Energy Adviser: Save money by putting solar to work

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Investing in solar energy may not be top of mind for many here in the Pacific Northwest, and a price tag that can top $40,000 would be enough to give many homeowners pause. But for some local folks, a mix of federal and state incentives and a desire to help the environment offset the initial investment.

Currently, Clark County is home to more than 100 solar installations, with the majority on private homes. A federal tax credit that's set to expire in 2016 continues to motivate those interested to look into options.

"We hear from quite a few customers who are curious about solar energy," said Sam Walker, who manages the solar energy program for Clark Public Utilities. "And with the current incentives, it can make sense for some."

Walker advises that whatever you do with solar, you need to take the long view. "Solar energy can be good, depending on your goals, but customers wanting a fast payback can make much better energy saving choices," said Walker.

When homeowners inquire about installing solar panels, Walker first asks them about energy-efficiency changes promising faster payback. Have they insulated and weatherized? Installed a heat pump? Are they using efficient lighting? Do they own newer appliances that use less energy? Is their ductwork airtight?

Many Northwest homes have enough roof area to install solar panels. Of course, a sunny southerly access helps. But for most homeowners, the big question is whether a solar project pencils out.

Homeowners should expect to pay $5 to $8 per installed watt. "A 1 kilowatt system cost runs from $5,000 to $8,000," Walker said. A full-tilt solar project can run around $40,000, and Walker recommends getting multiple bids.

The utility can also help make sure requirements are met to receive the available incentives. For example, state incentives for Clark Public Utilities customers are only available when the equipment is manufactured in Washington.

Other ways

Without spending thousands on a home solar system, you can still put sunshine to work. Solar water heaters and pool heaters are technologies that some in the Northwest are exploring.

Solar water heaters consist of a collector, a storage tank and a circulation system. Water or a heat-transferring fluid runs through a solar collector where the sun heats it before it flows back into an insulated tank. Pool heaters have a few more parts but are essentially the same.

The utility offers a $500 rebate toward a qualifying solar water heater installed by an approved contractor, who will help you select the right solar water heater for your home.

Clark Public Utilities offers financing up to $10,000 to install a solar water heater or solar pool-heating system, and up to $30,000 to install a solar panel system on approved credit.

To learn more about available incentives and financing options, call the utility at 360-992-3355 or email ecod@clarkpud.com.

If you're not in a position to invest in solar for your own home, you can still help local renewable energy projects through the utility's Green Lights program. For as little as $1.50 per month, your participation supports the Solar 4R Schools initiative, installing solar arrays on local elementary, middle and high schools. In addition to solar power, the voluntary program also supports regional renewable energy projects including wind, geothermal and other alternative forms of power.Energy adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.