Solar installations mean savings on energy costs – San Diego County empowers effort with building code improvements, PACE program

Property owners are being further supported in converting their homes to solar energy by the County of San Diego. There are changes being proposed to current building codes to make the process easier and the residential PACE program already in place allows a unique financing option. With the program, homeowners are able to pay the cost back over time as a voluntary property tax assessment through their existing property tax bill. Many solar companies offer their own financing options as well.

According to Michael Powers of Stellar Solar, a rough cost estimate for installing residential solar is, “if a person spends about $200 per month on electric, what they would spend over the next five years is about what it costs to go solar; after that, the electricity is free and the system will continue to make power for 25 years.”

The potential changes being made to building codes would make it easier for solar to be installed on rooftops.

Combined with financing options for those who prefer not to pay outright for installation, going solar is becoming more and more enticing.

“The Board [of Supervisors] approved the residential PACE program on April 15,” said county land use and environment group communications officer Michael Drake.

It was also in April that board chairwoman Dianne Jacob and Supervisor Dave Roberts directed the county’s department of planning and development services to look for ways to change unincorporated building codes to encourage cost-effective green building.

Four possible building code improvements that the supervisors voted to pursue at a recent meeting included:

• Build new homes with 200-amp electric panels, which provides for future electrical additions.

• Build electrical conduit into homes so that homeowners could have wiring installed for rooftop solar electricity-generating panels.

• Install electrical conduit that would allow homeowners to add wiring for electric car charging stations.

• Reserve space on south-facing rooftops that would allow homeowners to install solar photovoltaic panels.

The potential code amendments are still in progress and would be brought back before the board of supervisors for a final look.

County sources said, “The agency has taken numerous actions to support green building over the years, including waiving building permit and plan check fees for solar rooftop applications, cutting fees and speeding processing times for projects that use green building techniques and creating a landscaping ordinance that promotes water conservation.”

When it comes to solar installation, Powers said he finds himself educating homeowners regularly about the method in which solar works.

“People say ‘I’d like to go solar, but it’s so expensive’ – but when we do the math for them they see that it’s very predictable,” he explained. “There are no moving parts to solar; no reason they should suddenly stop working.” Powers said all solar panels are made of tempered glass and there isn’t much maintenance needed.

“You just rinse them off with a hose occasionally for optimum performance since they are glass sheets,” he said. “They are fairly durable, but like a windshield, if it is hit hard enough, it will break, however most are able to claim it under their homeowner’s insurance if that happens.”

In providing an overview of how solar works for a home, Powers said, “Everybody understands when you put solar panels on roof and the light hits them, they make energy. Solar panels are rated in watts just like light bulbs (150, 200, etc.) and the number means almost the same as it does with the performance of light bulbs. But with solar it’s how much electricity it makes. In other words, a solar panel is like a reverse light bulb.”

Clarifying further, Powers explained, “Solar panels produce electricity, they don’t heat water. It’s solar “electric,” even on a cloudy day, it creates power, the brighter and sunnier day that it is, the more power it creates.”

The formula is simple, Powers said. “Installing twice as many panels means producing twice as much power – whether the panels are on the roof or ground.”

Each home is unique when planning for an installation.

“We have to determine how much electricity people are using on an average monthly basis,” said Powers, “once I know that, I know how many panels it will take to make that much energy.”

After assessing how great the homeowner’s need for electricity is, the best location for the system is then determined.

“We look at the site and see where the solar panel installation would work out best; the roof is preferred because it is less expensive, but the question is whether there is enough room on the roof to do it,” said Powers.

Another financial incentive to installing solar, in addition to the relatively short expense recapture period, Powers said until the end of 2016 there is a 30 percent income tax credit available for purchasing a solar energy system.

With the popularity of solar installations increasing, Powers said each project requires about a six-week time frame.

“For those who want to get their project complete before the end of the year, for the tax credit, they would need to make the decision by Oct. 1 at the latest,” he said.

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