Legislation Aims at Brighter Future for Solar Power

Heather Iager, a dairy farmer in Libertytown, Maryland, wants to go green, but even in a county that's home to one of the nation's largest solar manufacturing plants, she's finding it difficult.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Heather Iager, a dairy farmer in Libertytown, wants to go green, but even in a county that's home to one of the nation's largest solar manufacturing plants, she's finding it difficult.

Earlier this year, in an attempt to better manage her energy costs, Iager approached BP Solar, which bases its North America operations in Frederick, about the possibility of bringing solar panels to her 200-acre farm.

"There's something curious about it to me and it seems so ... rational," Iager said.

A response from a customer service representative explained that BP is not selling panels to residential users in markets like Maryland because incentives are not robust enough to make installation worthwhile.

Karl Berger, of Rocky Springs, spent $24,000 to buy a solar water-heating system for his new house from Chesapeake Wind and Solar LLC, a renewable energy company in Jessup. State and federal grants and tax credits covered about a sixth of that cost.

Delegate Joe Bartlett, a Frederick Republican, wants to get more Maryland residents using solar by improving those lackluster incentives.

Legislation sponsored by Bartlett would increase grants given to residents who install solar panels at their homes.

If his bill passes the General Assembly it would bump state grants for solar-electric installation from up to $3,000 or 20 percent of the installation cost to a $15,000 or 50 percent cap.

The bill will have a hearing in the House Economic Matters Committee later this month.

Bartlett said people in Maryland only look to solar now because they are concerned about the environment. Incentives are not strong enough to encourage the average electric consumer.

"Under the current grant (program, you're) never going to break even," he said.

Generally, homeowners spend $10,000 per kilowatt hour on solar panels, Bartlett said. On average, residential installations end up costing $30,000.

It took almost 10 year years for Iager to convince herself solar was the way to go and commit to the expense of installing the panels.

Despite Maryland's meager solar incentives, she was prepared to pay full installation costs and was surprised when BP told her she would not be able to purchase panels from them to supplement her regular electric use.

More than 90 percent of the nation's solar usage is in California and New Jersey. California alone uses more than 80 percent.

Iager said she wishes Marylanders has similar access to renewable energy and is considering purchasing solar equipment from a New Jersey company.

"Those people can go to Home Depot and order (solar panels) like they would order a door," she said.

Rocky Springs home owner Karl Berger and his wife Mari Beth Visco built their new house with solar in mind, using six panels on their roof to heat water. Large tanks supply hot water for heating the house through tubing in the floor and for personal use.

State and federal grants and tax credits took roughly $4,000 off the $24,000 cost of the solar installation.

The state's solar grant program for heating water only reimburses up to $2,000 or 20 percent of installation costs.

Bartlett's bill would also increase water-heating grants to $2,500 or 50 percent.

"I knew that (we were) moving from a smaller foot print on the planet to a larger one and I thought the panels were (a way) to minimize our ecological (impact) on the planet," said Berger, an environmental planner for Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Like other Marylanders, Berger pursued solar to heat water rather than generate electricity for his entire home because without substantial grant programs, powering a house is too expensive.

"I don't know (if) solar energy ... is the answer to the issues we face as a society, but it certainly is an answer," Berger said.

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Copyright © 2007, The Frederick News-Post, Md.

Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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