into big savings over the long haul.

It helped that the initial conversations took place in the heat of the state's energy crisis and its rolling blackouts last year that sent small-business owners scrambling to rent or buy generators to keep their operations viable.

"That was the initial seed that made me think about it seriously," said Lizarraga, who added that he lost half a day's business during a blackout while waiting for an electrician to hook up a rented generator.

He said he first balked at the idea when he learned it would cost $105,000 for a system. But with government-sponsored financial incentives designed to encourage businesses to cut their energy use, he figured the entire project would be paid off in three years.

In the end, 44% of the initial investment was paid through subsidies, rebates and tax write-offs and another 32% was covered by a low-interest loan sponsored by the California Energy Commission, Lizarraga said. His former $600 monthly electric bill has been reduced by as much as 90%.

He said his shop has cut its dependence on California's electric power grid, which serves three-fourths of the state, and on some days the flat, metallic-colored modules capture so much energy that he does not have to tap into the grid at all. Six months after the system was installed, the shop experienced its first day of operating exclusively on solar power, Lizarraga said. That was March 12. The system works like this: The panels collect sunlight, which is transferred to an electronic component in the building that converts solar energy to usable electric power. The power generated by the system supplies the building's electrical energy and any left over flows back to the state grid, earning Lizarraga a credit on his utility bill.

Lizarraga estimates that the system will generate about 200 kilowatts more this month than the building will consume--but some months he has come up short and has had to use power off the grid. The shop uses about 2,300 kilowatts a month, he said, and if all goes well, the amount of electricity generated versus the amount used will balance out by next year. To a customer walking into the one-story repair shop, the solar electricity system is undetectable. Everything appears normal as mechanics poke their heads under hoods, and the flat panels sitting atop the building at a slight angle are not visible from the ground. The system has not affected customer service, Lizarraga said.

Other small-business owners in California are not racing to switch to alternative energy--or even to lower their electricity consumption, said Rich Illingworth, vice president of Safe Bidco, a nonprofit corporation created by the state to help commercial users reduce their energy use through low-interest loans.

Lizarraga received a five-year loan with a 4% interest rate, but terms vary depending on the job, Illingworth said. The money also can be used to replace old boilers, refrigeration systems and other out-of-date equipment with energy-efficient models. Only about 30 businesses a year have applied for the loans since the program was started in the late 1980s, he said.

The most popular improvement is replacing old light fixtures, Illingworth said.

"It's cheaper and requires the least amount of faith in believing these energy efficiency improvements will work," Illingworth said.

Although many business owners inquired about generating their own electricity during the energy crisis, few actually stepped up to the plate, Illingworth said. Miller of the state Energy Commission said homeowners have been more receptive to the idea of solar electricity.

Despite the hesitancy of small businesses, Cordell said his company, Solar Electrical Systems in Westlake Village, has installed panels at hundreds of places, including Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, "Titanic" director James Cameron's Hollister Ranch home in Santa Barbara and Fire Station No. 6 in Oxnard.

Lizarraga, who monitors his electricity output and consumption in real time on his office computer, said he is looking to install solar panels on the remaining uncovered portion of his rooftop.

"Why not make this place as efficient as possible?" he said.

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