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Giving Solar a Bright Future

May 21, 2004

Thousands of new rooftops are going up in hot, sunny places from Riverside to the Central Valley. Done a little differently, they could be solar collectors, absorbing energy from the sun.

Aiming to create more progressive homebuilding, state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) proposes requiring large-scale developers to install solar systems in a percentage of houses starting in 2006.

It costs more to retrofit a house with solar than to build in the system during construction. A built-in is also more effective because developers can position houses and landscaping to maximize collection of rays. With the expense folded into the purchase price, homeowners can amortize the cost over the life of the mortgage. The systems have become more reliable and now commonly come with 25-year warranties.

On that much all sides agree, but the California Building Industry Assn. typically opposes new construction mandates on energy efficiency and safety, and this case is no exception. The association quotes a $20,000 figure for a new solar installation, which is actually the retrofit price. The group says houses would never sell with so much added on. More realistically, the trade group points out that new houses already are the most energy-efficient and argues that greater energy savings could be obtained by caulking and insulating older, more energy-wasteful buildings.

The bill's advocates, for their part, use the sunniest possible figures. At $11,000 extra for a two-kilowatt system, they say, the monthly mortgage payment would go up by a little more than $50, while the system would save that much each month in energy bills. As fossil fuels become more expensive, the savings will rise further.

The California Energy Commission puts the price somewhere between the two other estimates, at about $14,000. Costs are falling by about 5% a year, but how many homeowners will accept the extra expense of an unfamiliar system just to break even? There has to be more in it for them than long-term altruism.

Required solar can be successful if it's tied to a continuation and expansion of the state's rebate program, now scheduled to expire in 2006. The program pays homeowners up to $6,400 for such solar systems. The rebates are funded by a tiny fee on power bills -- less than 20 cents a month on average. The incentive would help reassure developers that solar homes would sell.

The federal government should chip in with a tax credit, since widespread solar use could reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Murray's bill, SB 1652, this week passed the Senate and went to the Assembly. Before further action, everyone should see to it that the numbers work.

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