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California and the West

Solar Power Shines Amid Energy Crisis

Electricity: Demand for home installations increases. The systems are costly, but residents say rising rates will make them a good investment.


Solar power, believed by many to have gone out of style with tie-dyed shirts and love-ins, is back in fashion, thanks largely to the state's energy crisis.

Throughout the state, dealers and manufacturers of solar panel systems are reporting an increase in sales of 10% to 100%. State and local grant programs for residents and business owners who install such systems have been inundated with applications.

"We can't get them in fast enough," said Steve Radenbaugh, owner of Los Angeles-based Bilt-Well Roofing and Solar, who recently hired extra workers to handle a doubling of orders for solar electricity systems in the past month.

The biggest drawback to rooftop solar energy systems has always been the high cost, with typical residential setups costing $15,000 to $80,000. At such prices, it can take 15 years or more to pay off the investment in energy savings.

But with new rebate programs and the threat of higher energy rates, such an investment has become more attractive.

The renewed interest in solar is reflected in a 500% increase in grant applications to the state's $56-million solar rebate program, which received 250 applications in January, according to officials at the California Energy Commission.

In fact, the increased interest has forced Gov. Gray Davis to pledge another $50 million to keep the program from running out of funds.

Only 100 Los Angeles residents have received rebates from the Department of Water and Power's $80-million solar rebate program, which was launched last year. But in recent months, the number of people who have requested applications has doubled to nearly 1,000 per month.

"The people at our call-in center are getting angry," said Angelina Galiteva, the DWP's solar program manager, explaining that the number of calls to the program has jumped from five to 150 a day.

"All this brouhaha about the energy crisis has made people aware of what their alternatives are," she added.

The refunds for the state and city rebate programs are based on the watts produced by solar energy systems. Both programs pay $3 per watt, but the DWP program pays $5 per watt if the system is manufactured in Los Angeles. On Feb. 6, Siemens Solar Industries opened the city's first solar panel factory in Chatsworth to take advantage of the program.

Solar energy generates a fraction of the 262,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity that Californians use each year. Still, the power supplied by solar energy has increased gradually, from 810 gigawatt-hours in 1997 to 954 in 1999, according to state figures.

A typical 2,000-watt solar energy system can supply a 1,500-square-foot home with up to 60% of its power, according to experts. The amount of electricity generated by a solar system depends on the amount of sunshine.

Still, a 2,000-watt system can cost $15,000. A typical state rebate can cut that cost to $9,000. Los Angeles residents can cut that expense even more--to $5,000--if they qualify for a DWP rebate and buy from a city-based manufacturer like Siemens.

But even then, it can take 15 years or more of utility bill savings for a solar system owner to break even on the investment, according to solar panel dealers.

The payback period could be slashed dramatically if electricity rates rise--a possibility that is on the minds of many recent solar converts.

That was the case with Mark Irwin, a contractor from Agoura Hills, who described his family of four as "energy hogs." They had regularly racked up electricity bills of $160 per month, he said.

Like others who have recently purchased solar systems, Irwin had long considered making such an investment, but he hesitated until the energy crisis struck.

"I firmly believe our rates are going to go up," he said.

In January, Irwin bought a $36,000 solar system that can generate a peak output of 4.4 kilowatts--enough, he said, to slash the energy bills at his 2,400-square-foot home by more than half. With the state rebate, he paid $24,000 for the system.

But Irwin said the purchase was intended to help save the environment as well as to save money. Others who recently purchased solar systems agree.

"I've always been interested in anything that conserves our natural resources," said Mark Harris, a video producer from Newbury Park who recently ordered a $24,000 system with 24 solar panels to go along with the solar water heaters on his roof.

Harris, who has also considered investing in a wind turbine to generate electricity, already has small solar panels powering a string of decorative lights in his garden.

"I was always interested in it," he said. "The energy crisis made me get up and do it."

The same is true for Glenna and Richard Citron, who recently ordered a $20,000 solar energy system as part of a remodeling project on their Culver City home.

The couple already owns an electric car, and Glenna is on the board of directors of a nonprofit group that promotes the increased use of renewable energy.

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