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Get tax credits for energy improvements

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The federal tax credit will pay as much as one-third of that upfront, but in many states, such as California and New Jersey, there are other incentives available that pay as much as 60 percent. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and managed by the North Carolina Solar Center, provides an inclusive list of incentives.

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But be sure to talk to your accountant. How the credits add up will depend on your location and your personal tax situation.

Installing a solar water heater can be a do-it-yourself project if you are very handy and are willing to commit enough time and energy to learn to do it right. But considering the complexity and the likelihood that a rebate will pay for installation, turning to an expert installer might actually save you money. Several solar organizations provide lists of qualified installers in areas all over the country, including Home Power magazine, Renewable Energy Access and Solar Energy Industries Association.

Adding solar power
A much more extensive and expensive proposition would be to add a grid-tied solar-electric system to your home. This photovoltaic, or PV, system is made of a complete set of components for converting sunlight to electricity, storing that electricity and delivering it to its end use. The system could produce some or all of the electricity that your home requires. In addition, it can allow you to sell the excess back to your utility company.

Figuring out whether it makes economic sense for you can be accomplished by gathering up a few electric bills and showing them to a qualified solar installer who can do the calculations for you. Or you can try to estimate the return on investment yourself using a guide published in Home Power magazine.

The price will depend on how much electricity your home and lifestyle require, the amount of sunlight your region gets each day during peak sun hours, how sunny the location of your property is and how much money is available to you from state and utility rebates.

Just to give you a ballpark figure: George Douglas, a spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, says experts at this federal research facility estimate that in New Jersey, purchasing and installing a photovoltaic system costs $9 per watt, and the average home requires 4,000 watts per year for a total cost of $36,000. This is offset by state incentives that can be as large as 70 percent, with the federal rebate on top of that. Plus the homeowner can sell back excess power to the utility company at rates that are about 50 percent of retail.

New Jersey and California are the two most progressive states when it comes to encouraging alternative energy, with Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York close behind. Other states have less generous alternative-energy rebates and the utility power buyback price is much lower.

Douglas suggests that you do the math, keeping in mind that energy prices are much more likely to go up than down; photovoltaic systems are usually under warranty for 30 years and biting off the entire job at once isn't necessary. You can add solar in affordable chunks.

BP Solar is selling photovoltaic kits at Home Depot in California, New Jersey and some areas of New York. Home Depot will do the installation. The price varies enormously, based on what you buy and your locale.

 
 
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17 ways to cut home energy costs
Home improvements for saving energy
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