- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2001

A town-house complex at Mount Vernon is harnessing the sun's energy to light its outdoor steps, paths and playground after dark.
Huntley Meadows uses solar panels to capture sunshine and convert it to electricity for a string of lamps. The 86-unit complex is the first community in the region to use solar power in its common areas, said industry and government officials.
"I was amazed when I saw them," resident Ed Boos said. "I had never seen solar lights before."
After analyzing the cost-effectiveness of solar and conventional lighting, the Huntley Meadows homeowners association elected to go with solar, resident Angela Hofmann said.
Residents appreciated the environmental benefits, but were wary of price. So a committee compared installation costs, the price of solar equipment ($23,000 in Huntley Meadows' case) and monthly bills for conventional systems.
"Once they went down the page, they saw the [initial] costs were offset by the long-term savings," said Miss Hofmann, who headed the association's architectural-control committee.
Over the past two decades, technological advances have greatly narrowed the gap between the cost of solar power and electricity generated by utility companies. The U.S. Department of Energy calculates that the cost of solar electricity has dropped from an average of $2 a kilowatt-hour in 1980 to 20 cents a kilowatt-hour in 2000.
Nationwide, sales of photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight into electricity, have grown 30 percent a year in the past three years, and more than 20 percent a year during the last decade, said Lynne Gillette, a program analyst in the Department of Energy's Office of Solar Energy Technologies.
Last year's spike in natural-gas prices, the energy crisis in California and now the fears of a terrorist attack on the nation's energy grid have contributed to heightened demand. U.S. producers of solar-energy arrays plan to double their output over the next 18 months, Miss Gillette said.
With today's technology, the issue is not how much sun an area gets but how much local electricity costs, she said.
Comparisons can be tricky. But in states such as Maryland and Virginia, where the price of utility-supplied electricity is about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar energy is a tough sell at almost 16 cents per kilowatt hour.
Still, both states encourage its use, mostly through tax incentives.
Virginia allows counties and municipalities to exempt or partly exempt users of solar power or other renewable energy sources from property taxes, according to Mike Abbott, a spokesman for the Mines, Minerals and Energy Department. Virginia requires utilities to give homeowners credit for surplus electricity generated by solar power and returned to the local power grid.
Huntley Meadows estimated that it would break even after five years. Only one person has griped about the system, and that was because a solar panel was in a conspicuous location.

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