The solar light popped on in the head of bookstore co-owner Trudy Mills last year while she was riding her bike down a car-free street.
For pizzeria/bar owner Tony Vaccaro, solar interest has been simmering since he saw solar panels on an acquaintance's house when he was growing up in suburban Long Island, N.Y.
Now, Mills and Vaccaro have taken their North Fourth Avenue businesses in Tucson 100 percent solar.
Vaccaro installed huge solar panels that double as towering parking-lot-shade structures last month for his adjoining Brooklyn Pizza and Sky Bar businesses. The businesses already were drawing 40 percent of their electricity from the sun and had been using some solar since 2008.
Mills had a more conventional PV panel rooftop system installed at Antigone Books over the past few months. It went online last week.
Taking advantage of large state tax credits, federal grants, income tax depreciation and utility rebates, the business owners are paying installation costs they say are affordable. They can be paid back in three to 3 1/2 years, according to Technicians for Sustainability, the Tucson solar company that installed the systems - although Vaccaro says it may take up to seven years. The various incentives cover more than 80 percent of the systems' upfront costs, says Technicians for Sustainability.
The businesses will still have to draw off the regular electric grid at nights. But the owners say they'll be producing enough energy when the sun shines to have a surplus to sell back to the grid. That makes them "net zero" electric consumers to Tucson Electric Power.
Technicians for Sustainability and owners of three other leading Tucson-area solar installers - the Solar Store, Geoinnovation LLC and American Solar - said they haven't installed any other 100 percent solar systems in a business.
Mills said that as she biked down University Boulevard last year in the Cyclovia event, in which five miles of road were kept car-free, she came across a Technicians for Sustainability booth and started talking solar with people in it.
"We're always thinking about trying to be decent citizens, but solar seemed relatively huge and unaffordable," Mills recalled Tuesday. "But this was shockingly painless to do. I thought it would be more expensive, and I thought it would be a huge hassle, and it wasn't."
"We're also lucky - we own our own building. We're not doing it for a landlord," the Antigone Books co-owner added.
When Vaccaro saw solar panels at age 12, he didn't know such things existed but was extremely impressed by their ability to draw free energy, he said. Now, 30 years later, installing the panels makes sense for environmental reasons, he said.
"Fossil fuels are clearly polluting and changing our environment in a negative way," Vaccaro said Tuesday. "It's an ethical issue - we need to take care of what we have."
According to the Technicians for Sustainability firm, Antigone's solar system costs $71,436, with $60,721 covered by rebates, incentives and grants, leaving the bookstore with $10,715 in net costs. Assuming about $3,000 annually in electric bill savings, this system will pay for itself in three and a half years, said Mills.
The Sky Bar-Brooklyn Pizza systems cost close to $550,000 originally, but barely $100,000 after rebates and incentives, says Technicians for Sustainability.
Bruce Plenk, solar energy coordinator of the city of Tucson, said he hopes these solar systems will inspire other businesses in that area to install their own systems. Not long ago, an office strip-center owner in the 2000 block of East Broadway installed solar panels on his roof, and two other neighboring businesses had followed suit within six months, Plenk said.
"This is the wave of the future here today," he said.
If you go
Solar power celebrations:
• For Brooklyn Pizza and Sky Bar, 534 N. Fourth Ave.: 2 p.m. today.
• For Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 27.
BY THE NUMBERS
• In 2010, Tucson Electric Power added more than 950 solar home systems and about 20 solar commercial systems.
• By the end of 2010, 1,876 homes and 74 businesses in the TEP service area had photovoltaic solar systems.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.