There are plenty of incentives for homeowners in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia who want to delve into solar. (istockphoto)

While the landscape for residential solar is slightly different in the Washington region outside the District, there are plenty of incentives for homeowners in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia who want to delve into the technology, experts say.

There is a large gap between the number of solar installations in Maryland and Virginia, according to Ben Delman, communications manager of Community Power Network, a national group which advocates for locally owned renewable energy.

That’s largely because Virginia has some roadblocks for consumers, he said.

“Maryland has made investments into its solar industry through its residential and commercial grants and renewable portfolio standard. In contrast, Virginia makes it difficult for homeowners to go solar,” Delman said.

Virginia “has not made similar investments and has deferred to monopoly utility interests by imposing punitive charges for large residential systems, set an arbitrary limit of 1 percent on solar generation in the state, and limits to solar market access to solar by prohibiting solar leasing and shared or ‘community solar’ installations,” he added. “As a response, we are working with solar advocates in Virginia to help homeowners go solar and push for policies that will help level the playing field for solar.”

“Maryland has made investments into its solar industry through its residential and commercial grants and renewable portfolio standard,” said Ben Delman, communications manager of Community Power Network, a national group which advocates for locally owned renewable energy. (George Frey/Bloomberg)

Still, Virginia homeowners who have tried solar power say they are encountering positive results.

Monique Hanis, a media director for Advanced Energy Economy, first installed solar on her Arlington home in 2006 and added more panels in 2010.

“It’s actually a better deal today and a lot easier than for us early adopters,” said Hanis.

“Since 2006, prices have gone down, there are more contractors and better payment options, and Congress renewed the federal 30 percent solar investment tax credit,” she added. “Today, it’s easy to find online information, and contractors have improved their installation processes. Since investing in solar energy is more commonly done, you can find customers for references.”

Hanis said she has saved 30 to 35 percent on her energy bills every year. The federal 30 percent tax credit has no cap per system limit, but it will decrease over the next five years and will phase out. Although there are no Virginia state tax credits, most localities exempt solar from property taxes, and the state now exempts commercial solar from a machine sales tax.

Tom Kimbis, who uses solar at his home in Travilah, Md., in Montgomery County, to run his water heater and electric system, said he also sees benefits.

“The solar system has lowered my bill by about 40 percent, and I’m in an all electric home” with electric heat and a water heater, said Kimbis, vice president at the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington. “My payback is approximately five years. After that, any savings from the monthly power bills will have fully offset the initial cost of the system and will be money in my pocket.”

We asked Delman and David Levine, chief executive of Geostellar, a solar energy marketplace based in McLean, Va., to outline the incentives and benefits available for suburban homeowners:

What are the rules for residential tax credit?

DL: You get it back the first year. You need to own the home. It can be your primary or secondary residence. And you need to live there. It can’t be rental property. If you don’t have the tax appetite in one year, you can gain the tax credits over five years.

How much will power generated from the sun offset electric bills in the suburbs?

DL: In most cases, you’ll offset 100 percent of your power. The savings varies because the rates of retail electricity and incentives vary. The solar electricity costs an average of about 8 cents per kilowatt hour. So if you’re in Virginia and pay only [an average of about] 10 cents or 11 cents per kilowatt hour, you won’t save much. In D.C. and Maryland, you pay [an average of about] 13 or 14 cents per kilowatt hour, so you save a lot more money.

What are the financial incentives for solar power in the suburbs?

BD: Maryland provides a $1,000 credit for solar installation, and some counties, like Baltimore and Prince George’s, provide a property tax credit. Virginia does not have any similar incentives that I’m aware of. If you’d like more details, I recommend DSIRE’s website [Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency at www.dsireusa.org]. It breaks down all of the relevant solar incentives and policies by state.

What is the average return on investment in five years in the suburbs?

BD: This will depend upon the size of the system and the solar customer’s energy use. That being said, we tell Maryland co-op members to expect a payoff in seven to eight years from when they purchase a system. Virginia’s payoff time is a bit longer, more like nine to 12 years.

For information about solar in the District:

Cost of solar energy falls every time the sun rises