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Solar energy coming into its age

Workshops in Sandy will teach homeowners how to get solar energy basically free
by: contributed photo Energy Unlimited installer Derek Ward completes a recent ground installation of solar panels alongside a Sandy residence.

Few people dispute the practicality of using solar energy, although some would question the economy of an expensive installation.

It is time to brush those concerns aside, said Steve Carpentier, owner of Energy Unlimited in Sandy.

Carpentier has scheduled local workshops to explain the benefits of solar energy and how it pays for itself and gives a return on investment over more than two decades.

In fact, Carpentier will show attendees how a solar installation can cost nothing after a homeowner receives a group discount and a rebate from the Energy Trust of Oregon as well as tax credits from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and the Oregon Department of Revenue.

'A customer on this program should receive back within four years all of the funds put out initially,' Carpentier said. 'The pay-back is in the form of incentives and energy savings.'

All of the principals at Energy Unlimited are strong supporters of the slogan 'Buy Local.' They reject the idea it is prudent to buy solar panels made in China that are less expensive.

Carpentier says those panels are made from inferior quality materials and are likely to have a shorter life. Their purchase also supports a country far distant from U.S. ideals and practices and not likely to be capable of validating any warranty claims.

Energy Unlimited hires local workers, buys materials from an Estacada distributor (North Coast Electric - Supply Solutions) that are manufactured by Solar World in the Portland metro area.

Benefits of solar

Not only would local residents save money on the cost by buying in a group, but a contractor can charge less when the work is done in one community.

In addition, there is a return on the homeowner's investment when the sun shines all day long because on those days there is likely more electricity produced than is used - effectively reducing each homeowner's power bill.

Vince Culp of Energy Unlimited says the other less-tangible benefit is the reduction in the use of fossil-fuel energy. At peak use, power companies switch to higher-priced fossil-fuel generators to keep up with the demand for power.

'In this economy,' Culp said, 'everyone's looking to save money and have a positive impact on the environment. And that's the overall desire of our company.'

Drawbacks of solar

If the local contractor has too much work, it could take several months to get an installation at a residence, Carpentier said, and that's the reason contractors are focusing on one community at a time.

But in a small community such as Sandy, the local company (Energy Unlimited) is able to get the units installed in a reasonable time, Carpentier said.

Before they get their tax credits, homeowners need to pay all costs up front, except the group discount and the Energy Trust rebate.

But Carpentier says there is lots of inexpensive financing available.

Savings with solar

Culp says he expects about a 20-percent discount for those who join the group buy he is proposing, but it depends on the size of the group. About 30 percent more is deducted from the price with a rebate through the Energy Trust of Oregon.

The rest of the savings comes through tax credits and varies with each homeowner's tax bill. For example, the following year's tax bill could be reduced by $4,500 for anyone whose tax liability is at least that amount. In the case of Oregon income tax, for any homeowner whose tax liability was at least $5,000, the following year's tax would be reduced by that amount.

In essence, a homeowner pays the cost up front and is reimbursed by the governments during the following year - after tax returns are filed and accepted.

For some people, the net cost would be zero after receiving the tax credits a year later. In the interim, Carpentier said, financing is easily available through Umpqua Bank's 'Green Street' program or other sources.

'The benefit of group buying is that we're able to bring down the cost of solar to more people,' Carpentier said, 'and reduce the up-front, out-of-pocket costs.'

Culp says the solar generating system will pay for itself in fewer than four years, offering nothing but savings in the two decades following. No one knows the life of solar cells because they have been in general use for only 20-30 years, but he said American-made cells are warranted for 25 years.

Solar in Oregon?

For skeptics who say solar cells are better for people who live in Phoenix or San Diego instead of Oregon, Culp says that's not factually correct. When the temperature heats up, solar cells lose their ability to produce as much electricity. In fact, Oregon is ideal because when the sun shines and the temperature is mild, solar cells are working at their optimum efficiency.

Carpentier and Culp welcome local residents to the workshops and say they will schedule more if demand requires additional meetings.

For more information, call 503-668-6864 or visit energyunlimitedoregon.com.