Solar evolution

the solar market is hot, but where it's headed remains unclear

Incentives, rebates, future savings, renewable energy and a healthier planet: Seems like solar technology has a lot of benefits. In fact, increasing numbers of Rogue Valley homeowners are turning on to the advantages of solar-electric and hot-water systems, yet a major breakthrough has yet to take place.

What does the future hold for this emerging trend? Although the jury's still out on where solar technology is heading, there's unanimous agreement that now's the time to install a system for a reasonable price — before both demand and inflation force state and federal governments and local utility companies to reduce or remove incentives.

how to save with solar

Oregon homeowners can cash (or credit) in on a trove of incentives for going solar:

• Residential solar electric projects undertaken by customers of Pacific Power may earn cash incentives through the Energy Trust of Oregon. The incentive is a $2 cash rebate per watt, with a maximum incentive of $20,000. Work must be done by one of the program's in-network contractors, who can be found at the Energy Trust Web site,

• The Oregon Department of Energy's Residential Energy Tax Credit offers $3 per watt up to $6,000 for installing a residential solar energy system that meets certain requirements. The system must be verified by a tax-credit certified technician, must be composed of new UL listed equipment and must be a minimum of 200 watts. Up to $1,500 of the credit can be claimed per year.

• Another DOE tax credit is available for solar water-heating systems. These roof-mounted solar collectors pre-heat incoming cold water, saving it for when it's needed. An eligible system must be verified by a tax-credit certified technician and be composed of new, OG-300 certified equipment, or listed as a "research and development" system by the Oregon Department of Energy. The tax credit of 60 cents per kilowatt hour saved, up to $1,500, is based on estimated energy savings for a typical four-person household and is limited to 50 percent of the total system cost.

• The U.S. federal government offers an income tax credit of 30 percent of a residential solar electric system's net installed cost (net cost equals the total system cost minus the Energy Trust incentive).

Gary Thomas, owner of Solar Man Company in Grants Pass, points to good business practices combined with financial incentives as the big driving force behind the surge in solar.

"It's extremely popular," he says. "We put in a system every week and have a one-month waiting period."

Over 27 years, Thomas and his employees have installed 4,000 panels for about 200 systems throughout Southern Oregon.

To meet demand, the number of local solar electricians and contractors has quadrupled in the last four years, says Thomas. But the technology for a solar-electric system has remained more or less the same — Thomas' company uses 27 190-watt Evergreen panels for a standard 5-kilowatt system. A 15-foot-by-30-foot area is required; an inverter, some safety disconnects and a meter are included.

"We're required to have a 25-year warranty on our panels, which are made of silicon wafers and are industry standard," says Thomas. "Where the big improvements have been in the last three years have been in inverters, and we have California to thank for this."

Last year the state of California plugged $3.6 billion into a solar program that requires all inverter manufactures to produce inverters that could carry 10-year warranties as opposed to the previous three-year standard.

Solar-panel technology is also improving.

"There's stuff coming out every week for more efficient panels," says Cameron Kirkland, owner of SUNWORKS in Medford. "Solyndra is making a panel that is self-ballasting so it doesn't need any racking, it just snaps together and can be used on bigger roofs."

Although the panels require a larger roof and more space, their lack of racking means saved money.

Another money-saving solar technology is a panel with an attached inverter. The inverter converts the sun's direct current (DC) into alternate current (AC) on location.

"This means you can run your wire a lot farther," Kirkland explains. "The panel itself would cost more, but it would eliminate the inverter, which would be about $3,000."

No matter how the math is done, solar is going to cost the homeowner more than a conventional system.

"It's everyone's hope we'll get some breakthrough that will bring grid parity to regular electric, but I don't think that's going to happen," says Geoff Dawson, owner of Alternative Energy Systems Inc. in Ashland. "While it's not unreasonable to expect that 75 to 80 percent of the system cost will be paid for through incentives, in a lot of cases it's 15 to 20 years for simple payback."

While there are long-term financial savings with solar, the reasoning for adopting this renewable energy source has to go beyond simple numbers.

"Customers have to feel they're doing the right thing for the environment," Dawson says. "A good parallel would be a hybrid automobile — most buyers have a higher motive; they're willing to make a statement, willing to spend more. With solar, you gain something besides just the savings. You're greening up the planet; you're voting with your dollar."

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