Solar power hits suburbia
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In essence, by producing their own solar power - but also staying hooked to the grid - homeowners can have their solar cake and eat it too. They can slash their use of commercial power from fossil-fuel plants, but still be able to run their power-hungry amenities like electric dryers and air conditioners.Skip to next paragraph
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In addition, at least 15 states now use "public benefits funds" to subsidize renewable energy programs by taking a few pennies from each electric bill. And 24 states offer rebate programs that cover a big chunk of the cost. California and Massachusetts rebate up to half the cost, not including tax incentives. New Jersey and New York rebate up to 70 percent.
Gail Stocks's husband, Ian, says his family's 2.5 kilowatt solar-panel system cost $21,000, including installation. But their out-of-pocket cost was only $9,000. It cuts their electric bill by a third. With commercial power costing him about 13 cents a kilowatt hour and rising, Mr. Stocks figures to be paid back in about 10 years.
Joanne and Stephen Hallisey, who live in Natick, Mass., just finished installing solar panels that cost $18,000 - but got rebates from the state that cover half the cost. They've put in energy-saving light bulbs and appliances, but draw the line on chopping their technology.
"We do have a lot of electronics around the house, and we don't want to give up a lot of that," Ms. Hallisey says. "We don't have a big-screen TV yet. We feel we are being less wasteful and, with solar, still have the renewable energy we need to power the things that we really want."
The Halliseys and thousands like them are adding to the nearly 40 megawatts of grid-tied residential/commercial solar power installed in the US since 2000, more than was installed over the past decade, says industry analyst Paul Maycock. With solar panels being sold in many Home Depot stores and the cost of solar dropping, can the rest of America be far behind the Halliseys?
Well, yes, actually. Even boosters warn solar has only just begun to enter the mainstream. "It hasn't become so mainstream that people are just itching to jump on the bandwagon," says John Livermore of Conservation Services Group, a Westborough, Mass., solar installation company. He's trying to convince Massachusetts builders to put panels on new homes.
But it's difficult - especially in areas where home prices are already through the roof - to persuade buyers to shell out even a few thousand extra dollars to put a solar array on their roof.
In some states, however, solar is a no-brainer. Energized by turmoil in the electricity markets, rolling blackouts, and a new governor who favors solar - California has some of the best incentives in the US. It also has a lot of sun. The result is that builders like John Suppes are creating entire solar-powered subdivisions.
As vice president and cofounder of Clarum Homes, Mr. Suppes faces many of the same issues Massachusetts builders do - steep real estate prices and intense competition. So he can't just pass the cost of solar on to customers. The installment costs about $20,000 for each of his new "zero energy" homes, which cut utility bills up to 90 percent. "Our goal is to bring green to entry-level home buyers," he says.
So Suppes has decided that putting people in solar homes is something he wants to do - even if a chunk of the cost comes out of his profits. He also thinks his homes will gain a competitive edge as utility rates rise.
"It's true we don't recoup the full $20,000 cost of solar and other energy-saving features," he says. "We're looking at it more from an ethical and environmental standpoint and because, in the long run, we feel this is the way home-building is headed."
Margaret and Rick Ellis live in Clarum's 20-home Cherry Blossom development near Watsonville, Calif. Every home has solar panels and an inverter that turns currents from solar cells into currents suitable to be fed into the power grid.
"We actually were not even aware there was solar on the roof until we were already in love with the house," says Ms. Ellis.
Even so, Ms. Ellis says living in a grid-connected, partially solar-powered house has made her appreciate not just significantly lower electric bills, but the impact on the environment. "I don't think most people who bought these homes made this a moral decision," she says. "But it's become important to us."
• For a list of renewable energy funding programs, see www.dsireusa.org