|The New York
By Tina Traster
March 22, 2007 -- Seth Neubardt acknowledges that he is a gluttonous American consumer. So when he bought a 1910 Colonial home in Westchester that needed a total renovation, he tried to go as green as possible. Neubardt installed solar panels and replaced an old fireplace with an energy-saving furnace fireplace. He bought a super-efficient gas-fired boiler and created a "solar attic" to heat his pool. (He says he can't give up his SUV, so he bought an SUV hybrid.)
The 30-panel, 5.5-kilowatt solar-panel system cost Neubardt $60,000, but the New York State Energy and Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) reimbursed him $40,000.
Neubardt was worried that his neighbors would find the panels to be an eyesore, so he had them installed on the back of his house. To his surprise, word spread, and several neighbors are following suit and installing their own panels.
"When I look up at my solar panels, I feel emotional," says Neubardt. "I feel a little less guilty about being an energy pig, and that makes me feel good."
In addition to the warm feeling he gets from having the panels, Neubardt says his electric bills are only about $80 per month.
Yes, soaking up the sun can ultimately save you money.
Theresa Galvin and Mark Almeida installed solar panels during a 2003 renovation of their 1870 three- story double-parlor brownstone in Carroll Gardens. Prior to the installation, the couple paid roughly $850 a year to Con Edison. And while electric rates have risen 20 percent over the past three years, in 2006, Galvin and Almeida's electric bill was just $150. (Only about 25 percent of that bill was for actual energy consumption; the balance was an unavoidable service charge.)
But the solar panels weren't cheap. The couple hired Solar Energy Systems in Brooklyn to install 22 Sharp Solar 5-foot-by-21/2-foot modules, roof racks and an inverter (which converts the direct current produced by solar panels into an alternating current). The 4-kilowatt system and installation cost $36,870. Galvin and Almeida shelled out $20,590, and New York State, through a solar-energy incentive program, contributed $16,280. Additionally, the couple got a $3,750 state tax credit.
"Even though the expense was a rude awakening at first," says Galvin, "we decided it was worth the investment after learning about government incentives, tax credits and financing options."
While solar panels are a pricey proposition, homeowners are warming up to the idea now that government incentives and tax credits can cover up to 50 percent of an installation.
Another benefit is low-interest financing - the state will subsidize loans for renewable energy up to 4 percent.
And perhaps best of all for solar-panel adopters like Galvin and Almeida, you get to take unused energy generated by the sun and store it in Con Edison's grid. Through a system called "net-metering," energy produced on a long, sunny July day is used as a credit for energy needed on a gray December day.
"The utility grid is like a bank," says David Buckner, president of Solar Energy Systems. "Energy produced by solar panels does not get wasted."
Once a realm embraced mainly by tree-huggers, solar power has arrived, albeit slowly. It still contributes only 0.1 percent of U.S. energy needs, but the number of solar installations grew by 20 percent in 2006, and the cost of making solar panels is dropping by about 7 percent annually, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
And while most people who take the solar plunge view their commitment as a political and environmental statement - solar energy generates clean power from the sun, reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming - it also allows them to lock in the cost of power over the long term and be more self-sufficient in the event of an energy crisis.
Since 2001, NYSERDA has helped cover costs for nearly 700 residential solar projects, including 134 systems in New York City. Rebates for solar systems up to 5,000 watts are $4 per watt. Incentives for systems over 5,000 watts drop to $3 per watt. (The state caps rebates at 10 kilowatts.)
Electric customers of the New York Power Authority and Long Island Power Authority have separate incentive programs. The New Jersey Clean Energy Program and the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund have similar programs, too.
Also, New York State offers a tax credit of 25 percent up to $5,000, and there's a $2,000 federal tax credit. The state pays the rebate directly to a qualified solar panel installer so you don't have to foot the entire bill upfront.
But the state will only offer incentives to homeowners who have southern-facing roofs that are not overly shaded by trees or other structures.
"Shading is the biggest issue," says Jared Haines, president of Mercury Solar Systems in New Rochelle. "If you're losing more than 25 percent of sunlight due to shading, the state is not going to offer incentives."
NYSERDA lists its participating installers (and bank lenders) at powernaturally.org. Get at least three estimates for comparison, make sure the installer is licensed and bonded and ask for customer references on past installations.
Installers should provide a free consultation to determine whether your home is eligible for the solar-panel rebate program. The on-site inspection includes a shade analysis, roof measurements and electric usage reviews. If the residence is eligible, the installer handles building permits, state applications and financing applications.
Look for systems that come with 25-year warranties on the panels and 10-year warranties for the inverters.
Annette Benedict spent about $12,250 (after tax credits) on the 3.75-kilowatt system for her Queen Anne house near Pelham Parkway in The Bronx.
"The sun is out there to make electricity," she says. "Why not use it?"
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