Saving on Solar

Rebates and tax credits are bringing down the price of home solar energy systems and boosting their popularity. FPL plans to make another $15.5 million in rebates available soon.

On rooftops scattered across South Florida, installers are adding blue solar panels that harness the power of the sun to operate household appliances and heat water.

“I believe in sustainability. I believe in a world that’s good for my children and grandchildren,’’ said John Van Leer, who is putting in a photovoltaic system that will supply about 85 percent of the power he needs for his house in unincorporated Miami-Dade County.

Even at this sunny end of the Sunshine State, though, adding solar power can be an expensive investment that takes years to pay off in savings on energy bills. Solar water heaters run about $4,000 to $6,500, while photovoltaic systems for typical South Florida residents are in the $25,000 to $40,000 range.

Probably in mid-October — the date has not been announced — Florida Power & Light will make another $15.5 million available in rebates to subsidize the cost of installing solar equipment on homes and businesses. It’s the second time the utility has offered the rebates, some of which were snatched up within minutes after they became available in June. That June allotment is reserved for about 825 solar water heaters and about 525 photovoltaic systems. FPL has not yet announced the specifics of the next round.

Add rebate money to the federal tax incentives and solar power becomes a lot more affordable. If the FPL program stays the same, rebates will generally return one-quarter to one-third of the cost of the equipment and installation of a photovoltaic system, up to $20,000. The rebate amounts vary based on the wattage power of the specific system. With 30 percent federal tax credits factored in, the net expense for a photovoltaic project is often less than half of the original tab. FPL also offered residents a flat $1,000 rebate for solar water heaters, and that equipment is also eligible for a tax credit.

Tony Abbate, a Fort Lauderdale architect, professor and associate provost for the Broward campuses at Florida Atlantic University, recently added a photovoltaic system to his townhouse in Fort Lauderdale. The $42,000 project should be paid for in part by a rebate he snagged from the previous FPL pool in June.

Abbate figures the FPL rebate and the federal tax credit will reduce the net price to about $16,000 to $19,000. The money he saves on electricity should repay the rest in 8 to 16 years, he said.

As with many other homeowners going solar, Abbate says his main goal is environmental responsibility. “For me it’s a matter of principle, and I want to set an example,” he said.

Van Leer, an associate professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami, previously installed a solar water heater. He expects his photovoltaic system to supply about 85 percent of his household energy demand. He thinks of the project as an investment yielding a respectable 6 percent return through the savings on his power bill. Also, he said, the solar panels should boost his property value.

Both Abbate and Van Leer qualified for the rebates when FPL offered them in June. In FPL’s system, the money is earmarked for them, and they’ll receive it only after the equipment has been installed and determined to meet the various requirements, including inspection by local building officials.

FPL cautions prospective applicants that they need to do some homework before applying for the rebates. The applications, which are accepted on a first-come first-served basis, require a contractor’s name and information about the product selected, although it does not need to have been purchased yet.  The program is set up so applicants know if they’ve been tentatively approved for a rebate before they proceed with installation. The checklist for the applications are on the FPL website, so interested homeowners can work on the application before the rebates are officially offered.

Industry officials recommend that homeowners gather estimates from several licensed contractors. Most reputable contractors won’t require deposits or financial obligations to provide estimates and other information needed for the application, said Ed Strobel, president of Sunshine Solar Services in Fort Lauderdale and vice president of the non-profit organization Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy.

But do it quickly. The last time FPL took applications, the money earmarked for residential photovoltaic projects was snapped up within an hour.

The math: A 5,000-watt photovoltaic system for a typical home probably would be $30,000 to $33,000, according to Philip Fairey, deputy director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida in Cocoa.  At $2 a watt, assuming the program stays the same, the FPL rebate would be $10,000. Add to that a 30 percent federal tax credit. The net expense might be about $15,000 to $16,000. In that example, the system would save the homeowners about $900 a year on electricity, and that savings that would return the net investment in about 16 years.

If a home’s system generates more power than it uses, the power goes into the FPL grid and homeowners receive a credit.

Solar water heaters may save 70 to 85 percent of the home’s water-heating expenses, which in South Florida may be 14 to 16 percent of the home’s energy demand, Fairey said.

“The more hot water you use, the more cost effective it’s likely to be,” he said.

The Solar Energy Center’s website features an online tool for estimating the potential savings of residential solar hot water systems. For South Florida, a family of five might save $311 a year on energy.

The FPL rebate was just the nudge the Yaziji family needed to start rolling on its goal of offsetting its environmental impact with a renewable source of energy at its home in Pinecrest. Hadi Yaziji, a physician, said his family is excited about its solar project, which includes photovoltaic panels and a solar water heater. Yaziji estimates the products are going to supply about half his household’s energy demand.

In Fort Lauderdale, Abbate anticipates his system is going to produce pretty much all the power his house needs — with some to spare for the FPL grid.

“My attitude is now more guilt-free,” Abbate said. “I delight in the positive effect it might have on others and that they find it inspiring or motivating.”