Fighting the power: Community leader goes off the grid

Thursday, August 29, 2013
Doc Contreras points to one of the original six SWEPCO transmission-line routes: between his front door and the birdhouse in his front yard.

Six years ago, Dr. Luis Contreras and spouse Crystal Ursin decided to move to Northwest Arkansas. Buying property overlooking the White River off Highway 62 just west of the bridge, they built a house.

In April, they got a letter from SWEPCO, informing them that one of the proposed high-voltage transmission line routes went right through their front yard. That started Contreras thinking about the bigger picture.

"My job is looking at very complex problems and looking for simple, elegant solutions," he said.

A view of the house from across the river shows the 16 newly-installed solar 'smart panels' -- as soon as light hits the panel, it starts generating electricity.

Contreras, who has a Ph.D. in systems engineering, is not just saying no to SWEPCO's proposed high-voltage transmission line. He's taking a controversy that has mobilized the county as an opportunity to address the problem of a centralized power system and say no to all transmission lines.

"The grid grew without a plan, one line at a time," he said. "It's a mess. Adding a new transmission line is only going to make it more complex."

What he advocates instead: generating power where you need it and only in the amount you need, which is called a distributive system. To put his money where his mouth is, Contreras had 16 solar panels installed on the roof of his house last week. With the help of Jerry Landrum, Carroll County's solar guru, Contreras is now organizing seminars to train electricians, plumbers and anyone in the business of building houses to design and build homes that are more efficient.

Contreras has turned the family room of his house into a strategy center for devising a win-win solution for SWEPCO and the community. The windows serve as bulletin boards for ideas in four categories: opportunities, threats, strengths and weaknesses.

The goal: for residents of Carroll and Benton counties get serious about solar power while staying on the grid through the Grid Smart program.

"I'm suggesting a win-win solution," he said. "We get to keep our trees, our health, our economy and our tourism, and SWEPCO works with us and makes lots of money."

In Texas, Contreras lived in a house that had solar panels -- instead of paying an electric bill, he got a check every month from the company. But when he decided to move to Eureka Springs in 2007, Contreras, who has his own consulting company, was still traveling for work.

Sun City Solar crew install the first solar panels on the roof of his house. Wanting to get off the grid by the day of the SWEPCO hearing, Contreras had the work done in one day, but said DIY solar panel kits have become more affordable, and can be added onto as you go along.

"It was easier just to call Carroll Electric and have them hook up the house to the grid," he said.

Then he and Ursin got the letter from SWEPCO. Taking a close look at the map showing the proposed transmission line routes, Contreras noticed that the map didn't show where the power was coming from or where it is going. By stepping back and asking those questions, he noticed that where electricity is needed is in the growth areas of Branson and Springfield, Mo.

"The key word in the whole thing is wheeling -- moving electrons and selling them at a higher price," he said.

Another thing he questioned: the cost of the transmission line, estimated at $1.5 million. It could be double that, he said, but the real cost is maintenance, which doubles the initial outlay by a factor of 10 to 20.

And in 36 years, SWEPCO plans to remove the line, which will cost another $10 million to dismantle, and a half million to dismantle the Kings River station in Berryville, Contreras said, quoting SWEPCO engineers.

He is also opposed to clearing the 50-mile-long path by fire, the equivalent of burning 800 acres of trees and vegetation.

"It's not just unethical, it's immoral," he said of installing the line for a relatively short time.

So Contreras, who has a Ph.D. from Georgia Tech, went to work, compiling data and creating visuals to to inform the public of the issues. He took out ads in newspapers in Eureka Springs and Springfield. He commissioned a popular cartoonist in Mexico, Diego, to draw cartoons about the SWEPCO proposal. He also talked to the president of SWEPCO on the phone and by email, and wrote a letter to Gov. Beebe, pointing out that building a power line through the state doesn't add to the economy, developing alternative energy sources does.

"My message to Governor Beebe is that we have an opportunity to create high-paying jobs for people in Arkansas," he said.

He also wrote to state legislators Bryan King and Bob Ballinger, requesting at least a one-year waiting period on the SWEPCO application, and set up an online petition on change.org that got 600 hits in the first three days.

That one of the arguments for the high-voltage transmission line is that it will increase reliability isn't true, Contreras said, because power lines will always be subject to damage from wind and storms. The answer is to change the system.

"It's not about coal versus sun or wind," he said. "Solar farms and wind farms are a very dumb idea because it's still a centralized system."

Contreras loves this quote: "I put my money on solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that," because the speaker is Thomas Edison. Contreras has a T-shirt showing sunlight hitting solar panels under the caption, "The Dream of the Ozarks 2016."

"By 2016, the price of solar electrons will be the same as coal electrons," he said, "and 2016 is coming up -- it's not even three years away."

Contreras was raised by Jesuits, who taught him that some things are fair and something aren't, and that there is no good answer to a bad question. Reading author John Gresham taught him to follow the money.

From Bugs Bunny, his favorite cartoon character, he got his nickname, Doc. Bugs taught him to think outside the box, Contreras said, and use your resources to get what you want. And, at the end of the day, still be someone that everybody likes.

"As a lean thinker," he said, "I always look for win-win solutions."

For more information, click here, or contact Contreras at DocContreras@gmail.com.

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  • This is fantastic! As a retired power systems engineer, I must agree with Luis. I am also looking into alternative energy sources

    -- Posted by PEHetzer on Thu, Aug 29, 2013, at 10:52 PM
  • Doc Contreras - you are my hero (for this week anyway). The challenge unfortunately lay in altering the course of a regulated monopoly (SWEPCO), who have no reason to bow to anything other than the regulatory framework. Hopefully the AEP shareholders will take up the fight...

    -- Posted by @CitySlicker72 on Fri, Aug 30, 2013, at 8:29 AM
  • I love this! Clean, emission-free power - reduced utility cost - and the system pays for itself in 2-3 years. I predict we will see MANY more homes in Eureka Springs with these solar panels over the next few years.

    -- Posted by FreakinEurekan on Sun, Sep 1, 2013, at 8:45 PM
  • My name is John Gerrard and i own the company (suncityenergy.com) that installed the panels on Doc and Crystal's roof.

    Advocacy, whether you can afford to move forward with solar now or not, is the key to this fight. Take the time to join the American Solar Energy Society and follow what is going on nationally on the solar scene. This will better enable us, in our little corner of the world, to speak to power intelligently and with a united front when it comes to the monopolistic powers that be in our energy situation as it stands today.

    -- Posted by john gerrard on Tue, Sep 3, 2013, at 11:25 AM
  • Thank you Dr. Contreras for all your efforts.

    -- Posted by Ballinger on Thu, Sep 5, 2013, at 2:37 PM
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