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The Sun Roof Option

Photovoltaic roof tiles convert sunlight into electricity, cutting utility costs and even helping buyers at one project, who can use the savings to underwrite Fannie Mae mortgages.

April 18, 1999|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shiny blue tiles being fitted on the roofs of new homes going up in Compton are not only expected to slash homeowners' utility bills, but they also represent a renewed effort to address America's insatiable demand for power through the use of solar technology.

The photovoltaic roof tiles are expected to generate up to 70% of the power used by residents of a dozen homes in Central Park Estates--an affordable housing development under construction at a site near West Stockwell Street and Central Avenue. Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight directly into electricity.

At Central Park Estates, the photovoltaic tiles cover only a portion of each home's roof, or about 250 square feet. The tiles will be wired into Southern California Edison's power grid, instead of storing energy in batteries at the home.

During the day, the tiles will typically generate more electricity than a home uses, prompting the homeowners' electrical meter to spin backward and create a credit on their utility bill. At night, the power grid will supply the homes, because the tiles need sunlight to generate electricity.

"I'm confident that this is going to be a major technology of the future," said Ranji George, a program supervisor in the technology advancement office of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The AQMD helped finance the installation of the tiles on the Central Park Estates homes, which are being developed by Nehemiah West Housing Corp., a nonprofit consortium of churches and residents.

Meanwhile, the photovoltaic portion of the project is being coordinated by Thousand Oaks-based California Solar.

Photovoltaic panels are also scheduled to be installed on roughly 180 homes at the Village Green project, wich is rising across the street from a Metrolink station in the northeast San Fernando Valley. The project will straddle San Fernando and Sylmar.

"It's the largest photovoltaic subdivision in Southern California, if not all of California," said Jeff Lee, president of the Marina del Rey-based Lee Group, which is developing Village Green through a joint partnership with the Agoura Hills-based Braemar Group.

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The technology is doing more than promising to reduce electricity bills, it's also helping buyers qualify for mortgages. Fannie Mae, the nation's largest source of home mortgages, has created special mortgage products that will take into consideration the money that Village Green homeowners will save on their transportation (by being close to Metrolink) and energy bills, and will use those savings to underwrite their mortgages.

Harnessing the sun's power has been talked about for decades as a means of reducing electricity bills and global warming. Photovoltaics, according to energy officials, may finally help bring solar technology into widespread use, once prices drop.

Currently, it costs about $16,000 to install the solar tiles on an average-size home, according to George. (The tiles also have the aesthetic appeal of being less noticeable than solar panels.) About two-thirds of the cost may be recouped through a combination of government subsidies and electricity savings over a 10- to 15-year period.

Prices could drop steadily and be competitive in five years if demand and production increase.

"Right now, it's like when VCRs were $800," George said. "The technology was there, but the price was expensive."

On a national level, energy officials hope that the pollution-free power generated by photovoltaic roof tiles and panels will help mitigate the public's growing appetite for energy, which is being fueled by a trend toward larger homes and energy-consuming appliances.

AQMD officials, for example, hope the Central Park Estates project will boost President Clinton's Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which seeks to install 1 million solar roofs by 2010.

The Compton project is being funded by $100,000 from AQMD, $200,000 from the state's Petroleum Violation Escrow Account and about $50,000 from the state's Emerging Renewables Buy Down Program.

To further advance Clinton's goal, AQMD officials also teamed up with the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California earlier this year to sponsor a workshop to encourage home builders to use photovoltaic roof tiles on new homes.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has also committed to installing 100,000 solar roofs over the next decade, according to Angelina Galiteva, director of strategic planning for the DWP.

The agency is offering a "buy-down" program, which gives a partial reimbursement to customers who install a photovoltaic system atop their homes.

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For homeowners who can't afford the expense of installing the system but like the idea of reducing emissions, the DWP has another rooftop program.

The agency will install the system at no cost to these homeowners, who in turn do not reap any savings on their electric bills since the agency owns the system.

To determine whether your home qualifies for either DWP program, call the DWP Solar Electric information line at (213) 367-3832.

Customers outside the DWP service area may qualify for a buy-down program offered by the California Energy Commission. For information, call (800) 555-7794 or log on to http://www.energy.ca.gov/greengrid/index.html.

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