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Saturday, December 15 , 2018, 11:40 am | Fair 63º


Solar Companies, Tax Credits Make It Easier to Reach for the Sun

Whether you want to live off the grid or on, there is an increasing array of options to save money and energy

Abe Powell’s electric bill is averaging about 54 cents a month these days. He admits he’s “conservative” with his energy use, but it’s the three-kilowatt photovoltaic power system that should take all the credit. Powell has been a believer in solar power since 1993, when he started a 10-year time frame of living off of the grid. An uncle convinced him to power his home that way, and although “it seemed like hocus-pocus at first,” solar power prompted Powell to start his own business, Solforce Systems Inc., installing solar panels.

Hedging against rate increases from the utility company is one of the benefits of solar energy, Powell said. Over the last 38 years, energy costs have increased about 5 percent, he said.

“If you use that model, the future’s not pretty,” he said.

Even in Santa Barbara, where the sun shines more than 300 days out of the year, most of us are still dependent on traditional electrical utilities to power our homes.

Tom Burt, CFO for Santa Barbara-based SunPacific Solar Electric, said because so many people have questions about solar energy, he encourages people curious about the process to get online and research. Burt said people often confuse photovoltaic, which generates electricity, with passive solar, which can be used to heat water.

So how much can one expect to pay up front for a system? There’s no “average home” in Santa Barbara, Burt said, because each house will have different power needs. Typically, however, the cost can range between $15,000 and $30,000, after rebates. And now, people can expect to recoup their costs in eight to 12 years as opposed to 20, he said.

Burt said he expects electricity to double in price in the next five to 10 years, and that having a solar energy system in place can help stabilize costs. Most modules have 20-25 year warranties, he said, but will likely last closer to 40 years.

The tax credits that are available to purchasers of photovoltaic systems can help those up-front costs be easier to stomach. At the federal level, home builders are eligible for a $2,000 tax credit for a new energy-efficient home that achieves 50 percent energy savings for heating and cooling over the 2004 International Energy Conservation Code, according to the Energy Department. A smaller credit of $1,000 is also available for new homes achieving a 30 percent energy savings for heating and cooling.

If you already live in your home, photovoltaic systems that provide electricity for the house are eligible for a tax credit of up to 30 percent of the costs on systems installed by 2016.

On top of the federal credits, an additional credit is available to California residents through the California Solar Initiative, which offers incentives based on performance factors such as installation angle, tilt and location. Owners of solar systems less than 50 kilowatts can apply for an up-front cash rebate known as the Expected Performance Based Buydown. Click here to calculate a potential rebate through the buydown program.

Burt said most solar companies handle the process from start to finish, and usually take care of the permits and installation themselves.

Vanessa McGrady, spokeswoman for Southern California Edison, said the power company was “very enthusiastic” about partnering with individuals who’d like to start powering their homes with solar. Edison, the state’s largest electric utility company, is currently the nation’s leading buyer of renewable energy. After choosing a company to install the solar power system, applications will be filed from the solar company or the homeowner to SCE for incentives and requesting permission to connect to the grid.

“We help people understand what the process is” by offering classes to homeowners interested in solar, McGrady said, one of which will be coming to Goleta on April 8. Click here for more information of the class.

If a household is not off the grid completely, it can expect monthly statements outlining how much is owed or will be paid, in a process called “net-metering.” The customer then settles up at the end of the year, McGrady said.

And what about the permits involved in a home project for solar?

The majority of solar projects qualify for over-the-counter permits, said Jaime Limon, senior planner and supervisor of design review and historic preservation for the city of Santa Barbara. That type of permit isn’t enough if there are addition renovations being done that require design review or if the project will be placed on a building that is in a historical district or on a hillside. Santa Barbara has strict guidelines for these types of projects, he said. “We don’t believe you can just waive design review,” he said.

Because state legislation says “that local agencies not adopt ordinances that create unreasonable barriers to the installation of solar energy systems including ... design review for aesthetic purposes,” some communities have interpreted that to mean “no obstacles,” Limon said. Santa Barbara, however, maintains that the state’s solar rights laws do not exempt solar energy systems from city zoning ordinances.

Limon has seen an increase in applications for solar energy system permits in the past several years, and Santa Barbara has issued a a booklet of solar guidelines to get people familiar with what the city’s standards are.

“We encourage people to have a balance between energy conservation and aesthetics,” said Limon, who added that the city now gives out annual awards for neighborhood-compatible photovoltaic projects as well as passive solar building design.

“It’s a challenge sometimes,” he said. “Often, the location of the panels happens to be on the most visible parts of the home.”

Limon encourages would-be solar applicants to take a look at the guidelines and the examples of what has been successful in the past.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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