If you’re searching for a bright spot in a dismal economic climate, look no farther than your roof. The downturn is helping to make solar panels more affordable.
Manufacturers are cutting prices to move inventory. Uncle Sam is helping too. As part of the economic stimulus package, the federal government this year boosted tax credits to homeowners who switch to solar power. Together with state incentives, those subsidies could slash the cost of some systems in California by 50% or more. Some homeowners are banding together into buying groups for even bigger savings.
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Light, flexible solar panels made with nanotechnology will soon bring down the cost of installing household solar energy systems, and new federal and state tax credits are providing additional incentive.
By Matt Nauman, Mercury News
Solar-industry executives paint a bright future for their industry, one where photovoltaic panels adorn roofs of homes and businesses and huge power plants capture the sun’s rays to generate electricity. But the industry currently finds itself under cloudy skies and buffeted by threatening winds.
The solar tax credits approved late last year gave the industry a boost, and its leaders are hopeful for an even bigger boost by President Barack Obama, who has promised to promote clean technologies and energy alternatives to oil. But it’s far from clear just how much help will come, and when.
Meanwhile, many once-promising solar companies struggle to maintain momentum against the strong headwinds of the financial crisis. Feel-good headlines about well-funded startups and new jobs are giving way to grim announcements of factory delays and layoffs.
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North Gainesville homeowner Gary Peters is in hot water, thanks to the first solar water heater installed under Jackson Electric Membership Corporation’s new Right Choice Sun Power program.
The 80-gallon unit, powered by two solar panels on the roof above the garage, provides 50-80 percent of the home’s water heating needs without racking up a cent on his electric bill.
“I’ve always kept up with renewable energy and have been interested in reducing my carbon footprint,” said the retired Peters. “I’d like to save some resources for my grandchildren. Anything I can do to move us toward a sustainable future, I’m happy to do.”
As a Jackson EMC customer, Peters not only is eligible for federal and state tax credits, but will receive a $450 rebate from the cooperative.
“After heating and cooling, water heating makes up the next largest portion of a typical home’s energy use. Our Sun Power program is a great incentive for Jackson EMC customers to use a renewable, environmentally friendly power source,” said Amy Bryan, Jackson EMC director of residential marketing. “This is a win-win situation – our customers save on their electric bill, we reduce the need for additional power generation and together we help the environment.”
Peter’s two solar panels heat a propylene glycol solution that flows through pipes to his basement water heater, where the heat is transferred by a heat exchanger to potable water inside the water heater tank. On cloudy days, the unit reverts to electric power to heat water. An energy monitor tracks the system’s productivity, measuring how much water was heated, and estimating the savings in both electric use and CO2 reduction.
Bill Hosken with Solar Energy Marketing Inc., the system’s distributor, said that computer modeling for the system indicates a family of four will save an average of $24 per month based on current electricity rates, produce about 3,300 kilowatt hours of energy a year and reduce CO2 emissions by about 4,700 pounds.
“The solar-produced energy is roughly equivalent to the amount of energy contained in 90 gallons of imported gasoline, 118 gallons of propane or 113 therms of natural gas,” Hosken said.
Since it’s still a relatively new technology in Georgia, a very limited number of technicians are qualified to install solar power and solar water heating systems.
“We wanted to make sure our customers have a positive experience with the solar program,” Bryan said. “So we have arranged for an independent pre- and post-installation inspection, partnered with equipment manufacturers who meet high performance standards and are offering manufacturers’ training to increase the number of contractors who can provide quality installation of solar water heating systems.”
Independent inspection through Home Diagnostic Systems (HDS) of Lawrenceville ensures the home site is suited for solar, that equipment is properly sized for the homeowner’s use and that the quality of the installation is monitored.
Peters’ solar water heating system is distributed locally by Solar Energy Marketing of Atlanta, a Jackson EMC partner in the Sun Power program.
“Before I even knew about the Jackson EMC program, I’d been researching solar water heating systems and had professionals who agreed that this was the best system on the market. I found the local distributor, who had just begun to work with Jackson EMC, and found out about the incentives,” Peters said.
Brett Smith of BW Heating & Air in Madison County, one of the contractors who attended the Jackson EMC-sponsored solar water heating training, installed Peters’ system.
“I had done some water heating systems, but I was really interested in the solar water heating program because with rising energy prices I think this technology will be the norm in the future, rather than the exception,” Smith said. “The training was extensive and really prepared us to do the work.”
The Peters system was Smith’s first installation as well. “We took our time and made sure we followed procedures exactly. Everything went together just like it was supposed to, and the system has been operational and passed its post-installation inspection,” he said, noting that he’s looking forward to working on systems for other customers who have expressed an interest in solar.
According to Bryan, the solar water heating program is a natural extension of the cooperative’s dedication to providing its members with renewable energy choices.
“We joined Green Power EMC in 2001, the state’s first program to generate energy from renewable resources. Our first solar program was the Sun Power for Schools project at Mill Creek High School in Gwinnett County, which provided the school with a solar power array and monitoring system to educate students on the benefits of renewable energy,” she said.