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Skies to brighten for solar?

Special to The Times

Decades since the energy crises of the ‘70s sparked research and interest in turning sunlight into power, solar panels have yet to arrive in the mainstream of residential building in Southern California.

Largely the domain of environmentally conscious homeowners who add systems to existing or custom-built homes, and a few low-income rental developments eligible for state rebates, solar-power systems are included at only a handful of new home developments in the region. And those homes tend to be expensive.

Most newly built solar-powered homes in Southern California are aimed at the higher-end consumer, said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Assn., a national trade group based in Washington, D.C. For example, at Soleil at Bordeaux, a Pardee Homes solar development in San Diego County, homes start in the $800,000 range.

But solar energy can benefit home buyers in any price range because of the long-term savings. So why has the shift to solar been so slow? Without evidence of consumer willingness to pay more initially to have solar power, few builders have taken on such projects.

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“It’s really educating contractors that solar is a product that people desire and they can make money from,” Resch said.

Soon solar may get a push from the state. On Feb. 28, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced support for a bill that aims to place solar energy systems on 1 million new and existing California homes and businesses (or 3,000 megawatts of solar capacity) by the end of 2018. By comparison, at the end of 2004, the state had about 93 megawatts of grid-connected voltaic systems. That figure includes businesses using solar power, but it’s the equivalent of about 47,000 homes.

Introduced by state Sens. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) and John Campbell (R-Irvine), SB 1 would create the “Million Solar Roofs Initiative.” The bill directs the state’s Public Utilities Commission to provide funding and incentives for the voluntary installation of photovoltaic solar collectors.

For now, however, the bottom line motivates most builders, said Bob Yoder, president of the Inland Empire Division of Shea Homes, one of four builders offering solar technology at Terramor, a planned community at Ladera Ranch in south Orange County.

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“Solar power is still expensive,” Yoder said, “and you need higher-priced homes to absorb it.” The average cost of a 2-kilowatt residential system is about $15,000 per home.

“It really doesn’t work as an option,” he said. “It doesn’t get selected because of the cost.”

Meanwhile, one Sacramento builder has included solar-power systems in moderately priced homes.

“Once you see the cost of solar power going under $10,000, you will see a big change,” said John Ralston, vice president of sales and marketing for Premier Homes in Sacramento, which sold 95 2-kilowatt-system homes in the $244,900-to-$450,000 range over the last year. Financial incentives from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District helped keep the systems cost-effective for home buyers.

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Increased competition from photovoltaic-cell makers is also helping to lower the price of solar systems for builders and consumers, said Paul Johnson, senior vice president of community development for Ladera Ranch. “As the costs go down, acceptance in the industry will rise.”

Ricky Santana, 39, his partner, Diego Santana, 42, and their two children moved last year to a Terramor neighborhood called Walden Park. The William Lyon Homes development in Ladera Ranch has a greenbelt and numerous baby strollers, children on bikes and joggers. Home prices range from the high $600,000s to the low $700,000s.

The solar power and the family atmosphere drew them to Walden Park. Diego, a real estate attorney, liked the lower electricity bills, energy-efficient construction and utility company rebates, and homemaker Ricky wanted a greener lifestyle. “It was a big plus for us,” Ricky said.

Four neighborhoods in Terramor -- Sedona by Shea Homes, Mosaic by K. Hovnanian Homes, Evergreen by Pardee Homes and Walden Park -- all use solar roof panels with photovoltaic cells to generate electricity. But not every residence in Terramor has solar. Some homes, such as the attached town-house dwellings, are too shaded to make including a solar system worthwhile.

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Dan Gray, a computer programmer, and his family also bought a home in Walden Park because of its solar power and conservation qualities.

“I come from a very environmental family in Seattle and the Bay Area,” said Gray, 37, holding 4-month-old daughter Samantha.

Gray hoped he would find an opportunity for green living in Southern California, and when he learned of the Terramor developments, he wanted one of the energy-efficient homes. He and wife Giselle, 34, purchased their house in October and are awaiting its completion.

In building its Sacramento development, Premier Homes received financial incentives from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to build a “zero-energy home,” a designation by the U.S. Department of Energy that means not only is the home using energy-efficient construction and products but it can also return energy to the grid if extra is produced.

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“We’re just a small utility district trying to do our part,” said spokesman Mike Keesee, the photovoltaic project manager for the district. “Builders can use us as a laboratory and then communicate that success to their colleagues and the country.”

Premier Homes, however, has no plans to expand to Southern California, citing high land costs in L.A. and Orange counties. So, for now, few Southland buyers can find new homes with solar technology, which was a major selling point on the Sacramento project.

Kurt and Margie Gonzales, both in their early 40s, were among those who got a solar home there for about $340,000.

“We had a choice between Premier Homes and another builder ... but without the energy savings,” said Margie Gonzales. “Going from a relatively small home we’d lived in for 17 years to a large, two-story home, I was really concerned about the power bills.”

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Their August power bill, however, was only about $50 for a 2,240-square-foot home, compared with more than $200 at their previous nonsolar, 1,800-square-foot home.

First-time buyer Chuck Seielstad, 47, and his family were also drawn to the Premier Homes project because of the energy-saving potential. Their decision to buy there is saving them about $220 a month on electricity.

“What settled my wife on it,” Seielstad said, “was the solar power.”

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An eco-friendly housing community

Among the solar, green and energy-conservation features in use at Terramor’s Walden Park homes are:

* Energy Star appliances. Energy Star was introduced in 1992 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a voluntary rating system to label products designed to be 15% to 30% more energy-efficient than state energy standards.

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* 2.5-kilowatt solar power systems. Photovoltaic cells in solar roof panels use a semiconductor material such as silicon to produce electricity directly from sunlight. The average California family uses about 541 kilowatt hours a month, according to the California Energy Commission. A 2.5-kilowatt system generates about 364 kilowatt hours a month, or about two-thirds of an average household’s energy needs.

* Optional 110-volt outlets for charging electric vehicles.

* Vouchers of $1,000 toward Global Electric Motorcars for new homeowners.

* Fluorescent outdoor lighting on timers.

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* At least 50% of construction waste recycled.

* Moisture sensors and other strategies for water conservation.

* Green waste mulch.

* Low-flow faucets and shower heads.

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* Low-odor “zero volatile organic compound” paint. Volatile organic compounds are harmful chemicals in paints, stains, adhesives and sealants.

* A greenbelt with a vehicle-free paseo for walking, running or cycling.

* Low-emissivity glass windows that filter the sun’s rays. A microscopically thin, invisible coating helps keep heat indoors during the winter and heat outdoors during the summer.

Barbara E. Hernandez can be reached at barbara.hernandez@gmail.com.

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