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Solar power incentives make it easier to switch

Tax CreditsAlternative EnergyRenewable EnergyElectricity Production and DistributionCredit and DebtDeathSouthern California Edison Company

Like most Angelenos in this fragile and declining housing market, I won't be buying a different home any time soon. I want to make the most of the property I've got. I want to turn it into the most efficient, self-sustaining and worry-free space I possibly can.

To do that, part of my plan was to go solar. My reasons for wanting a photovoltaic system were pretty predictable. It's just common sense to use an energy source that's so abundant -- a source that doesn't need to be dug out of the ground in a land far, far away, then trucked and burned to produce power. Even though the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power leads the country in its integration of solar energy, less than 1% of the city's electricity is generated from the sun; 44% of L.A.'s power still comes from non-renewable, greenhouse-gas-emitting coal.


FOR THE RECORD:
This story originally said said that the writer's solar panel system would cost $14,966; the figure should have been $11,876, applying recently increased federal incentives. Also, the system will pay for itself in 43.1 years, not 55.4 years, as originally reported. —


I wanted to make a difference now.

I also wanted to lock down my energy expenses. With prices increasing for seemingly everything and an insecure job market, I didn't want to be subject to rising electricity costs if I could avoid it. The DWP, which is implementing a new fee structure next summer, projects electricity prices to rise about 9% in 2009.

Making my own electricity hit all the sweet spots. Reducing pollution while promoting self- reliance? What's not to love? The only sticking point for me was cost. Like many middle-class parents, I have more good intentions than I have cash. I'd looked into solar years ago and dismissed the idea as too expensive.

But the incentives today have never been more alluring. Through a combination of federal, state and city programs, many California residents are eligible to recoup as much as 75% of their solar installation costs, which average about $35,000 to $40,000.

The biggest push comes from the $700-billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, a.k.a. the Wall Street bailout; it includes a major incentive for installing solar power -- specifically, an extension of a homeowners tax credit that had been set to expire Dec. 31. The tax credit for homeowners who install solar power now runs through 2016. Even better, effective Jan. 1, the old $2,000 cap will be replaced with the dollar amount equal to 30% of the cost of the system.

In California, that federal credit is enhanced with substantial rebates through the Million Solar Roofs law, or SB1, which kicked in Jan. 1, 2007, and required municipal utilities to create their own solar rebate programs.

In Los Angeles, the DWP currently pays about 35% of the cost of a residential solar-power installation in the form of a rebate check; a typical system producing 6,800 kilowatt hours of electricity per year would return $17,000 to the customer. A system of the same size installed under the Pasadena Water & Power Solar Initiative would return a rebate of $14,000. Some of the state's investor-owned utilities are covered through the California Public Utility Commission's California Solar Initiative; a Southern California Edison customer using the same size system would receive a rebate for $8,800.

Depending on the utility, those alluring rebates might decline with each successive year because the more systems that go in, the less need for incentives. So homeowners who are seriously interested in installing solar may want to make their reservation with their local utilities before the end of 2008 to get the most bang for their bucks.

Weighing the costs

How do you know whether solar's right for you? A bunch of online solar calculators let customers figure it out for themselves. My favorite was Clean Power Estimator on the CPUC website. After I typed in my ZIP Code (90042), the site instantly spat out the size (5,034 kilowatt hours per year) and net cost of the system it thought I would need ($11,876, applying all available incentives).

The calculator allowed me to correct some of the assumptions it had made about me so it could provide more accurate information. Typing in the specifics about how much I actually spend for electricity per month (less than $20), the size of the system I actually needed and how I intended to pay for my system (half cash, half loan), I learned it would take me 43.1 years for my investment to pay off.

That isn't a typo. I'm an extremely low user of energy. While the average Los Angeles household uses about 17 kilowatt hours of electricity per day, I use about four. I'm just one of those maniacs who's swapped out all my incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents and bought the Energy Star appliances. I air-dry my laundry and turn off lights and unplug my TV, cellphone charger and other electronics even after I've switched the power settings to off.

For someone such as myself, the economics of installing a solar power system don't make much sense. Generally speaking, the more electricity you use, the more money solar will save you and the faster the system will pay itself off. Let's just say you're a regular person or even an irregular person who uses a lot more electricity than the norm. What next?

You call a solar installer -- or, preferably, three -- and get some estimates. Again, I found the CPUC website ( www.gosolarcalifornia.com) to be an excellent resource. It provides a database of registered installers who can be searched by name, area code, city or ZIP Code.

Even though the math didn't work for me, I still had two installers come over and assess my site. Big dreams die hard, you know, and I'd been dreaming about a solar power conversion for years.

I was hoping to be convinced to Do the Right Thing, if only from a purely environmental standpoint, but both installers confirmed that solar just wasn't in the cards for me. First, the roof of my house doesn't point south. A south-facing roof is important to gather the sun's rays effectively as it tracks across the sky; it also makes the mounting of the solar panels a lot less complicated. My roof was pointing south-ish, but there was an even bigger problem: shade.

Just because a roof looks sunny -- as mine did to me -- doesn't mean it can catch enough rays to turn them into energy. There are often issues with nearby structures or, in my case, trees.

I had three major offenders -- a ficus in my backyard, an avocado in my neighbor's and some other beautiful, old-growth monster, the variety of which I do not know, that belonged to another neighbor.

I would've had to lop 10 feet off my own tree, then persuade my neighbors to do something similar. Even if tree-trimming expenses and neighbor relations weren't issues, "The Lorax" is one of my favorite books of all time. Hacking away the trees just wasn't going to happen.

What if . . .

But let's just say that I was proceeding with the solar install. What would have happened next is paperwork. And lots of it. The installer and I would've filled out a Reservation Request Form and submitted it to my local utility, the DWP.

The form would have mapped out my system, including how much electricity it was expected to generate, and reserved my rebate from the $30 million the utility sets aside each year.

The form takes about four weeks to approve, at which point I would've been ready to proceed. I would have applied for a permit from L.A.'s Building and Safety Department, a process that also can take several weeks. The actual installation takes less time.

After that, the DWP sends out an inspector, Building and Safety does the same and -- voilà -- your system is cookin'. You may have to wait for your cash back from the utility, but every time you check the mailbox, you also can check your electricity meter and comfort yourself with the sight of seeing it run backward.

Or if, like me, solar just isn't possible at your house, you can at least console yourself with the knowledge that: 1) other people installing solar panels at their homes helps to reduce energy costs and bring down the price of solar for everyone; 2) more affordable technologies and community-based incentives are in the pipeline; and 3) the utilities themselves are making strides. If they hit their targets, renewable energy will make up 35% of the electricity used in L.A. by 2020.

Carpenter is a Times staff writer. Her column on sustainable home improvement appears monthly in Home.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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