Government backing off solar energy subsidies

The three articles below make up a brief sketch of where we are with solar energy in California and the nation. Because of the initial expense, the government seems to be involved even though policies on subsidies constantly shift and only the wealthy seem able to take advantage of them anyway (what else is new?), so solar power is a political football. In his terribly fastidious way, the president, one of whose top campaign fundraisers has apparently walked away from a half-billion-dollar loan for a solar factory in Fremont, has walked away from a promise to re-install solar panels on the White House. Another broken promise from the administration that can't keep a promise? Or would solar panels on the White House be a symbol of corruption -- as if one were needed above the president's residence and offices?
Badlands Journal editorial board
Visalia Times Delta
Factors to consider before investing in solar… Brian Maxey|topnews|text|Frontpage
Renewable-energy sources like solar power have gained traction with homeowners in the past decade, but upfront costs coupled with a sluggish economy have put many budget- and eco-conscious consumers in a pinch.
And come December, the 30 percent cash rebate for solar-energy credits through the U.S. Treasury Department will end.
The 30 percent federal tax credit program will conclude at the end of 2016.
The incentives, offered in 29 states, were created as part of the federal stimulus package designed to spur the solar-energy market.
"The government was giving pretty good rebates and tax incentives, but without those, it doesn't appear that [installing solar] pencils out because of the large initial investment," said Mark Avedian, real estate broker and owner of Avedian Properties, "But solar is a great concept for people to help the environment."
Avedian, who is also a certified eco-broker, a designation given to real estate professional to help clients find green-friendly properties, said an investment in solar energy is often complicated by the length of time buyers occupy their homes.
"The average person only lives in a house for three or four years," Avedian said.
For many buyers, years-long occupancy of a home is rare.
"Things change in three or four years of peoples' lives and all of a sudden they're not living in the same home," Avedian said. "Then there is this big investment they're stuck with, which, in that time span, certainly didn't give them a return."
He also said that homes built to today's standards have challenged the need for solar-powered installation.
"Newer homes are a lot more energy efficient than they were in the 1960s," Avedian said. "Builders are a lot more conscious of energy efficiency. Appliances, insulation and building materials have all gotten better. Most of the builders now are building to a higher standard, so on a newer home, there is less of a need," he said.
Shining a light on solar: Buyers say big upfront cost could pay off in the future… BRIAN MAXEY and LUIS HERNANDEZ|topnews|text|Frontpage
Phil Clarey said a 12-kilowatt residential solar panel system installed three years ago cut his electric bill by 70 percent and increased the value of his Visalia home.
It also gave him peace of mind.
Gone are the days, Clarey said, of going from room to room turning off lights and appliances.
"It was driving other family members mad," he said. "[The solar energy system] is a mental saver."
It's also been a money saver. Before solar, his electricity bills were averaging $1,000 a month. Now they are down to $300 a month.
He said his home in the country — with three air-conditioning units, a swimming pool and a family that likes to keep it cool — has big power needs.
Having solar has allowed him to relax his grip on the family's energy use.
Then there's the added value to his property.
He said the system has meant a $50,000 bump in property value.
"The value of these systems is worth every single dollar," he said. "There are a lot of benefits going with solar energy. Solar is the way to go."
Clarey is an example of a homeowner who believes he has received the maximum benefit of installing solar panels.
But does it add value?
Whether solar adds measurable value to homes is up for debate.
Former Visalia resident Cedric Blanc in 2007 installed a $72,000 system. After rebates and incentives, the system's net cost was about $55,000. The 8-kilowatt system practically eliminated the electricity bill, which at times ran up to $800 — especially during the summer.
"If you look at the savings, it was quite a bit," Blanc said.
But in 2009, Blanc sold his home and moved to the Central Coast. He discovered that the system, despite the savings on his electric bill, didn't add much to the value of his house. Blanc said appraisers told him the solar energy system added only about $3,000. "We were shocked," he said. "It was a sucker punch for people who are trying to invest."
Blanc said the appraiser told him the system was estimated at $3,000 because there weren't other [comparable] homes with solar panels.
"It looks like nobody will give you what [the system] is worth," he said.
His situation may not be unusual.
Tulare-based appraiser Lawrence Dibb said information on values for homes with solar panels is hard to find.
"I don't think there's enough data to give an accurate trend of homes having solar panels," he said. "There's limited data."
In fact, for recent appraisals of two homes in the Fresno area, the solar additions added little value, Dibb said,
In one instance, Dibb said, a nearly 4,000-square-foot, two-story home in Clovis brought in about $10,000 in added value. The home also had a pool and a mother-in-law suite.
Brian Icenhower, president of the Tulare County Association of Realtors, said he looks at the addition of solar panels "on a case-by-case basis."
He said a buyer purchasing a home will want to know how much savings in electricity costs he or she will realize over time, so if it's anywhere from $150 to $200 a month on average, that's a big deal to a homeowner. "Because if the average home is financed at 4 [percent] or 5 percent interest rate, that can be the difference in $10,000 to $20,000 amortized over 30 years."
Icenhower said a solar system on an older home in a classic neighborhood will mean much greater savings.
"It's definitely an amenity," he said.
Those in charge of placing value on the home agree with Icenhower.
Visalia home appraiser Cruz Huerta, who has been appraising homes in the area for 10 years, said a solar panel system does indeed increase the property value.
"Depending on style and type [of system], the range could be from $8,000 to $15,000," he said.
Recovering the cost
For a standard home in Tulare County, a solar system costing $20,000 or more can be expected to show a return on the investment, said Michael Hill, operations manager for solar electric systems installation company Sundowner Solar.
However, Hill said, if homeowners do not alter their habits and increase their energy consumption, the return on their investment will take longer.
The sticker price for many also presents a roadblock for people interested in investing in solar technology.
"Most people, given the current economy, do not want to come out of their pockets and pay that cost," Hill said. He says leasing options that can make solar panel installation more affordable require no money down and a flat monthly payment.
Solar technology, nevertheless, remains expensive.
Despite its environmental benefits, solar technology can be twice as costly as coal or gas power before incentives.
Evert Dixon, construction manager for Mangano Homes Inc., said that the initial costs have dissuaded homebuyers from equipping their homes with solar paneling.
He said his company has priced out how much it would cost to add solar paneling for more than a dozen potential homebuyers, but none have accepted the bids.
"Until the prices for solar paneling come down, then consumers aren't likely to add it," Dixon said.
Cost notwithstanding, Dixon maintains that an investment in solar technology is a good one, especially for homeowners looking to stay long term.
"It's usually the person who owns the home next who sees a return on the investment," he said. "Even with government kickbacks, unless someone lives in the home for 20 to 30 years, then they won't see a return."
Protecting the investment
As with any investment in equipment, solar panels need regular care and maintenance to produce maximum results.
Hill said solar paneling can lose as much as 20 percent of its efficiency over 20 years. In most cases, he said, the decrease in efficiency falls between 10 percent and 12 percent.
Hill said in order to maintain optimum efficiency, solar paneling needs to be cleaned every six months.
But there is a cost often associated with cleaning paneling that many homeowners are not aware of.
To offset that, Hill suggests that homeowers do it themselves by spraying the paneling with a water hose rather than paying a cleaning service.
There is also a misconception about how solar-powered homes work to offset energy, Hill said.
"Instead of helping the solar-installed system work to reduce their bill, people believe that solar system gives them the freedom to be energy hawks," Hill said. "That just ends up increasing what was supposed to be a $50 bill to a now $500 bill."
Clarey, the homeowner who reports a 70 percent cut in electricity bills from his solar system, said the panels he bought carry a 25-year warranty and they'll pay for themselves in just a decade, he said. He said he figures he'll get 15 years of use for free.
Sacramento Bee
Summer's almost over, and still no solar panels on White House roof…Lauren Biron, Medill News Service…Biron reports for Medill News Service, the Washington program of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
WASHINGTON — In October, Energy Secretary Steven Chu pledged that solar panels and a solar water heater would be installed on the White House roof before the start of summer.
Now, summer is almost over, the 2012 election campaign is well under way, and there are still no solar panels on the White House roof.
Why? That's a mystery.
The Energy Department will say only that the project is mired in the "competitive procurement process." Spokeswoman Joelle Terry declined to go into details of the holdup. Questions about when that process might be completed also were rebuffed. So were queries about the projected cost of adding the panels and where the panels would be located.
The National Park Service, which put solar panels on White House outbuildings during the administration of President George W. Bush, said it couldn't comment on why the previous installation was completed more quickly. It directed questions to the White House, where press spokesman Clark Stevens deferred to the Department of Energy, where spokeswoman Terry stuck to her original statement.
Not even Solar Design Associates, which according to the magazine Solar Today installed the previous panels, was willing to comment. A search of the government contracting website did turn up a $10,000 contract, awarded in January, to Overly Manufacturing Co. That contract was to "support the contractor" for the photovoltaic system and "ensure that the integrity and warranty of the White House roof is maintained."
No one was willing to reveal the details of the formal government bidding proposal, which was not posted online.
Solar panels atop the White House, America's most famous government building, have long been a policy statement. President Jimmy Carter installed 32 in 1979 when an Arab oil embargo spiked fuel prices.
"No one can ever embargo the sun or interrupt its delivery to us," Carter said at the installation ceremony, having never seen the episode of "The Simpsons" where Mr. Burns blocks out the sun with a giant disk.
President Ronald Reagan removed the panels in 1986. Then came the National Park Service-directed installation during the most recent Bush administration. Those panels went on a maintenance building and on the president's cabana to heat water for the outdoor White House pool.
Chu announced that panels would be going up on the White House itself at the GreenGov Symposium, which was described on its website as "a three-day educational event to identify opportunities around greening the Federal Government." It was sponsored by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and held at George Washington University in Washington Oct. 5-7, 2010.
"As we move toward a clean energy economy, the White House will lead by example," Chu said then when he promised that solar panels would be returned to the White House roof. "It's been a long time since we've had them up there."
The project was intended to be part of the Energy Department's larger SunShot Initiative to make solar technology cost-competitive.
Solar power is one of the staples of the growing alternate energy sector. Both commercial buildings and homes are incorporating the technology, though it still makes up only about 1 percent of the energy produced by alternative fuels in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
A spokesman for the organization, named after an atmospheric target of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide recommended by some scientists to ward off the "greenhouse effect" blamed for global warming, expressed disappointment that the solar panels hadn't yet made it to the roof of the White House.
"This isn't rocket science. Hammer it in, make a few connections — you're good to go," said Jamie Henn, the group's spokesman. "If the first lady is going to go out and get her hands dirty planting her garden, then it's up to the president to do some home improvements as well."
His group has been a leading proponent of heads of state adding solar panels to their residences.
"The administration needs to do more to show that they're serious about moving clean energy forward," he said. "There's no better way of doing that than getting on the roof of the White House and proclaiming that there shouldn't just be solar panels there, but on rooftops all across America and around the world."
While it may be a little more complicated than Henn jokes, two other heads of state have installed solar panels on their official residences.
In the Maldives, 48 panels went up on the Mulee Agee Palace in 2010, within days of Chu's appearance at the GreenGov Symposium. President Mohamed Nasheed helped install the solar panels himself and pledged to make the island nation carbon-neutral by 2020. The Maldives, which sit off the tip of India, are vulnerable to the rising seas associated with climate change. How vulnerable? The highest point is less than eight feet above sea level.
In New Delhi, 64 solar panels were installed on the auditorium at Rashtrapati Bhavan, home of India's president, Pratibha Devisingh Patil. One hundred solar-powered streetlights also illuminate various sections of the Rashtrapati Bhavan compound, which boasts of five electric vehicles that are charged with solar power and leave no carbon footprint, according to the government's website. India began greening the presidential compound in 2008 as part of the Roshni initiative to develop green urban habitats.
Solyndra loan figure raises $500K for Obama…MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- A former Energy Department adviser who pushed for a California solar company to receive a half-billion federal loan has raised more than $500,000 for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign.
New campaign finance records show that Steve Spinner, a former sport fitness executive who helped monitor a clean energy loan guarantee program, raised more than $500,000 for Obama as of Sept. 30.
Emails released last week show that Spinner was actively involved in a $528 million federal loan for Solyndra Inc., despite pledging to recuse himself because his wife's law firm represented the company.
Another Energy Department adviser, Steve Westly, has raised more than $200,000 for Obama. Westly tried to warn Obama against a May 2010 trip to Solyndra's Fremont, Calif., headquarters. Obama went on the trip anyway.