Sun Seekers

Solar energy may be one solution to rising utility rates, but cost and location are key factors for homeowners who want to capture savings

November 11, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN REPORTER

I never thought I'd be a greenie," said retired Army Maj. Harold Bower.

But this year, he shelled out about $31,000 -- before government incentives -- for two solar energy systems at his all-electric four-bedroom home in Severn. One provides all the hot water. The other, about 30 percent of the household electricity.

He thinks of himself more as an investor in technology that allows him to gloat now about having electric bills no larger than those he had before the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. rate increase. The savings allow him to better plan his financial future for retirement.

The hot water system should pay for itself in about five years.

The electricity?

"I probably won't be alive that long," said Bower, who is 60.

At today's rates, the expected payback period probably is 20 years, but as utility rates climb, the number of years for both paybacks will shorten.

Meanwhile, he is getting some satisfaction from thumbing his nose at the electric company and receiving between $5,000 and $6,000 in government incentives for his solar systems.

Using the rays of the sun for residential energy has been getting a fresh look by Marylanders, even though the state lacks the regularly long, sunny days that make other locations optimal places for solar.

Most recently, the University of Maryland students' LEAFHouse took second place in last month's solar decathlon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and held on the Mall in Washington.

In the decathlon, college student teams compete to design, build and run the most energy-efficient and entirely solar-powered 800-square-foot house.

The contest, which featured 20 homes, highlights the students' creativity, efficiency and architectural designs, and also shows that solar power doesn't have to mean a dark and ugly space, but rather that these homes can be livable and attractive.

"Residential is about to happen," said David Pratt, a principal in the Lorax Partnership consulting firm and president of the Baltimore chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Solar energy is catching on faster for commercial buildings because it is more cost-effective there, though, he said, if it could be made more cost-effective for houses, it could become mainstream.

Especially with the trendiness of all things green, many homeowners jolted by their electric bills are no longer dismissing solar power as a partial energy-saving solution.

Others want to make a political statement with solar panels -- whether it's a thermal system to make hot water or the system used to generate electricity, known as photovoltaic. Few use solar for heating a house.

"We need to move away from the fossil fuels," said Susan Hoban, who teaches lunar robotics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "So I moved."

She installed solar hot water and heat in her 1940 Severna Park home, starting in 2003. Her energy consumption is down by nearly 50 percent -- and if she had a more expansive roof, she would add panels.

Hoban's June 2006 BGE bill showed a 36-cent credit, indicating she produced more electricity than she consumed and so she "sold" her excess to the grid. And in mild months, she peeks at the meter.

"It's beautiful -- you can stand there and be hypnotized watching it run backward," she said.

Experts say the notion that Maryland is a place where residential solar power is impractical is wrong, given that German cities are covered with solar rooftops and China has a solar city.

First, systems that use the sun to heat water are heroes of efficiency because two rooftop panels can make plenty of hot water. Bower, for example, said after two cloudy days this past winter, his tank temperature remained high enough to need a mix with cold water to bring the faucet temperature down to 125 degrees.

Solar energy experts say Maryland is one of a few states that could experience a significant upward turn in solar power generation within a few years. Industry promoters fear that without government boosts, energy to get expedited treatment, the market won't expand; others say it simply has to be more cost-effective for residences.

Costs could cross

Several factors are at work.

BGE customers, reeling from a 72 percent increase in charges, learned last week that the company will ask state regulators to raise electric distribution charges.

At the same time, the cost of solar systems is coming down. Electricity-generating panels, though about one-quarter as efficient as heat-generating panels, are being built to last longer, some 25 years; thinner and flexible panels offer more innovations.

"In the not-too-distant future, probably in my lifetime, we are going to see a crossover point -- where the rising cost of electricity crosses the cost of solar," said Peter Lowenthal, group director for renewable energy and clean technology at Washington-based 360JMG and executive director of the Md-DC-Va Solar Energy Industries Association.

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