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Solar rebate program kicks off Wednesday

November 29, 2010

by Vic Kolenc
El Paso Times

The city of El Paso and El Paso Electric will begin a $2.5 million solar-panel rebate program Wednesday.

Rebates will be available to El Paso Electric residential and commercial customers to pay for a portion of solar-panel systems to produce electricity. The program will be unveiled Monday at a news conference.

El Paso Electric had $270,000 in solar-panel rebate money that was grabbed in a matter of minutes when it was released in two allotments several months ago.

"Now we want to pump it up," said Marty Howell, who is in charge of environmental projects for the city government. "I've challenged the local solar (installation) guys that have been pushing for these rebates. Let's burn this money up."

People can claim rebates for installations of photovoltaic solar panels through 16 companies, including eight in the El Paso area, that are authorized by El Paso Electric to do solar-panel installations. The rebates are for installations done Dec. 1 or later.

Javier Ruiz, owner of Border Solar, one of the El Paso companies on the utility's installer list, said work had been at a standstill because home owners and business operators were waiting for the new rebate program to begin.

"This should be a busy Christmas" because of the new rebates, Ruiz said. "The demand is out there."

Henry Quintana, an El Paso Electric spokesman, said his company wants to see more solar in use.

"We've heard from our customers that they'd like to get into solar power, but sometimes the cost is prohibitive," Quintana said.

The new rebates are aimed at reducing the cost, and they are the result of talks the city and El Paso Electric had when the utility sought and received a rate increase in July.

Rebates are $2 per watt for residential systems, up to $20,000, and $1.75 per watt for commercial systems, up to $43,250.

Larry Perea, owner of Solar Smart Living, a 3-year-old El Paso company on El Paso Electric's installers list, said residential systems cost an average of about $7 per watt to install.

Systems commonly installed on homes are 2,000 to 3,000 watts, he said. That means those systems cost $14,000 to $21,000, and homeowners would qualify for rebates of $4,000 to $6,000.

Homeowners also can get federal tax credits for installing solar systems. A 3,000-watt system would cut about $50 a month from an electric bill, Perea said.

Installation costs can increase if electrical upgrades and other work are required for the installation, as is often the case for older homes, he said.

"Systems do pay for themselves in about 12 years," Perea said. Solar panels have 25-year warranties, but are expected to last 30 to 40 years and are maintenance free, he said.

West Side resident Richard Myer said he had a solar-panel system installed on his and his wife's 2,800-square-foot home last spring because he was impressed with a solar heating system on his pool, and because he was able to get a $12,100 rebate from El Paso Electric's previous rebate program. His 4,840-watt system cost $33,611.

Perea, whose company installed Myer's system, said it produces enough electricity to reduce the Myer's electric bill about $80 a month.

Perea said commercial solar-panel systems cost an average of under $6 per watt to install.

A 25,000-watt system, for example, would cost $150,000, and qualify for the maximum commercial rebate of $43,250.

"The commercial payback period is longer than financial officers like to see" because of El Paso Electric's commercial electric-rate structure, he said. So commercial solar systems have been more of a hard-sell, he said.

The city is providing $2 million in rebate money, half of which will become available Dec. 1, Howell said. The rest will be available Sept. 1.

The money is coming from El Paso Electric's franchise fees paid to the city and from money the city was awarded from a special Palo Verde nuclear power plant fund.

El Paso Electric will put $500,000 into the rebate program Wednesday for use anywhere in its West Texas service area, Quintana said. The city's $2 million can be used only for rebates inside the city limits.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at vkolenc(at)elpasotimes.com, 546-6421

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