Saving on energy costs by going solar

August 10, 2009 7:32:00 PM PDT
Most people have heard the expression, "It takes money to make money." Well, sometimes it takes money to save money too. Bay Area homeowners who have made the switch to solar power can testify to that.

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The solar industry has become quite hot.

Most people can expect their energy bills to go up, but those who use solar energy say the opposite is true. So, it is no wonder that solar may be one of the few recession-proof industries around.

Randy Odom of San Leandro sees the savings from going solar on his energy bills.

"This most recent bill was $3.50. The same billing cycle the year before we got solar was $82.60," he told ABC7.

Colby Powell of Lafayette sees the benefits of solar every time he cranks up his air conditioner.

"We're up there generating all that electricity, and we get to turn on the air conditioner and use it for free," he said.

That is because any energy his system produces that he does not use, comes back to him in a form of a bill credit. Both Odom and Powell are part of an ever-growing green army in California that is not letting the recession hold them back.

Solar installations in California have increased every year since 2001. Even with the recession, the number of new solar installations in the state doubled in 2008 from the year before. And, in 2009, new solar installations in California are projected to remain stable despite the high unemployment numbers.

Molly Sterkel oversees the state's solar initiative for the California Public Utilities Commission.

She told ABC7, "The solar industry is doing fairly well despite the recession. We have seen more applications for new solar installations in May than any other month in the history of the California Solar Initiative."

Lynn Jurich, the president and founder of San Francisco-based Sun Run, says her company's business increased 300 percent this year.

"Solar is on sale. The price has dropped about 20 percent over the last year," she said.

The Public Utilities Commission confirms that an oversupply in solar panels worldwide has led to a price drop for California customers. New leasing plans are also making solar more affordable.

Peden Young is with Gro Solar, a company based in Vermont and an occasional subcontractor for Sun Run.

Young says, "For as little as a $1,000 upfront, you can get clean and renewable energy right here, produced on your roof at a low fixed-rate monthly payment."

Companies like Gro Solar and Sun Run will lease the panels to you for the cost of installation and a monthly fee. The average cost of installation is about $2,000. They say that cost can be made up in a few years through savings on your monthly bill.

"I think we'll break even in about seven years from our original investment," said Powell.

Both companies charge an average monthly fee of $120 for the typical home, or about 10 percent less than what people now pay PG&E.

"The more important thing is over time as PG&E rates rise, you're locked into this lower monthly fee. So, you'll earn 20 to 30 times back your investment," Jurich explained.

Odom spent $5,000 to put in his system early last year and he does not regret it.

"We figure with the always increasing cost of energy that it's going to be beneficial to us. It's already beneficial to us," Odom said.

The Public Utilities Commission says people with high electricity usage and a monthly bill of $200 should especially consider solar. Then, decide whether to buy or lease. Buying panels can cost more than $30,000.

"One of the things consumers need to look out for is what the total cost of the system will be after the entire lease is paid for. Would they be better off financing it themselves? Or would they be better off leasing it?" asked Sterkel.

Others like Odom see solar as a long-term investment.

"People have seen their 401k plans disappear, all their investment in stock markets disappear, and they can see solar is an investment that will continue to pay for itself for a long time," Young said.

People should check their roofing before going solar. If it ever needs repair, the solar panels need to be removed while the work is done.

Related Links:
Solar Cost Calculator
State Report on the Solar Industry
Sun Run
Gro Solar

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