Harnessing solar energy-Installation of systems to tap the source is on steep increase

During the recent energy crisis, Don Thoza turned a popular fantasy into a personal reality.

Fed up with soaring power bills, the Coronado Cays resident purchased a high-end, home photovoltaic power system and began producing his own electricity from the sun.

By Craig D. Rose

With an array of rooftop solar panels, plus some unobtrusive electronic gear and a small-refrigerator-sized battery in his garage, Thoza is largely independent of the electricity sold here by San Diego Gas & Electric, though he’s still hooked up to the grid.

No pollution, no noise and a new little pleasure: Thoza can stroll to his electric meter and watch it run backward, as he ships his homemade electricity into the SDG&E system.

"I don’t bother to turn the lights off anymore," he said.

BP, formerly called British Petroleum, is betting there’s a lot more homeowners ready for solar retrofits. The giant energy company has launched a major direct marketing campaign to homeowners promoting its home solar energy systems.

"It is the first time a major manufacturer is going directly to the customer," said Charles Postles, residential market director for BP Solar.

Postles says BP – one of the world’s largest manufacturers of solar panels and a company with $174 billion in annual revenue – began the campaign after market research found it could satisfy the biggest concerns customers have about photovoltaic systems.

The biggest concern involves payback, namely, how long it takes for a solar system to pay for itself through power bill reductions.

So a key feature of the new BP customer site is a savings calculator, allowing customers to plug in their area codes and monthly electricity bills for a calculation of how long it would take for the system to pay for itself.

Those paybacks typically extend more than 10 years, but BP and other manufacturers say their systems should last twice that long. They say that means dividends for years on a photovoltaic investment. And Postles notes BP calculations assume utility power prices remain flat.

BP also observed that the number of installed solar systems is soaring. Within SDG&E’s territory, the number of systems rose tenfold to more than 300 over the past three years. At current rates, there could be 300 systems installed this year alone.

Statewide, more than 1,000 systems were installed in each of the last two years, compared with just a handful through much of the 1990s.

BP’s entry into the market now is fortuitous because a California Energy Commission program that rebates about half the cost of home photovoltaic is expected to be restarted this March, after an interruption of several months.

Marc Roper, manager of residential systems for AstroPower Inc., which markets its home photovoltaic systems through Home Depot, says the energy crisis sparked customer interest and has now established California as one of the largest markets for solar power in the world.

"The entry of big companies is good for the consumer and good for the industry," said Roper. "The holy grail for the industry has been to have markets that allow us to expand manufacturing and drive our costs down."

To the disappointment of consumer advocates, however, prices have not come down in recent years. Prices for solar systems went up during the energy crisis, because of the growing demand.

But those prices have since backed off a bit, though consumers can still expect to pay about $9 per watt or roughly $18,000 for the typical two-kilowatt systems needed for most homes.

Scott Anders, program manager for the San Diego Regional Energy Office believes statewide rebate programs may have encouraged manufacturers to keep prices high.

With California rebates of up 50 percent of a system’s cost or $4 per watt – down from $4.50 in the past – the out-of-pocket cost for homeowners is often $10,000 or more. But those California rebates are also scheduled to decline by 20 cents per watt every six months.

BP is promising customers that it will even file paperwork needed to capture rebates and other incentive programs, as well as provide tie-ins to financing programs.

Other major solar panel manufacturers – including Kyocera and Shell Solar – continue to market through dealers.

Matt Freedman, a staff attorney with The Utility Reform Network, a Bay Area consumer advocacy group, says this is a particularly good time for consumers to consider conversions.

"Now is a better time than during the crisis, because there is more certainty about utility rates – they’re going to be high as far as we can see," said Freedman. But he urges customers to shop based on pricing without rebates or tax credits, because those can vary.

He and other consumer advocates are also pressing the new California Power Authority to help homeowners with financing new photovoltaic systems. Greenpeace and other groups are also pressing for a San Diego solar bond issue to raise large sums to pay for the conversion of more government buildings, as has been done in San Francisco.

One key issue for solar development statewide is a planned vote by the California Public Utilities Commission on so-called exit fees for customers leaving the grid to generate their own power.

The commission wants to ensure these customers pay a share of the huge and lingering costs of the power crisis, but some in the solar industry fear excessive fees could inhibit sales.

On Coronado, Thoza’s high-end system includes storage batteries that provide uninterrupted power. His biggest frustration is that while the power he generates offsets what he buys from SDG&E during nighttime and cloudy periods, he isn’t paid for any surplus he pumps into the grid.

He pays the utility about $5 monthly as a hook-up fee.

After spending $27,000 for his high-end system, he takes tapping his personal power surplus as a challenge, lest he supply more uncompensated power to the grid. Thoza, a retired real estate and yacht broker, proudly shows off the electric heating unit integrated into his bedroom ceiling fan.

"Keeps the room nice and warm," he reported.

Craig Rose: (619) 293-1814; [email protected]

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