Affordable Solar Power Is on the Horizon

Depending on where you live, rebates, loans, and tax breaks may be available. And you can harness the sun in other ways, too.

November 5, 2009

Cheap solar may be closer than you think.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Several years ago, it seemed like only yuppies in California could afford solar panels to power their homes. But a lot has changed since then, and between federal and state rebates, an expanded world capacity for making of photovoltaic (PV) cells, and even solar leasing options, on-site solar power is becoming more affordable for the nonaffluent homeowner. And while solar appears to be more expensive to produce than conventional, polluting energy sources, the comparison is misleading. "Today, all forms of solar electricity are still priced higher than electricity from the burning of coal or gas, largely because the enormous costs associated with greenhouse-gas pollution are excluded from calculations of the true value of electricity from those latter sources," writes Al Gore in his new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis (Rodale, 2009). And even by that skewed measurement, solar power is becoming more competitive. "Innovations in solar energy are quickly driving costs down, however," Gore writes. "Many experts predict that we are only a few years away from being able to produce PV electricity at rates competitive with the current cost of coal-fired generators."

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Don't want to wait to clean up your act?

Here are some affordable ways to invite clean solar energy into your home.

• Lease it. Depending on where you live, you can go solar with no up-front cost and start saving money immediately—no waiting 20 years for your return on investment. Currently available in California, Arizona, and Oregon, SolarCity offers a first-of-its-kind solar lease program through SolarLease.

A typical three-bedroom home with a current electricity bill of $200 per month could lease a 4 kW solar system for $110 per month. "SolarLease users typically begin saving 10 to 15 percent per month by adopting solar, meaning that their lease payment plus new electricity bill would be 10 to 15 percent less than their old electricity bill before they installed solar," explains spokeswoman Emily Douglas. "The new solar system can generate enough electricity to offset what the homeowner is currently paying to the utility company from $200 down to $60 per month." In this scenario, the new bill ($60) plus the lease payment ($110) add up to less than the old bill, generating a savings of $30 per month with no upfront investment.

The leasing program will be available in Colorado soon, and could also be moving into the East Coast territory in the future.

• Throw out an all-or-nothing mentality. If slapping solar panels or even the newer solar shingles on your home is not feasible, there are other options to benefit from the power of sunlight. You can start small, such as choosing solar-powered garden lights or birdbaths, or invest in a solar-powered hot-water heater. To find out if a solar hot-water heater would be cost-effective for your situation, and to find other ways to lower emissions and save money, visit the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Savers site.

• Don't fall for the shingles just yet. Thin solar shingles, when widely available, will be less expensive than PV panels. But before you go slapping them on your rooftop, consider these points:

They produce less electricity, so the net cost for the customer will likely be similar to PV.

In his book, Gore explains that new-generation PV thin-film cells may require materials that are scarce, like selenium, which could drive up costs and create supply bottlenecks when demand is high. Conversely, more than 90 percent of the PV cells currently being used are made from silicon, the second-most abundant substance in the earth's crust (after oxygen).

• Adopt passive solar measures. You don't need PV panels on your rooftop to benefit from free solar power. If you're designing a home, or an addition to your existing home, try to work passive solar into the plans. Here are a few passive solar basics you can incorporate into your current home:

Light-colored cool roofs reflect sunlight. Pick a white roof coating or special cool-roof shingles to reflect the blistering summer sun.

Create energy-saving windows to prevent heat from escaping, while letting the energy of sunlight bring warmth into your house.

Call your local extension service and find out which natives trees would serve as shade trees in your area.

• Discover the database. "While the costs of solar are coming down, the available incentives in many locations are dropping as well," says Douglas. Still, some major incentives, including tax breaks and low-interest loans, remain. The federal government allows homeowners to deduct 30 percent of their system's cost off of their federal taxes through an investment tax credit, or ITC. "If a homeowner does not expect to owe taxes this year, they can roll over their credit to the following year. In addition, there are state and local rebate programs for homeowners," explains Douglas. For more information about rebate programs in your area, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. In California, rebates are administered through the California Solar Initiative, a.k.a. CSI.