smart spending

Solar power: an electrifying home project

Solar panels on house
Highlights
  • Solar electric systems can provide power to your home from the sun.
  • Startup costs for solar electric systems can be high.
  • Going solar can make your utility bills dwindle.

OK, so you recycle. Who doesn't?

And you drive a hybrid. Don't expect a personal call from Al Gore.

You make your own compost, you solar-heat your water and you keep your thermostat at levels that guarantee you're uncomfortable, no matter the season.

Maybe it's time to go one step greener. Make a statement by going off the grid -- literally. That's right. Make your own electricity at home. It's shockingly simple, although the startup costs might give you a bit of a jolt.

If you want to leave the smallest possible carbon footprint, you should consider switching to a solar electric (photovoltaic) system, or PV. Besides saving money on utility bills, PV systems reduce air pollution, stimulate the creation of green jobs and move the country closer to energy independence. Admittedly, it hasn't moved the country much yet.

Consider Collins Foots Sr., who lives in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, a neighborhood on the rise five years after Hurricane Katrina's flood waters receded. Foots' 1,200-square-foot home generates an electric bill of a frugal $38 per month, thanks largely to its PV system.

"I'm saving about $150 a month on my electric bill and I'm practically getting free energy from the sun," he says.

True, Foots had help. His home was built by Make It Right, the foundation funded by Brad Pitt to aid in the rebuilding of New Orleans. If you're footing the bill yourself, you'll want to do extensive reviews of several factors. Carefully consider the type of system you want, the costs, and what local, state and federal incentives there are to help defray costs.

Steve Baillie, owner of Solar Concepts of Boca Raton, Fla., says the upfront cost for a 2.5-kilowatt system is a minimum of $20,000. In comparison, Foots' system in New Orleans has capacity to generate 4 kilowatts.

The reality is that most people need a bigger system than what's in Foots' home. Bing Cain, PV supervisor at Advance Solar and Spa in Fort Myers, Fla., says a typical residential PV system generates 5 kilowatts. That takes 22 solar panels, which cover roughly 400 square feet. The panels can be installed on pitched or flat roofs.

Cain says the installation takes about three weeks.

The good news is that homeowners can reduce overall installation costs by tapping federal tax credits and, depending on location, a slew of state incentive programs, including sales and property tax credits, rebates and loans. You'll need to do your research to see what localized aid is available, and in what form. You might visit the website for the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

Get the latest federal government incentives at Energy Star's website.

Going off the grid, or disconnecting from your local utility, is possible, but the better choice is a grid-connected system to ensure reliable power at all times. Any excess energy from the PV system is placed on the electric grid in exchange for an energy credit from the utility provider, a process called "net metering."

As Kermit the Frog has said, "It's not easy being green." But it can be personally and economically rewarding, says Pierre Moses, solar coordinator at Make It Right. "With the right incentives, installing a PV system at your home is a good way to lock in energy savings for a long time to come," he says.

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