Walking through the Dwell on Design expo at the Los Angeles convention center last month, I came across plenty of good ideas. But one struck me as particularly smart: the SolarLease program from a company called SolarCity. Under the plan, launched in April, homeowners pay a monthly fee (over a standard 15 years) to lease solar panels, therefore avoiding the upfront costs, paperwork, and maintenance of buying their own. The company installs the panels for free and guarantees that monthly charges will be less than what customers save in energy costs.
An idea like this makes particular sense in California, where it’s sunny much of the time. But according to the California Energy Commission, there have only been about 33,000 solar systems installed in the state. That’s out of over 35 million total households (according to the U.S. Census 2005American Community Survey) and countless businesses and government agencies.
That’s pitiful, especially now that going solar has become easier and more affordable. Besides programs like SolarLease, there are plenty of providers. A list of registered California retailers is available at www.gosolarcalifornia.org, a site run by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (a national list is available at findsolar.com).
According to the energy commission, prices for a typical photovoltaic (PV) solar system, with installation, average around $20,000. And to offset the upfront cost, there are government incentive programs like the California Solar Initiative, run by the CPUC and administered by local private utility companies. That program offers cash rebate incentives for photovoltaic systems starting at $2.50 per watt produced for existing home systems and $3.25 per watt for government and non-profit organizations (updated rates can be found at www.csi-trigger.com), which works out to about a $7,500 rebate for installing the average 2.5 kilowatt home PV system. New Solar Homes Partnership is a similar rebate program offered through the Energy Commission.
Meanwhile, local and federal government initiatives provide further incentives and tax credits for going solar. Homeowners using solar energy can get up to a $2,000 credit on their federal income taxes and business owners can get up to 30 percent of the price of an installation. Also, the CPUC gives incentives for other solar systems besides PV, like solar thermal and solar hot water.
Other states like New Jersey and Colorado have had problems administering their solar rebate programs and keeping up with residents’ demands. But because California has $3.3 billion over 10 years for its program (paid for by a senate bill, not by utility surcharges as in other states), and since California’s local utilities—as opposed to public administration—began overseeing programs in 2008, California’s program has gone fairly smoothly, pointed out Amy Morgan, a spokesperson for the California Energy Commission. Not to say that solar is completely painless. Installation can be pricey, and rebates and incentives only partially offset the cost; it can take years to recoup the rest through savings on your energy bills. Moreover, the federal solar credit expires at the end of this year and has yet to be renewed, so that incentive is still up in the air, raising more questions about solar’s future (since SolarLease’s most significant savings relate to the federal credits, for example, its plan could be greatly hindered if the credits are not extended).
So why emphasize solar when a greater goal of comprehensive green building is even more important, and will save much more energy? Because it’s a great first step. Transforming our building stock from top to bottom will take time. Consider solar a no-brainer for the smart set.