- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Dick Lahn has gotten used to the stares and the cars slowing down going past his Crofton home. Curious neighbors stop in regularly and there are so many questions that Mr. Lahn finally printed up a flier about the solar-powered system he had installed on his home this year.

The 18 dark panels cover the entire roof of his two-car garage, producing enough power to meet 40 percent of his monthly electric needs.

“I can go outside and watch my meter go backwards when I’m not using electricity,” Mr. Lahn says.

The recent Northeast blackout has generated a new wave of believers in solar power. And growing numbers of homeowners are making the investment in systems using technology once reserved for the space station.

“We’re confident solar is here and it’s going to continue to increase at an aggressive rate,” says Glenn Hamer, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association, based in Washington. “After the New York City blackout, there are going to be a lot of people that are going to be interested in finding alternative sources of power.”

Some 1.1 million homes in the country’s 170 million housing stock rely on some sort of solar powered system, according to the Department of Energy’s 2001 housing census data.

There are no statistics available for the Washington metropolitan region, but industry analysts believe the figure is well below 1,000. Many forecast a jump in coming years as the technology widens and growing numbers of states and federal agencies adopt California-style initiatives to make alternatives more affordable.

To help cut costs for homeowners, the Department of Energy is working with mortgage lenders to roll improvements into standard mortgage packages. A list of lenders offering Energy Efficient Mortgages is available from the Department of Energy and through the Fannie Mae and government-insured Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Affairs (VA) lenders.

Local governments also have joined efforts to broaden support for alternative technologies, passing laws offering tax breaks and rebates to homeowners who invest in systems.

In Virginia, homeowners can exempt solar energy equipment from local property taxes.

Maryland offers a broader range of incentives, including income tax credits up to 15 percent of the installed cost of a solar powered system. The state also offers rebates up to $3,200 for installing solar generating systems, but that program is currently out of money.

No incentives are currently offered by the District.

“California had a rebate program that didn’t surge until they had rolling blackouts,” Mr. Hamer says. “Growth has been dependent on the incentive programs that are out there, and they are growing.”

Margaret and Robert Cahalan of Greenbelt invested in a photovoltaic system after qualifying for a rebate in Maryland’s Residential Rooftops program. The couple enrolled in the project after a presentation at a solar fair and installed 16 panels on the roof of their home in 1999. The systems cover 30 percent of their electrical bill, reducing monthly bills to about $80 a month, she said.

This year, they added a similar system to a beach house in Chincoteague, Va.

“The real value is in terms of the cost to the environment,” says Ms. Cahalan, who is one of four homeowners on the same block who have some sort of solar power system. “You have to think of it in other than economic terms. The payback is many years down the road.”

Homeowners who want to invest in a solar-powered system can choose between two different types of technologies: Solar thermal or photovoltaic (PV) systems.

Solar thermal products are designed to power water heaters and heat swimming pools. Replacing those units with solar powered systems can translate into hundreds of dollars a year in savings for homeowners. Water heaters use the most electricity in the home, next to the heating and air conditioning unit, says Dan Lunceford, a solar contractor and chairman of the Potomac Region Solar Energy Association.

“When we flip the switch and the light comes on, we don’t think of it much beyond that,” Mr. Lunceford says. “There is more awareness, but it’s not going to become mainstream until it hits us in the pocketbook.”

PV systems are the largest growing segment of the industry. PV systems generate electricity with solar panels by using technology developed for the satellite industry and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The systems, which start at about $15,000, use dark colored panels that convert the sun’s rays into electricity. Systems rely on an inverter the size of a microwave to power a home, and most homeowners are tied into their local utility grid so homeowners can receive credit for generating electricity.

A typical installation takes about six months because the system needs to be designed and permits have to be obtained as part of the process.

The actual installation and site work takes only a few days, says Isaac Opalinsky, sales manager of Aurora Energy, a PV company based in Annapolis.

Contractors start by making a site visit and an evaluation because a home needs a surface with an unobstructed view of the sun for a minimum of six hours a day, Mr. Opalinsky says.

The systems are designed to be maintenance free and carry warranties of between 20 and 25 years.

“It’s going to last longer than the shingles on your roof,” Mr. Opalinsky says. “The technology has been greatly simplified. The systems are now basically maintenance free.”

In California, where the popularity of solar technology has led to entire communities of PV homes, the systems have become a selling point, industry officials say.

A Fairfax firm, ICF Consulting, in a study financed by the Environmental Protection Agency, estimates that for every $1 cut from your utility bill, your home increases in value $20 or more.

A combination of improvements, including adding the more efficient Energy Star-rated appliances to a home, can boost sales prices more than $10,000, the study found. Appraisers are now including such improvements on standard forms as the market has grown and awareness about the systems is becoming part of their training.

“This isn’t really like putting a new refrigerator in your house,” Mr. Opalinsky says. “It’s a lot more like adding a highly efficient air conditioning system to your home. It’s a fixed appliance that is going to add value to your home for a very long time.”

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