How to capture solar power to lower your electric bill.
“Go solar!” It sounds so easy, as if you simply strap some panels to your roof and plug them into your electric meter. But where, really, do you start? How do you turn an interest in harnessing the sun’s energy—and cashing in on government incentives—into a reality?
The demand for solar energy is definitely on the rise. Between 2006 and 2007, solar panel installations grew by almost 50 percent nationwide, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. People have many reasons for investing in solar energy systems, says Mike Strykowski, renewable energy education manager at the Solar Living Institute, a nonprofit environmental education center in Hopland.
“Some people want to save money on their energy bills, and some people like the idea of using clean energy,” Strykowski says. “Other people want independence from foreign energy sources—they want to show the world that we can generate our own energy right here at home.”
And then there’s the impetus that an eco-conscious family member can provide. Debbie and Bill Barnes of El Cerrito, for instance, decided to go solar after their 16-year-old daughter asked them for solar panels for Christmas. “She really wanted us to reduce our carbon footprint,” says Debbie Barnes, who worked with Berkeley’s 32-year-old Sun Light & Power, the first renewable energy contractor to be certified by Alameda County’s Green Business Program.
Whatever the motivation for change, it helps to start with a visual. Think of solar energy at the top of a pyramid, and everything else—from weather stripping to replacing incandescent lights to ditching your 1950s-era freezer—at the bottom of the pyramid. Increase your home’s energy efficiency by completing the bottom-of-the-pyramid tasks first. Then you’re ready to make a move toward solar, advises David Potovsky, a senior energy consultant at Borrego Solar, a Berkeley solar electric company that recently shifted its focus to commercial projects.
“All these changes and repairs at the bottom of the pyramid are going to be cheaper than solar panels,” says Potovsky, who has worked on residential and commercial solar energy projects. “I tell people to make those changes before they go solar, because it’s a more holistic way to look at a home and it saves them money.”
The more energy-efficient the home, the smaller—and more affordable—the solar energy system needs to be, Potovsky says. Once a residence is up to solar speed, homeowners can choose from three primary products: photovoltaic (PV) panels that are mounted on the roof or ground structures and then connected to the electric meter; solar hot-water heaters, also known as domestic hot water or DHW; and solar pool-heating systems. A few basics: PV panels connect to a home through an inverter and a circuit breaker in an electrical panel, which feeds the home and the meter. Solar pool-heating systems pump cold pool water through solar collectors on the roof, where the water is warmed before flowing back into the pool. And, while there are many different kinds of DHW systems, the typical one pumps cold water through roof-mounted panels where the water is heated by the sun. The hot water then moves to the home’s hot water tank.
The government smiles on PV. Homeowners who install PV panels receive federal tax credits and state rebates; those who install DHW only receive federal tax credits. Swimming pool owners are out in the cold, so to speak—there are no government incentives for solar pool-heating systems. The Go Solar California website, which features everything from a contractor database to handbooks to rebate and solar calculators, is a great place to start your research.
Installing a solar energy system means getting up close and personal with the home’s roof and electrical and plumbing systems—it’s best to know exactly what you’re doing and how your home’s systems interconnect. You’ll need to heed electricity and fire codes, and fill out forms—plenty of them. Homeowners who try to go it alone soon discover the process includes gathering city or county permits, rebate forms, and utility interconnection paperwork, says Curt Bradley, founder of Solar Winds in Concord.
On average, installation makes up about 20 percent of the system’s costs, says Strykowski, who urges homeowners to read, take courses, and learn all they can before embarking on a do-it-yourself solar project. “While I don’t want to discourage people from doing the work themselves, it might be worth it to pay someone else to do the installation and take care of the permits and rebate paperwork,” he says. “A lot of companies also offer installation warranties, which is something you won’t get if you install the system yourself.”
Most companies want to see at least six months to one year of energy bills, which homeowners can request from PG&E at no charge. The bills provide a window into a home’s energy use and help solar system designers gauge the size of the new system. Because most solar energy systems from PV to solar pool-heating require roof-mounted panels, designers also look at the pitch and direction of the roof and how much shade it receives throughout the day. “No matter what type of solar you are looking at, shade is definitely the enemy,” says Bryan Raymond, a solar system designer at Diablo Solar Services in Martinez. With solar pool-heating systems, shade blocks the sun’s heat energy; with PV panels, it blocks the sun’s light energy, reducing electricity production.
In some cases, designers can also mount solar systems on ground-based racks or on patio covers, trellises, and pergolas, says Raymond.
While the cost of going solar may seem daunting, federal and state rebates sweeten the pot and make solar energy systems more affordable by reducing the out-of-pocket expense. A 2 to 3.4 kilowatt solar panel system costs about $12,000 to $18,000 after rebates and federal tax credits, says John Dalzell, a partner with WestCo Roofing in Oakland and Albion Power Company in Berkeley. Solar-generated hot-water heaters cost about $8,800, or about $4,800 to $6,000 after a federal tax credit, he says.
Some cities, including Alameda, also offer grants and rebates for PV systems. Other cities, such as Berkeley, have even provided financing to homeowners for their new systems, tying repayment to an annual special tax on their property tax bill. Financing programs can be fleeting, however: Berkeley’s Financing Initiative for Renewable and Solar Technology (FIRST) pilot program accepted applications for just two weeks last November. Check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) website for a comprehensive list of state and local rebate and financing options.
At first glance, incentives and rebates are a confusing business. Essentially, there are two primary incentives: a federal tax credit and a California Solar Initiative rebate paid through PG&E. Homeowners must file their federal income tax return to receive the tax credit, a hefty 30 percent of the cost of their PV or DHW systems.
Our (mostly) sunny state offers two kinds of rebates; both apply only to solar panels. One, the Expected Performance Based Buydown (EPBB), is an upfront cash rebate currently set at $1.55 per installed watt, based on the expected performance of a system. However, most homes will qualify for a lesser amount after PG&E factors in the home’s zip code, roof pitch and direction, and degree of shade, Raymond says.
Most homeowners choose EPBB because it is a one-time, lump-sum payment that they can immediately apply to the cost of their system, according to Raymond. For example, Diablo Solar Services calculates the EPBB, locks it in with PG&E, and then deducts the rebate sum from its charge to the homeowner. Diablo Solar Services receives a check directly from PG&E once the system is complete, Raymond says.
The second type of state rebate, known as the Performance Based Incentive (PBI), requires that homeowners install a monitoring device that measures the system’s output and automatically reports the data to PG&E. Homeowners receive payments for five years, based on the output of the system.
Per-watt rebate amounts get smaller all the time, Raymond says. “These days, the public’s interest in solar is driving business,” he explains. “And the cost to make PV modules is going down, so homeowners don’t need as much help from the government to keep these systems affordable and profitable.”
You don’t have to actually own a solar energy system at the time you sign up for a state rebate. California requires that you install your system within one year of the date you lock in a per-watt rebate with PG&E. This flexibility, Raymond notes, is of particular value to those who may be waiting on a tax return or work bonus before springing for a system.
Make the meter run backwards
Only homes with PV panels are eligible for the special billing arrangement with PG&E known as net energy metering. Under this provision, excess electricity produced by a home’s PV system is exported to the utility grid for use by other customers. When this happens, the residence’s meter runs backwards, a phenomenon that excited homeowners have even filmed and posted on YouTube. On most days, however, whether cloudy, rainy, or sunny, the home relies on additional power from PG&E, and uses the utility like a battery, Raymond says. PG&E reads the residential meter every month and provides a statement that shows how much energy was consumed or exported. Homeowners can pay the utility on either a monthly or annual basis, according to the Go Solar California website.
“Don’t go too big with your PV system,” Raymond advises. “At the end of the year, on the anniversary of your system’s interconnection with PG&E, if you have produced more power then you have used, you lose that power.” In that case, he says, “PG&E will never actually write you a check. The best you can hope for is to break even.”
Some homeowners with PV say going solar has changed their lives, and slashed their PG&E payments. Fred Booker of Oakland, who had solar panels installed on his home more than a year ago, says his bills now run about $9 a month. He is also more aware, he says, of how and when he uses energy.
Knowledge is power
Berkeley residents can learn more about a home’s solar potential by visiting the Community Energy Services Corporation SmartSolar website. The site provides pages of information on going solar, but the most novel feature is a map that estimates a building’s solar potential based on its roof size. Just enter a Berkeley address, click “Go,” and a box appears showing the building’s roof size and solar area. The site and map are free and easy to use.
The Solar Living Institute’s South San Francisco center offers a variety of workshops introducing homeowners to the basics of electricity and photovoltaic systems. The ever-expanding course list includes workshops on plumbing and green job skills, as well as photovoltaics, electricity, and plumbing just for women. The Rahus Institute in Martinez is another source for solar education and information.
When thinking about going solar, it’s important to do your homework, and make your home energy-efficient first, Dalzell says. Consider doing a home energy audit with an energy expert, he advises. When you’re ready to select a contractor, check with the Better Business Bureau and the Contractors State License Board to make sure you’ll be working with a company that holds appropriate construction licenses, he says. Check references. And remember, all the myriad parts of your home make it whole; solar energy companies consider the roof, electrical and plumbing systems, and the building’s structural capacity when designing and installing solar products.
“Your house is a system,” Dalzell says. “It’s important for people to understand the way our homes use energy, both from an ethical and economic standpoint.”
Gina Gotsill is an East Bay resident and freelance writer.
Turn It On
A1 Sun, 2015 Yolo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 526-5715; www.a1suninc.com.
Albion Power Company, 6036 Rose St., Berkeley, (510) 549-0979; www.albionpower.com.
Alcor Solar Enterprises, 2655 Cloverdale Ave., Concord, (925) 825-5658; www.alcorsolar.com.
Alliance Solar Services, 1800 Orion St., Alameda, (800) 407-6527.
Borrego Solar Systems, 2560 9th St., Suite 216, Berkeley, (888) 898-6273; www.borregosolar.com.
Community Energy Services Corporation SmartSolar (for Berkeley residents only); www.ebenergy.org/smartsolar.
Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE); www.dsireusa.org.
Diablo Solar Services, 5021 Blum Road, #2, Martinez, (925) 313-0600; www.diablosolar.com.
Go Solar California; www.gosolarcalifornia.ca.gov.
groSolar, 727 Allston Way, Suite B, Berkeley, (800) 374-4494; http://grosolar.com.
Heliodyne, 4910 Seaport Ave., Richmond, (510) 237-9614; www.heliodyne.com.
Rahus Institute, 1535 Center Ave., Martinez, (925) 370-7262; www.rahus.org.
SPG Solar, 20 Leveroni Court, Novato, (800) 815-5562; www.spgsolar.com.
Sola-Brite, 5729 Sonoma Drive, Pleasanton, (800) 846-6621; www.solabrite.com.
The Solar Company, 20861 Wilbeam Ave., Ste 1, Castro Valley, (510) 888-9488; www.thesolarco.com.
Solar Living Institute, 13771 S. Hwy. 101, Hopland, (707) 472-2450; www.solarliving.org.
SolarWinds, 1870 Arnold Industrial Place, Suite 1005, Concord, (925) 685-1565; www.solarwinds-energy.com.
Sun Light & Power, 1035 Folger Ave., Berkeley, (510) 845-2997; www.sunlightandpower.com.
WestCo Roofing, 763 46th Ave., Oakland, (510) 549-3956; www.westcoroofing.com.