Imagine paying for your electric bill with pocket change. Solar installations may seem costly, but state and federal government offer sizeable tax breaks for your greener, smarter investments, whether you're thinking about an EnergyStar appliance or just insulating your attic. Zachary Embry, energy permitting specialist with the City of New Orleans, explains how you can take advantage of these rebates. Embry leads a workshop from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 28 at the Alliance for Affordable Energy's BuildSmart Learning Center (1001 S. Broad St., 208-9761; www.all4energy.org), where you can learn more about weatherization improvements, solar installation and energy tax credits and rebates.
What are some things people should do around the house before they start thinking about solar?
You want to seal your house. You want a really tight house. Replace windows, if necessary, and add insulation in the attic. The best place to start, especially if you qualify, is the HERO (Home Energy Rebate) Program. There is $6,500 now (available) in tax credits for weatherizing your home. Before you even think about putting a solar system in your home, you would certainly want to do that as well. The tighter your house is, the more energy you will be able to save. Another option is, if you don't have tens of thousands of dollars to invest in a solar-electric system, you can get a solar thermal system, which essentially just heats your water. Those are incredibly effective. A lot of people are surprised to know how much electricity or gas they use to heat their water. If you have a large family with a lot of teenagers, it can be almost 20 percent of your power bill if you use a conventional electric water heater. Here in Louisiana, it's a great climate for using solar water heaters. They're incredibly cheap. In some cases, a $5,000 or $6,000 solar water heater can save just as much money as a $25,000 solar electric system.
If someone has the money to invest in a solar system, how should they go about it, and what benefits would they reap from it?
You have a 50 percent tax rebate from the state, up to $25,000 per system. You have a 30 percent federal tax credit, and there's no cap for renewable energy systems. You're looking at almost 80 percent you would get back from tax credits. Before [homeowners] can actually get a system, they need to make sure they have a sunny, south-facing roof, or a sunny south-facing area that's unshaded between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to be most effective. You want your contractor to come out, do a site assessment, and see what your capabilities are. You want to make sure your contractor has a solar energy designation from the state contractor's licensing board. If [he] doesn't have that designation, you won't qualify for the tax credits. There are quite a few people around installing these full time, so you may want to check with them and get the best price.
I came up with a pretty simple way of estimating what your capabilities are: It's 10 watts per square foot for crystalline module (solar paneling), and 5 watts for thin film (solar paneling). You can use a great calculator at www.pvwatts.org. It gives you a pretty good idea of what you can expect to produce each month. For the most part, people can expect to pay between $7.50 and $9 a watt for installed (panels). Once they figure out how many watts they'll get per square foot, they can multiply that by that $7.50 or $9, and that's what they can expect to pay. Then they can factor in the tax credits. I would advise them to talk to a tax professional.
What should people consider before purchasing Energy Star appliances?
They're going to save money in the long run. [Energy Star appliances] may be more expensive, but they're not going to use as much electricity over their life. It's amazing: If you have an old refrigerator and it breaks and you buy an Energy Star-rated one, you will see that difference in your electricity bill. I used to have a really old fridge, and I couldn't believe how much electricity that was using. And there are tax credits. I don't think there's even a question whether you should buy another option. It's written on the wall.
Should people be concerned about purchasing a new appliance rather than making the best of a not-so-old one they have in their home now?
One good thing to do, if you can't go and buy a new fridge or TV or stereo, is to put those appliances on a powerstrip. Even if they're on standby, they're still using power. Even a microwave — you don't need that clock on. Just kill the power to those appliances when you're not using them.