CHOCTAW — Jim Stober got interested in the possibilities of solar energy a couple of years ago because his wife didn't want to swim in a cold pool.
Stober quickly settled on a solar-powered heat exchanger, which harnesses the sun's energy to regulate the water temperature in the pool.
“It's free to use,” he said. “Once you pay for the system, it doesn't cost you anything.”
Stober didn't stop there, putting 30 photovoltaic panels on his roof to help cut his electricity costs. He also uses solar panels to run a hot water heater and attic vent. He even put up a wind turbine in his backyard, although the wind potential east of Interstate 35 is minimal.
Along the way, Stober started selling solar and wind systems on the side. He made Advanced Solar and Wind Technologies LLC a full-time venture when he retired as a district manager with truck stop company Pilot Flying J.
Stober opened his Choctaw home Saturday as part of the National Solar Tour, an annual event hosted by the American Solar Energy Society to demonstrate the benefits of solar technology. The tour included more than 500 locations nationwide. Stober said he had about a half-dozen people stop by, about the same as last year.
Stober said solar is not a big deal in Oklahoma, which has long been an oil and natural gas state, but he is doing his best to raise its profile.
He set up a booth last month at the Oklahoma State Fair, where he passed out hundreds of brochures and business cards. Most people were put off by the price of solar panels, which can cost $20,000 or more — even with a federal tax credit.
“The cost is what really gets everybody,” he said.
Stober expects to drum up more business in January at the Oklahoma City Home and Garden Show.
He said solar customers are people who can afford to spend money to cut down on their utility costs, but solar panels will not provide them with free electricity.
“If that was true, everybody would be doing it,” Stober said.
Still, solar and other renewable energy sources can help stave off rising electricity prices. Stober said prices typically go up about 5 percent a year.
Solar panels have a 30-year warranty, so they are a long-term investment to offset higher energy prices.
Solar is a simple technology, he said. “The beauty of solar is there's no moving parts,” he said, unlike mechanical devices such as wind turbines.
Stober said solar panels are tough enough to withstand anything Mother Nature throws at them — short of “catastrophic hail” the size of a grapefruit. If that happens, homeowners' insurance covers the cost of replacing damaged panels.
Stober insists solar is a viable energy source for anyone who can afford it.
“It doesn't matter where you put it,” he said. “It works just as well in Alaska as it does in Arizona. It just depends on the length of the day.”
More daylight equals more sunshine to turn into electricity, he said.
Data from the National Renewable Energy Lab indicates the southwestern United States is home to the country's best solar energy resources, with much of Oklahoma in a zone capable of producing at least 5 watt-hours per square meter a day. The best areas in California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico can produce more than 6.8 watt-hours.
Oklahoma Energy Secretary Mike Ming said the state has a “surprisingly large” physical solar resource, “but the economics for utility scale solar are very challenging compared with our wind for renewable power.
“It is a resource we are keeping our eye on as technology improves and costs decrease,” Ming said.
Assessing the benefits
Stober's system can be monitored via Internet, he said, with data about how much electricity is generated by each of his home's 30 solar panels.
Last month his system generated 753 kilowatts of electricity.
Stober and his wife used 1,849 kilowatts of electricity from Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co., while selling 195 kilowatts from his solar panels back to the utility company. That left his electric bill for the last week of August and the first three weeks of September at $141.
He estimated his solar panels allow him to save about $100 to $150 a month, a figure that will rise now that the pool is shut down for the year.
Stober also said his solar hot water heater has cut down on his propane use. He used to have to refill his propane tank every six month. Now it is only every 18 months.
The average OG&E residential customer uses about 1,100 kilowatt hours of electricity per month.
Stober said he expects solar technology to continue to improve, making it possible for cheaper panels to generate more electricity.
His system, which is two years old, includes panels capable of generating about 5.25 kilowatts. Newer panels can generate up to 7.5 megawatts.