News & Updates


Putting the sun to work

April 14, 2009

Help is available for harnessing clean solar power


Larry Olson, a Satellite Beach environmental engineer, is one of those guys concerned about his carbon footprint and always looking for ways to harness renewable energy.

Olson and his wife, Donna, talk the talk, and after having spent upwards of $50,000 to have photovoltaic modules placed on the roof of their 2,000-square-foot Satellite Beach home, they’re also walking the walk. The Olson household earlier this month became all solar, and not only are they not using any electricity from Florida Power & Light Co., they’re putting excess electricity back into the electricity grid system.

"For those of us that can afford to do it, we should do it," Olson said, noting his system also means he is putting considerably less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Olsons are an example of how solar energy, in these days of environmental worries and inconsistent prices of oil, is getting more and more attention by businesses and homeowners. Going solar isn’t cheap, but advocates point out that with tax breaks, grant programs and savings on utility bills, systems that generate power by using the sun can ultimately be cost effective.

And that’s not to mention the non-monetary satisfaction of having a home that has virtually no negative impact on the environment.

"Solar is going to be the new industry," said Al Cadorin, owner of United Solar Energy Inc., the Merritt Island-based company that installed Olson’s solar system.

A growing number of states — but not Florida — are moving to require home builders to offer solar electricity and hot-water systems in new homes alongside more traditional options such as fancy kitchen countertops and special window treatments.

For example:

New Jersey lawmakers approved a bill last month that would require builders in developments of 25 houses or more to offer solar panels to homebuyers and to discuss during construction the benefits of clean energy.

A California law taking effect in 2010 will require builders to offer solar panels on homes in developments of more than 50 houses.

Hawaii, starting Jan. 1, will require all new single-family homes to include solar water heaters.Hawaii imports 90 percent of its fossil fuel energy sources.

New Mexico homebuilders must offer solar-ready wiring but are not obligated to offer solar installation under a law that took effect last year.

In Colorado, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require builders to offer a range of options, from pre-wiring the home for solar power to full installation of a solar system. The legislation would also require builders to tell buyers they can roll the cost of the system into their mortgage, reducing up-front costs.

Also, the federal government is offering a 30 percent tax credit for homeowners who install solar panels or solar water heaters through 2016, said Karen Schneider, spokeswoman for the federal Energy Star program. The credit covers materials and installation costs, with no ceiling on claims.

That’s how Olson helped offset the cost of his solar system. He started with a $4,400 solar water heater and was flabbergasted at its efficiency and monthly utility savings — about $30 a month. The photovoltaic panels came next. Of the $50,000 investment, Olson calculates his actual cash outlay will come to $21,700 once grants and tax rebates are figured in.

His annual FPL bill would go from $1,440 a year to nothing, meaning . Just on that calculation the system would pay for itself in about 15 years. Olson has assurances from Brevard County that his property assessment would not increase for being all solar.

"This is one of the better investments in the marketplace today," Olson said, adding "the return gets better as the prices of electricity goes up — and I do not remember it ever going down."

Jim Fenton, director of the Cocoa-based Florida Solar Energy Center, said it’s a bit ironic that the Sunshine State, where the average electric bill has risen $40 per month since 2005, has some catching up to do on advocating solar energy.

He said New Jersey has more solar users than Florida because homeowners in New Jersey pay an extra $1.50 per month into a Public Benefit Fund which can help offer rebates and incentives for installing solar panels. Fenton suggested Florida could implement the same sort of program in an attempt to stimulate more use of solar technology.

He said New Jersey has more solar users than Florida because homeowners in New Jersey pay an extra $1.50 per month into into a Public Benefit Fund which can help offer rebates and incentives for installing solar panels. If such a fund collected $1.50 on your electric bill in Florida, more people might be lured into using solar energy.

"Clearly, $1.50 is less than the $40 a month cost of doing nothing," Fenton said. "While solar water heating is cost effective today, solar electricity (photovoltaics) without a subsidy is not cost effective today, but the subsidy is still less than the cost of "accelerated cost recovery" for nuclear power."

Cadorin has operated United Solar Energy for 26 years and for most of that time, the work focused on solar heating systems for swimming pools. Now he’s getting more calls about solar-powered water heaters and getting more inquiries about complete solar-power systems for homes and businesses.

"It’s kind of nice to see something finally happening," Cadorin said.