John Brown astride the solar panels at Santa Fe Skies RV Park

An 11-year-old RV park in sunny Santa Fe, N.M., has turned to the sun in an effort to control its utility costs.

Santa Fe Skies RV Park owner John Brown says investing $1.3 million now to install an array of solar panels — and getting 30% of that back in a federal rebate — will make a huge difference in the park’s long-term prospects.

“From a park-owning standpoint, not only does this keep us in business, the life expectancy of the panels is 40 years,” Brown said. Financed over 15 years, he added, the solar array will continue to provide benefits for a long time.

Brown said the RV park’s electricity rates have grown about 5% per year for the past several years. The tab for 2010 totaled about $66,000 to provide electricity to 98 RV camping sites.

To avoid absorbing the increasing costs or passing them along to guests, who typically pay about $38 per night for a site, Brown said he acted to take control after learning that the federal government was offering rebates for certain energy projects under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The park had to show that it had made “substantial structural” progress by the end of 2010 to take advantage of the rebate, Brown said, adding that the rebate program has since been extended through 2011. He encourages other campground owners to look into solar power to control their costs.

Brown benefited from the help of his son, J.B., an electrical engineer who helps in the business and also works for Positive Energy Solar Electric Systems, headquartered in Santa Fe.

J.B. Brown said Santa Fe Skies RV Park may be better suited than some others to take advantage of the sun’s ability to provide energy. Deciding whether an investment in solar energy makes economic sense depends to a great extent on a location’s weather and altitude, he explained.

At about 7,000 feet above sea level and with generally sunny weather, Santa Fe experiences 5.8 hours of solar energy per day. An array of 810 solar panels at Santa Fe Skies RV Park is expected to generate some 192.5 kilowatt hours of electricity per hour between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Each panel is about 1.5 square meters.

John Brown expects the array to be fully commissioned and operational by early spring. During off-peak hours when electricity use is low, the RV park will actually be adding power to the grid and will be compensated by the local power company at a rate of 14 cents per kilowatt hour. Overall, Brown expects the solar installation to provide about 56% of the RV park’s electricity.

The array is being installed on a 50-by-450-foot strip of land that had once been set aside as right of way for a four-lane road that was never built. Brown was able to reclaim the parcel, which abuts a walking trail at the RV park. “This takes a piece of fairly useless real estate and turns it into a $1.3 million asset,” Brown said, “and eventually it will be its own profit center.”