2008-11-13 / Local & State

Home, Business Owners Harness Solar Power In Pa.


FOX CHAPEL, Pa. (AP) - Phillip N.H. Smith worked on an experimental solar-powered house when he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951.

Now, the retired Copperweld Corp. chief executive and his wife, Martha, want to use some of the sun's energy to power their Fox Chapel home. They plan to install solar panels on the roof of an attached garage, once a state subsidy for alternative energy equipment becomes available.

"This is a chance for us to see what we can do,'' he said.

Hundreds of home and business owners and even local governments have been pricing solar panels, small wind turbines and other energymaking systems in the three months since Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law a bill that, for solar equipment, would cut costs by 35 percent.

The federal renewable energy and energy efficiency tax credit program recently was expanded, meaning even more potential savings.

Homeowners like the Smiths are waiting for the state Department of Environmental Protection to write the rules for Pennsylvania's program, specifying what types of home and small-business systems are covered and how and where they can be installed, department spokesman Charlie Young said.

Similar incentives in other states, such as Maryland, have increased solar panel installations dramatically. So far, almost 2,300 people have signed up for DEP's e-mail notifications about the program, Young said, and the program could be running by early next year.

Contractors who install solar rooftop panels are seeing an uptick in inquiries. "We have 200 potential customers - a lot are waiting to see what the rebates are,'' said Rich Foltz, president of Vox Energy Solutions in McCandless.

"We go out every week and do proposals. People are just starting now to get educated, and they say they're doing the research and waiting for the rebate. I compare it to buying a $60,000 car for $40,000 - who wouldn't take the deal?''

About $100 million has been earmarked for state rebates for solar installations at residences and small businesses, Young said. Another $25 million is to be available for wind and geothermal equipment.

The recent renewal of federal investment tax credits for solar power, once capped at $2,000 for a residential system, could cover another big part of the costs. The new federal incentive is 30 percent of the project cost, Young said, though state officials are unsure at this point how the two programs might overlap.

Costs vary for home solar systems. Foltz said an average, 2,200- square-foot home with two adults and two children uses about 9,000 kilowatt hours each year.

A system that could "zero out'' electricity bills for that home might cost $40,000 to $50,000, and involve as many as 24 solar panels. Foltz added the financial benefits of solar panels vary greatly, depending on the price of electricity in the region.

Steve O'Hare just bought four more 120-watt solar panels at around $600 each for his Shadyside home, adding to the two he installed a few years ago. They feed electricity to a battery that powers the garage and outdoor lights, plus his tools and a dehumidifier in the basement.

His family's electric bill was around $80 a month without the panels. "Now, it comes in at $50,'' said O'Hare, who owns rental properties and restores older homes. "I'm very pro-solar alternative and I'm trying to get all my neighbors interested. Even if they put a couple panels up, it would offset their electric bills.''

Much of consumers' new interest in solar, wind and other systems, in fact, is rooted in worries about rising electric bills in the next two years.

State officials have warned some utilities could raise their rates by 40 percent or more as the capped prices imposed under the state's deregulation law in 1996 expire, and demand for power increases.

Most of Vox's solar installations have been in the center part of the state, but the company started serv- icing Western Pennsylvania early this year, Foltz said. So far, it's put about four systems online in the Pittsburgh region.

Conservation Consultants Inc. plans to double the solar panel array on the roof of its South Side building, said Ann Gerace, executive director. The nonprofit promotes environmental responsibility through programs such as home energy audits.

The expanded system should produce 10 percent of the energy used in the building, where 55 people work. And because utilities have to buy excess power produced by solar systems, Gerace said, "We figure when we're not here on the weekends, we might as well give it back and let Duquesne Light pay us for it.''

The Smiths had been considering solar panels for their home for years. What convinced them was a four-day power outage last year that ruined all their refrigerated and frozen food, and forced them to replace an older refrigerator that never recovered, Martha Smith said.

The couple say they might put a small wind turbine on their threeacre lot on a hilltop, to help power the electric-heated house where they raised six children.

More immediately, Martha Smith intends to go solar on the local roads. She ordered a Solar Bug vehicle for $15,000 from Free Drive of Bozeman, Mont., that should be delivered in November.

Resembling a miniature golf cart with one seat in front and one in back, the electric-powered car has a roof full of solar panels.

Smith said she's been promised the second car the company produces, and she's ordered a vanity license plate: "Sunbug2.''

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