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Solar panels at White House give a boost to alternative energy options

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By Brian Palmer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 12:45 PM

Within 15 years, the sun could supply 10 percent of the nation's power needs, according to research by the nonprofit group Climate Action. The White House will be part of any such trend, as President Obama announced the return of solar panels to heat water and supply some electricity for the first family.

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The president's move has homeowners wondering whether their roofs should be soaking up rays, too. So how do you go solar?

Your first step is to the Web.

Sites sponsored by the Department of Energy and several solar panel manufacturers offer calculators to give you a sense of whether solar is worth pursuing for your home. You enter your Zip code and electrical needs - either in terms of kilowatt-hours from your utility bill or how much you spend per month on power. The program knows how much sun your area enjoys and which tax incentives are available. It will predict how much money you'd save over 25 years, after which most solar panel warranties expire. (The panels will probably last longer than that, though.)

The program doesn't know much about your particular home, and those details can make a difference. Do you have a south-facing roof? Is your roof shaded by trees you're fond of? You'll need to call in some installers for a reality check.

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (www.nabcep.org) has a database of trained installers, and that's a good place to start. Choosing an installer is probably your most important decision. "The installer is the one who's going to design your system and actually drill holes in your house," says John Supp of Solar Depot, a wholesaler that supplies local installers.

Have several companies survey your home. They should do a free consultation, and good installers will walk you through the technology and the installation process, and explain what government incentives are available. You should feel confident in the company's stability. The warranties on workmanship usually last 10 years, and you want them to be around if something goes wrong.

A range of options

There are some really cool bells and whistles out there. According to Scott Carr, vice president of residential business at Standard Solar, a major local installation company, the system you choose should allow you to monitor the solar energy being generated. Standard Solar, for example, offers a personalized Web site where you can track your energy production and use. It's helpful not only in conservation but also in letting you know if something has gone wrong on your roof.

Most installers work with several manufacturers. Some makers offer superior efficiencies. This can be important if you have limited roof space or a partially shaded roof. But you'll pay extra for the upgraded technology, inflating your cost per kilowatt-hour.

Aesthetics can also be an issue. Some companies feature sleek, all-black units that don't look as though you've covered your house in graph paper. Check on the warranty. The best companies offer 25 years, but many of the panels installed 30 years ago are still producing.

Beyond that, choosing a manufacturer isn't necessarily a big deal. "There are no moving parts on a solar panel, so they rarely fail," says Tom Dyer of Kyocera Solar. "The decision really comes down to cost per kilowatt-hour." There's no maintenance required, either, unless you want to hose off the glass occasionally.

The federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit. Maryland and the District offer grants - up to $10,000 for large systems in Maryland - although the amount may decline as more homeowners take advantage of the program. Virginia's solar subsidy has been exhausted. Consult www.dsireusa.org for incentives in other areas and benefits your county might offer.

There are a variety of financing options. Paying cash upfront is best, if you can swing the $15,000 or so. But you can finance with a home equity loan or on an unsecured basis. Some installers offer leasing programs, with the option to buy the equipment at any time.

The installation will probably take one to three days, with only minor disruptions to your home. The last step is hooking up your panels to the utility meter, which can take weeks because it's the utility company's job. But once it's done, you'll get the pleasure of watching your meter run backward when you're making more electricity than you're using.

Now or later?

Many people are concerned that the technology will advance, and in 10 years you'll wish you had waited for the newer models. No one can guarantee that new ideas won't come along, but there are reasons to buy now.

We are approaching the efficiency limits of the current technology. According to Julie Blunden of solar manufacturer SunPower, silicon panels are capable of converting only about 29 percent of the sun's energy into electricity. SunPower, probably the industry leader in efficiency, is about to release a model with 23 percent efficiency. We're not likely to see leaps in the near future.

Second, the tax incentives are pretty good. Depending on where you live, the government will foot 30 to 65 percent of your upfront costs. As energy costs rise and public debts pile up, who knows whether the federal and state governments will stay this generous?

There's one footnote to this story: You might be able to cut your utility bill and take advantage of the federal government's largesse without drilling solar panels into your lovely terra cotta roof.

Consider a simple energy audit, which can tell you where your house is leaking and how to seal it off. You'll qualify for up to $1,500 in tax credits for adding insulation, resealing windows and making similar improvements, and it won't cost nearly as much as solar.

"Installing solar panels turns your drafty, uncomfortable house into a slightly cheaper, drafty, uncomfortable house," says Brian Uher of Amicus Consulting Services. (Of course, Uher recommends solar as a next step after eliminating those leaks.) He has set up a site where you can find a qualified energy auditor. Many homeowners in the District can get the audit for free, and it's subsidized in many other areas.

No word yet on whether the White House has been energy-audited. But over the years it has had a problem with leaks.

Palmer, a freelance writer living in New York, is a regular contributor to Slate.com's Explainer column.


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