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Danger! Solar panels are harmful to your health

SolarrobertacasaliggiOK, so the headline above is provocative and false. My bad. But there are solar panel detractors in such tony enclaves as Santa Barbara (according to an architect I spoke with there) whose argument in front of government design boards has gone like this:

1. Solar panels on roofs are ugly.
2. If the buildings in a town are ugly, people will not want to walk around.
3. If people don't walk around, they will get obese and unhealthy.
4. Therefore, solar panels are harmful to your health.

See how that works? Fortunately, the solar energy supporters have mostly won the day.

But now, as was reported in the Sunday Real Estate section of The Times, solar roof tiles not only generate energy to run a house, but also look like roof tiles, not like a big rack of panels.

So aesthetically astute Santa Barbarans should be happy. Oh wait. Do solar roof tiles come in red and look like clay, with just a small classy touch of moss? Oh, well, back to the drawing board.

How about you? Are solar panels too ugly for your neighborhood?

See more green remodeling

(Photo: Roberta Casaliggi)

Surprise, it’s solar

Sleeker than panels, sun-soaking roof tiles lie flat. Although costly initially, they pay back for years.

By Michelle Hofmann, Special to The Times

June 3, 2007

AT first glance, Paul Rupert’s Livermore, Calif., home looks like any other residence. But the 2,900-square-foot house has a powerful secret. Last year, Rupert installed a solar energy system that cut his monthly electricity and heating bill from $400 to $25.

Rather than use traditional photovoltaic panels that mount to a rack and are sometimes considered unsightly, Rupert choose integrated solar roof tiles that interlock with his new concrete roof tiles and lie flat. “Most people don’t even notice that it’s a solar roof,” said Rupert, 67, an aerospace systems engineer.

As the state pushes for more solar-produced power and more builders and sellers realize that solar can help move homes and increase their value, a new generation of solar energy systems is taking hold. For homeowners in need of a new roof who want to go solar, this latest design option would cost about 20% to 25% more than traditional solar panels, not including additional roof tile installation, said Aaron Hall, president of El Cajon-based Borrego Solar Systems. Rebates and tax credits, however, return 30% to 40% of the initial solar-system costs to the consumer, according to the California Energy Commission and solar experts such as Mark Conroy, general manager for GE Energy’s Solar Technology.

Costs are also recouped in energy savings. Sold by the amount of energy, or watts, they produce, solar power systems send surplus energy to the utility company’s power grid and, based on an agreement with the company, provide the homeowner with an energy credit. When the home’s energy needs can’t keep up with demand, the utility returns that credit to the homeowner.

A 3,000-square-foot home, for example, would need a 3.5- to 4.5-kilowatt system and take up about 100 square feet of roof space per kilowatt.

Rupert hired Borrego Solar to install General Electric’s 5-kilowatt integrated tiles. Though designed to work with concrete roof tiles, the lightweight integrated solar electric tiles — which have a blue to black antireflective coating — also will work with composition shingles, Hall said. The solar tiles just need an extra layer of flashing around the edges.

Rupert’s rooftop project ultimately cost $65,000. He spent $57,000 for his 5-kilowatt system and $24,000 for the concrete tile roof, but got a state rebate of $14,000 and a federal tax credit of $2,000. By comparison, the average cost to re-roof a 2,500-square-foot roof with asphalt shingle, cement tile, wood or metal runs from $8,000 to more than $20,000.

Since the product is still new compared to panels, Hall said he estimates only 5% of Borrego’s residential installations this year will use the solar tiles. He expects that number to double next year.

Real estate agents Tammy Schwolsky, 40, and her husband, Ron, 45, also looked at integrated tiles to complement a total “green” makeover of their 2,450-square-foot Studio City home. But they decided on a $37,000, 4-kilowatt, 36-panel traditional solar electric system capable of producing about 80% of the home’s power.

Homes and their energy demands differ, said Bill Glauz, manager of solar energy development for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Therefore, he said, it’s important to evaluate solar options in terms of use, potential obstructions — such as shade, chimneys, neighboring trees or that newly acquired satellite dish — and aesthetics.

“Panels on the front of the house might produce optimum performance, but not look as good,” Glauz said.

Still, not everyone is shy about harnessing the power of the sun. “A lot of people wear their panels loud and proud,” Tammy Schwolsky said.

Pardee Homes and Tim Lewis Communities are among a handful of California home builders offering solar integrated roof tiles in some developments.

Joyce Mason, vice president of marketing for Pardee, said eight San Diego County and two Orange County developments feature GE Energy’s roof-integrated solar systems.

“Pardee has been offering solar since 2001, but we are just now starting to see this whole notion of an energy-efficient home and lower energy bills become more of a factor in the buying decision,” Mason said.

Builder Tim Lewis agrees. “We think the homes sell faster, but we also think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s good for the environment, saves the buyer money on energy bills and provides them with a tax credit.”

There are other benefits to home buyers and sellers too.

“The person who purchases a home with a solar roof knows their electric bill will be lower and so does the bank,” Tammy Schwolsky said. “So when a homeowner puts solar panels on their home, they are putting instant equity into their home and making the house more valuable.”

How much more valuable?

Green Builder Media and Imre Communications recently reported that home buyers say they are willing to pay a premium of 11% to 25% for green-built homes.

A recent study in the real estate trade publication Appraisal Journal reported that for every utility-bill dollar saved annually because of an improvement, a homeowner gains about $20 in property value. So if solar cuts the annual electric bill by $1,000, the owner could gain $20,000 in home value.

“This is one of the few products that will pay for itself within five or six years and then provide you with a positive cash flow for the remaining life of the system,” said Greg Johanson, president of Westlake Village-based Solar Electrical Systems. Manufacturer’s warranties on solar systems range from 20 to 25 years.

Johanson’s estimated payback time is shorter than the estimate Livermore homeowner Rupert was given.

“Borrego Solar said it would take 10 to 12 years to pay back the roof,” Rupert said, “but it looks to me that it will be more like seven years.”

Homeowners have been slow to jump on the solar bandwagon, however. L.A.’s DWP has issued fewer than 1,000 solar-roof rebates to residents since 2000. Glauz said the goal is to bring that number to 100,000 solar energy systems in the city by 2010 through incentive funding programs.

Still, no matter how much power a home generates through solar power, the owner shouldn’t expect a check from the utility company for any extra production that remains unused at the end of the year.

“Utilities don’t financially compensate homeowners for production beyond use,” said Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director for the California Energy Commission. “So if you generate more power than you use during the year, that’s just a gift to the utility.”

“That’s why we encourage people to size their systems accordingly,” she said. “We don’t want people to be so zealous that they oversize and generate more electricity than they need.”

With manufacturers and utilities working to make solar options as commonplace as central air-conditioning, Borrego Solar’s Hall said he anticipates costs for residential solar tiles will come down slowly.

Homeowners shouldn’t worry that the next advancement is just around the corner, however, Hall noted. “I don’t anticipate any big technological breakthroughs that will make a consumer feel silly about having gone solar too soon.”

michellehofmann@earthlink.net

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Tile makers and calculators

Integrated solar tiles are available from a host of manufacturers. They include:

• BP Solar: http://www.bpsolar.us

• GE Energy: http://www.gepower.com

• Kyocera: http://www.kyocerasolar.com

• Open Energy Corp.: http://www.openenergycorp.com

• Sharp Electronics: http://www.sharpusa.com

Among energy-savings calculation tools are:

• BP’s Solar Savings Estimator at http://www.bpsolar.us . Select “how solar works.” Go to “tools” and “solar savings estimator.”

• Sharp’s EZ Calculator shows solar costs, savings and environmental benefits: http://www.sharpusa.com . Go to “Solar Power.” Select “EZ Calculator.”

• To estimate energy output, pollution prevention and cost for a grid-connected photovoltaic system, go to kyocerasolar.cleanpowerestimator.com/kyocerasolar.htm.

For more information on solar energy:

• California Consumer Energy Center provides information on rebates, energy conservation and efficiency: http://www.consumerenergycenter.org .

• California Energy Commission’s Go Solar California: http://www.gosolarcalifornia.ca.gov .

• The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power provides information on residential rebates: http://www.ladwp.com . Go to “rebates & programs.” Select “residential programs.”

• Pacific Gas & Electric: http://www.pge.com/solar

• San Diego Regional Energy Office: http://www.energycenter.org

• Southern California Edison’s solar incentives: http://www.sce.com/rebatesandsavings/californiasolarinitiative

— Michelle Hofmann

3 Comments on Danger! Solar panels are harmful to your health

  1. is this the same santa barbara with the shockingly ugly oil derricks within sight of its beaches? good god. how about the richy riches in Nantucket blocking wind power? what is wrong with people? “if it doen’t cause asthma in people of color, or if we can’t fight a war for it, i’m not interested!”

  2. Jim Pardue // June 6, 2007 at 8:26 am // Reply

    When you’re walking around, how many people are looking up at the roofs anyway? Sounds like grumpy old rich people unwilling to change……”those new fangled computers will never catch on…..”

  3. Obesity is ugly too therefore they should stay indoors? Smog is ugly yet we continue to pollute.
    I am pro green.

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