Before I learned how solar panels turn sunlight into electricity, I thought the best place to generate solar power would be hothouse places like Palm Springs or the San Fernando Valley. I figured solar didn't produce much juice here at the beach, where our May-June gloom blocks out sunshine needed to power our homes.
On top of that, I heard only rich people could afford solar and that it would take decades to break even with what solar geeks like to call "photovoltaics" (PV).
Boy, was I wrong on both counts, and man, is that great news for Hermosa Beach –-especially if you own an energy-hungry home or business here in town. The reality is solar works best here, thanks to our cool ocean breezes. Furthermore, the price of solar has dropped dramatically, with payback as early as four years.
Early in 2009 I took classes with the Solar Living Institute to learn the basics of how solar PV works and how to install it. I loved every minute of the instruction and the hands-on training I got from one of the top pros in the business. I then volunteered to install solar panels on two two-story homes for GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that puts solar on low-income and Habitat for Humanity homes.
In the process I learned how simple a solar system is, how incredibly productive and reliable it is, and how today's panels will be producing electric power for 50-plus years if your roof faces the right direction and isn't shaded.
I learned a whole lot more about how well solar works in Hermosa Beach from my friends Dency and Moira Nelson, who in 1999 were the first Hermosa homeowners to have a solar electric system installed. They were such pioneers that the California Public Utilities Commission put sensors on their panels to record their electricity production at the beach. The data they collected confirmed that our moderate temperatures and cooling ocean breezes keep the solar panels working at high efficiency--better than the high heat of the valley and the desert, which makes solar less efficient.
The Nelsons' system paid for itself far sooner than originally projected. Today it also charges their electric car. They call that "driving on sunshine."
Not only is Hermosa the perfect place to generate solar power, but now is the perfect time to do so. The cost of solar panels has been cut in half over the last nine months. The combination of a state rebate and 30 percent federal tax credit cuts the total price of an installed system by about 50 percent.
And if you own a business, this is an even better time because that 30 percent tax credit is a tax rebate for businesses through the end of 2010. Businesses also get an accelerated five-year deprecation on their investment.
What that means to one restaurant owner on Pier Plaza is that a solar system with a gross price of $124,000 will cost $22,500 after all the rebates, credits and tax breaks. At that cost, the breakeven time is less than five years. After that, the savings from generating his own clean, green, rooftop energy will put thousands of dollars he used to pay back into his own pocket.
This summer the news gets even better with the kickoff of Los Angeles County's AB 811 loan program, which allows property owners to pay for solar systems and other energy-efficiency improvements through a line-item payment on their annual property taxes. Our own South Bay Environmental Services Center is partnering with the county and will be your source of up-to-date information once the program starts.
So if you're ready to take the first step to see how solar might work on your home or business, just pay an online visit to the L.A. County solar map and enter your address. Within seconds you'll see what your useable roof space is and how much solar power you can generate. If your current bill is more than $150 a month, you're a great candidate to save money and return your investment sooner than you think.