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Surprise, it's solar

Sleeker than panels, sun-soaking roof tiles lie flat. Although costly initially, they pay back for years.

June 03, 2007|Michelle Hofmann | Special to The Times

AT first glance, Paul Rupert's Livermore, Calif., home looks like any other residence. But the 2,900-square-foot house has a powerful secret. Last year, Rupert installed a solar energy system that cut his monthly electricity and heating bill from $400 to $25.

Rather than use traditional photovoltaic panels that mount to a rack and are sometimes considered unsightly, Rupert choose integrated solar roof tiles that interlock with his new concrete roof tiles and lie flat. "Most people don't even notice that it's a solar roof," said Rupert, 67, an aerospace systems engineer.

As the state pushes for more solar-produced power and more builders and sellers realize that solar can help move homes and increase their value, a new generation of solar energy systems is taking hold. For homeowners in need of a new roof who want to go solar, this latest design option would cost about 20% to 25% more than traditional solar panels, not including additional roof tile installation, said Aaron Hall, president of El Cajon-based Borrego Solar Systems. Rebates and tax credits, however, return 30% to 40% of the initial solar-system costs to the consumer, according to the California Energy Commission and solar experts such as Mark Conroy, general manager for GE Energy's Solar Technology.

Costs are also recouped in energy savings. Sold by the amount of energy, or watts, they produce, solar power systems send surplus energy to the utility company's power grid and, based on an agreement with the company, provide the homeowner with an energy credit. When the home's energy needs can't keep up with demand, the utility returns that credit to the homeowner.

A 3,000-square-foot home, for example, would need a 3.5- to 4.5-kilowatt system and take up about 100 square feet of roof space per kilowatt.

Rupert hired Borrego Solar to install General Electric's 5-kilowatt integrated tiles. Though designed to work with concrete roof tiles, the lightweight integrated solar electric tiles -- which have a blue to black antireflective coating -- also will work with composition shingles, Hall said. The solar tiles just need an extra layer of flashing around the edges.

Rupert's rooftop project ultimately cost $65,000. He spent $57,000 for his 5-kilowatt system and $24,000 for the concrete tile roof, but got a state rebate of $14,000 and a federal tax credit of $2,000. By comparison, the average cost to re-roof a 2,500-square-foot roof with asphalt shingle, cement tile, wood or metal runs from $8,000 to more than $20,000.

Since the product is still new compared to panels, Hall said he estimates only 5% of Borrego's residential installations this year will use the solar tiles. He expects that number to double next year.

Real estate agents Tammy Schwolsky, 40, and her husband, Ron, 45, also looked at integrated tiles to complement a total "green" makeover of their 2,450-square-foot Studio City home. But they decided on a $37,000, 4-kilowatt, 36-panel traditional solar electric system capable of producing about 80% of the home's power.

Homes and their energy demands differ, said Bill Glauz, manager of solar energy development for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Therefore, he said, it's important to evaluate solar options in terms of use, potential obstructions -- such as shade, chimneys, neighboring trees or that newly acquired satellite dish -- and aesthetics.

"Panels on the front of the house might produce optimum performance, but not look as good," Glauz said.

Still, not everyone is shy about harnessing the power of the sun. "A lot of people wear their panels loud and proud," Tammy Schwolsky said.

Pardee Homes and Tim Lewis Communities are among a handful of California home builders offering solar integrated roof tiles in some developments.

Joyce Mason, vice president of marketing for Pardee, said eight San Diego County and two Orange County developments feature GE Energy's roof-integrated solar systems.

"Pardee has been offering solar since 2001, but we are just now starting to see this whole notion of an energy-efficient home and lower energy bills become more of a factor in the buying decision," Mason said.

Builder Tim Lewis agrees. "We think the homes sell faster, but we also think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It's good for the environment, saves the buyer money on energy bills and provides them with a tax credit."

There are other benefits to home buyers and sellers too.

"The person who purchases a home with a solar roof knows their electric bill will be lower and so does the bank," Tammy Schwolsky said. "So when a homeowner puts solar panels on their home, they are putting instant equity into their home and making the house more valuable."

How much more valuable?

Green Builder Media and Imre Communications recently reported that home buyers say they are willing to pay a premium of 11% to 25% for green-built homes.

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