Governments are expanding their incentives for installing solar or other energy conservation devices in homes. The federal income tax credit for solar systems has been expanded to 30 percent.
In Maryland, homeowners can get up to $3,000 from the state toward the cost of a photovoltaic system, up to $2,000 for a solar-powered water heater, and up to $1,000 for a geothermal heating and cooling system. This year, with just $75,000 to give out, the state agency awarded 30 grants. But the legislature boosted funding for next year to $1.5 million, and there already have been 30 applications. In the past few weeks, with BGE rate increases looming, there have been 400 inquiries, according to Davis.
Local governments also are starting to get in on the act. Howard County, for instance, offers a three-year property-tax credit covering up to 20 percent of the costs of an energy conservation device, depending on how efficient it is. But Linda Watts, chief of revenue for the county's Department of Finance, said no one has applied for the four-year-old credit.
That could be because to be eligible, an applicant must prove that the device and the building meet standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. The documentation required adds to the cost, experts say.
"I think we may need to do a little promoting," said Marsha McLaughlin, Howard's planning director. Public interest is growing, she noted, because of rising energy costs and concerns about global warming.
The Baltimore County Council is weighing whether to enact a tax credit for high-performance commercial buildings. It would cover up to 100 percent of the building's tax bill for 10 years, though owners must again prove that the structure meets a high "green" building standard. The measure is to be reviewed by the council at a work session Tuesday and may be voted on July 3.
Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, one of the bill's sponsors, said he would like to offer similar tax incentives for homes, but worries about the cost and quality control. As it is, the high-performance building tax credit, if passed, would be capped so that the county doesn't lose more than $1 million a year in revenue.
"I think we should look at it, but don't know whether it's economically feasible," Gardina said.
Some aren't waiting for tax credits, though. "Since BGE announced its rate increases, demand has just gone through the roof," said Isaac Opalinsky, sales manager for Aurora Energy, which installed the solar energy systems in the Bel Air house.
While federal, state and local grants and tax breaks aren't enough to overcome the high cost of a typical residential photovoltaic system, a solar water heater costing $4,000 to $6,000 can pay for itself in lower utility bills in five to 10 years, said Opalinsky - even sooner if energy costs keep climbing.
Bob Ward Companies plans to keep the PowerHouse in Bel Air for about a year to show building contractors, school groups and others about the benefits of energy efficiency. After that, it will be sold, say company executives - for a price as yet unset.
Meanwhile, Opalinsky said, the Bel Air house stands as tangible evidence that energy efficiency is compatible with today's suburban living.
"It's not a techie, geeky house. We're not talking geodesic domes or yurts out in the woods," he said. "Any family of four would be happy to live in this house."