Real Experiences With Solar Power

Hear from homeowners who have made the switch to solar energy.
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By: Laura Fisher Kaiser

Big Investment, Big Savings

Living with her four teenage sons in a large 1951 Southern California rambler, Mindy Curtis dreaded her electric bill, which some months ran as high as $1,700.

"Teenage boys do not turn lights off no matter how much you yell at them," Curtis says. "Their idea of air conditioning is cranking it down to 65 degrees." Then in 2009, two of her sons — one a science buff, the other an environmentalist — urged her to go solar.

After doing the math, Curtis, an accountant, was convinced that a system could pay for itself in less than five years — despite the cost of installing 60 solar panels to generate enough electricity to power her 4,000-square-foot house and her 700-square-foot guesthouse, which includes two HVAC systems and a pool. After state, local and federal incentives, her cost was about $35,000. Her bills now average $150 a month and she estimates she's saved $6,500 the first year. (Solar customers are usually billed annually by their utility companies.)

"Once my kids are gone I'll be generating excess electricity and [Southern California] Edison will be paying me for that," she says.

Low-Key Meets Low-Maintenance

Energy credits from the electric company are a perk investor Kim Bronson has enjoyed for the past five years since converting her 1920 Spanish Colonial in Los Angeles to a 7.2-kilowatt-hour solar system as part of a top-to-bottom renovation that included the roof. After the SunPower PV panels were installed, her contractor reinstalled the original Mediterranean roof tiles along the edge to make the black panels inconspicuous, which might be important to architectural purists.

She was so happy with the results that, when she moved a year later to another part of town, she installed a solar system on her new home, a 1970s duplex. Although the 1,000-square-foot house is less than half the size of her previous one, she upped the system to 8.5 kwh because she traded in her fossil-fuel car for an electric model. She estimates she's saving at least $300 a month in electric costs.

"It was important to me to have low maintenance," she says. "I don't even want to think about the system being there. It just sits there, gathers up the sun and energizes my life."

Value-Adding Upgrades

Reducing their carbon footprint has long been a priority for Eric Shen and Betty Carteret of Anacortes, Wash. Four years ago they installed a 14-panel solar array on their 1999 contemporary house. To achieve their ultimate goal of having a zero-use home, they took other energy efficiency measures: switching out incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents; sealing air leaks; using a clothesline instead of a dryer when weather permitted; and replacing their 10-year-old refrigerator with an Energy Star model.

After reducing their electrical consumption by almost 50 percent, Shen thought they could do even better, so this year he doubled the system to 4.48 kwh, more than enough to power their 2,500-square-foot house. Thanks to improved technology, he needed only 10 panels to achieve the same output as the first set of 14, even though they get shaded out by 5 pm by tall pine trees. The second set was also less expensive thanks to the lower cost of photovoltaic panels and the new renewable energy tax and rebate incentives. In 2007, Shen, a mechanical engineer, spent $15,000 for his first set of panels, which he installed himself. The second set, including installation, cost about $8,000 after incentives.

The couple expects to receive upward of $600 a year from their utility company. But they are less interested in short-term return on investment than long-term house value — and doing their part for the environment. A recent analysis by the Berkeley National Laboratory shows that homes with PV systems sold at a premium over comparable homes without PV systems between 2000 and 2009.

Before proceeding, make sure your location is suitable for solar and that your contractor knows precisely which incentives apply to your area — they can vary even county to county by utility provider — and which products qualify.

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