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VALLEY BUSINESS

Valley Residents Warming Up to Local Solar Power Options

Electricity: Utility companies' rebates for those who install panels to harness the sun's rays generate increased interest in the systems, especially for heating water.

March 06, 2001|JENNIFER PENDLETON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Glendale's municipal utility is proposing reimbursements for local residents who install solar electric panels, the latest in a surge of interest in alternative power sweeping the San Fernando Valley in light of California's energy crisis.

The proposed "Solar Solutions" program will be a $3-a-watt reimbursement for residential customers, as currently envisioned, although that could change as local leadership irons out details, according to the city's public benefit programs coordinator, Craig Kuennen. He said the proposal will probably go before the City Council in a couple of months.

"I've had customers calling," Kuennen said. "There's interest out there."

There's interest elsewhere in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys too.

According to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, 65% of the 100 recent solar electric installations taking advantage of the DWP's new $5-a-watt rebate are in the San Fernando Valley.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently approved a motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich for the county to study whether it's feasible to require new housing subdivisions to incorporate solar panels for electricity and heating water.

If the proposal wins approval, it could affect development in the area, such as Newhall Ranch, a 21,000-home planned community to be developed by Newhall Land & Farming's over 25 years.

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One Valley solar pioneer is Sherman Oaks resident Nick Ray. In 1980, the insurance executive installed solar panels to generate energy for hot water heating on the roof of his 2,300-square-foot, four-bedroom home.

Now, 21 years later, Ray has installed four additional 4-by-8-foot modules to produce electricity, a step he believes will knock 30% to 40% off his monthly energy needs. He'd wanted to do it for 10 years but held off because of the price. Cost of the 1-kilowatt system: $10,000, but with a $5,000 rebate from the DWP, he feels it makes sense.

"The motivations was always there," he said. "The subsidies just made it possible."

Clearly, many people are considering energy alternatives, particularly residents of the San Fernando Valley, where 32% of DWP's "Green Power" customers reside. These ratepayers agree to a 6% monthly charge to promote renewable power sources.

Some solar equipment manufacturers are staking claims locally to what they hope will become a more mainstream, and presumably more lucrative business.

Germany's Siemens Solar recently opened a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Chatsworth (making its Earthsafe solar electric panels eligible for the DWP's $5-a-watt rebate). Other manufacturers may follow. BP Solar has discussed it, acknowledges company spokesman Bo Harmon.

"We are still examining all sorts of possibilities," Harmon said.

Angelina Galiteva, DWP's executive director of strategic planning, says numerous solar industry manufacturers have contacted the utility about possibly locating plants in Los Angeles. "We've had conversations with all of them," she said.

Local sellers and installers of solar electric systems say their phones are ringing nonstop these days. Most callers flinch when they learn of the $10,000 to $30,000 price tag, installers say.

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But the calls are generating an interesting side trend: Those same people are listening to, and going for, retailers' pitches about using solar energy for the less costly option of heating water and pools--not surprising given natural gas price hikes, from 27 cents to 66.2 cents a therm for residential customers of Southern California Gas Co. in the last year.

The arguments are particularly compelling to residents of the often toasty San Fernando Valley, with its concentration of swimming pools.

Graham Owen, owner of GO Solar Co. of North Hollywood, said he has an 85-plus-person waiting list of locals ready to install solar electric panels, now that the $5 per watt rebate from DWP is available. He also says the volume of customers seeking solar panels for hot water and pools is twice last year's levels.

"We are installing an average of 14 pool panels a week, and that's through the winter," Owen said.

How much power will such a system generate, and how long does it take to pay for itself? In Los Angeles, where there's an average 5.5 hours of direct sunlight a day, a 2-kilowatt system will generate 11 kilowatt hours. In a year, that amounts to 4,105 kilowatt hours. DWP customers pay an average price of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, multiplied by 365 days a year, for a $401.50 annual savings. So that means it will take about 25 years to pencil out. (However, the payback may quicken if electric rates rise, as they probably will.)

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Even so, to many, that's a lot of money and a long haul. "The economics of solar [electric] are not good," said Jeannette Meyer, marketing manager for Burbank Water and Power, which doesn't offer special rates or rebates on solar electric for residents.

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