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Going solar

Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune/ Bret Alexander and Leslie Ames stand in front of the solar panels installed in the backyard of their South Lake Tahoe home.
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Leslie Ames pays less in one year to the electric company than most of us pay in a month, about $80. But then again, she’s got a solar power system in her back yard that’s worth the price of a new car.

On a bright Tahoe day in January the solar panels were sucking up more electricity from the sun than she was using in her house. Her panels, a small system, produce on average about 8 kilowatt hours per day.

Ames and her husband, Brett Alexander, operate Tahoe Solar Designs, which will soon complete a project at Ski Run Marina installing solar lights throughout the parking lot.



Tahoe is a good place for solar energy not just because of all the sunny days we get, Ames said. Solar panels also work best in Tahoe’s clean air and colder weather.

When solar technology was first developed, it was unclear how long the systems lasted. Now, it’s known they can last upward of 50 years.




For solar to work, a property needs unobstructed sun, because any shade during the day can diminish the panels’ ability to produce electricity by 90 percent.

The catch is the cost.

Systems can run anywhere from $18,000 to $50,000, which can take up to 30 years to pay for themselves.

“A lot of people come to us looking for free power, and it’s just not that simple,” Ames said.

But the way she sees it, people should count the environmental costs of using fossil fuels with the costs to their wallets. And it’s unknown just how high energy prices could rise in the coming decades.

Solar water heating systems can also help offset energy costs and are less expensive. The systems can heat water to 150 degrees, Ames said. At $5,000 to $6,000, they pay for themselves in five to six years.

And new tax credits from the federal government could shave off another $2,000. Home improvements like insulation and new gas water heaters qualify for up to $500, and solar power systems and water heaters can fetch 30 percent of their cost for up to $2,000 in tax credits.

Businesses have an even sweeter deal. The feds will credit them 30 percent of the cost of a system, installation included, with no dollar limit.

Unfortunately, customers of Sierra Pacific Power Co. in California – and that’s everyone in Tahoe – cannot receive an additional rebate from the company.

Nearly all electricity customers in California can receive a 30 percent rebate from their electricity company, paid for by a small fee charged to all customers.

Sierra Pacific representative John Hargrove said they are not required to provide the rebate to their California customers, and they can’t do it even if they wanted to.

There’s a waiting list for Nevada residents to get their rebates from Sierra Pacific. You must have a rebate application approved before building the system in order to get the rebate.

State and federal rebates can add up to big savings, said Stephen Witek, an engineer with Sustainable Environment Engineered Design at http://www.seedtahoe.com. He helps design commercial and residential solar power systems.

Witek is helping a customer in Sacramento add solar technology to the parking lot of a $9 million commercial building project. The system is worth $661,000, but with local utility rebates, California Energy Commission rebates and federal tax credits, the builder is only going to pay $139,000 for it.

In Tahoe, there’s “humongous potential for businesses to implement solar,” he said.

New federal tax credits:

— Solar panels, solar water heaters: 30 percent up to $2,000 for homeowners, no limit for businesses

— Upgrades to insulation, windows, metal roofs, high efficiency heating and air conditioning systems, and certain gas water heaters: up to $500

— Hybrid cars and fuel efficient vehicles: credit varies

— Fuel cells: 30 percent, up to $1,000 per kW

To check details, do an Internet search for “Federal tax credits for solar power” or visit:

http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=products.pr_tax_credits#chart


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