Scorching heat, incentives drive East Valley solar panel demand - East Valley Tribune: Apache Junction

Scorching heat, incentives drive East Valley solar panel demand

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Posted: Saturday, September 3, 2011 3:00 pm | Updated: 11:37 pm, Tue Sep 6, 2011.

Most Valley residents will open their next electric bill with dread as they await sticker shock from the record heat in August, but not Joe Rapacilo.

The Mesa resident turned to solar power last winter and so far hasn't seen a bill higher than the $15 service charge. And when temperatures hit the triple digits, his bill hit another kind of triple digit: $0.00.

Rapacilo is more than ready for that next bill.

"It puts you at ease," Rapacilo said. "I've never been so anxious to get a bill every month to see, ‘Am I finally going to have to pay something?'"

The frustration with growing bills has boosted solar panel installation in the last couple of years - and scorching temperatures have further spiked interest.

The big electric bills frustrate customers who have been hearing about solar and want to investigate it for their home or business, said Joe Bono, CEO of Tempe-based Solar Universe. They're willing to spend some money upfront if it can shrink the bill, he said.

"People are really feeling like they're winning, like they're winning against the utilities in some ways by going solar," Bono said.

Demand for solar has allowed the company to double in size every year since 2008, Bono said.

But it takes more than a few painful summer bills to sustain the booming industry.

People are installing panels because of rising bills, more generous incentives and the ever-dropping cost of solar panels, said Aparna Mohla, a program assistant at Arizona Smart Power.

The nonprofit is contracted by Arizona Public Service and will inspect homes to help owners decide whether solar panels are cost-effective for their property.

People who are interested in solar panels aren't motivated by environmental concerns, Mohla said. And it doesn't take a lot of marketing or an elaborate sales pitch.

"All the research that we've put in, and from firsthand experience, is that nobody installs solar because they saw it on TV or heard it on the radio," Mohla said. "It's always because they've talked to somebody who has solar or knows somebody who had solar."

Arizona Smart Power at first set out to work in only 12 communities by next year, but demand was so high that it's set up operations in 15 cities, Mohla said. No East Valley cities are on the list yet but Mohla wants to add communities after the organization set up a booth at a home show and had more interest from Mesa residents than any other city.

"I am 100 percent certain that there is a lot of demand right now in the East Valley and we want to reach out to them," she said.

The organization doesn't install solar systems or get commissions. Its experts inspect homes and will help review five to seven bids from a contractor if a homeowner is interested.

Salt River Project has seen solar panel installations skyrocket in the last two years, said Lori Singleton, who oversees the utility's solar initiatives.

SRP has 3,050 residential customers with solar panels - and about 1,200 of them signed on just in 2011. Another 220 of its commercial customers also have solar panels.

SRP's solar goals don't involve a number of customers, but rather offering incentives until it adds 4.5 megawatts of residential solar installations through April 2012.

"We want to lower our incentive rates until the solar industry doesn't need the incentives to stand on their own," Singleton said.

The utility figures the typical home will require a 5 kilowatt system and will cut energy use by about 50 percent.

Rapacilo is an exception with bills of zero in the summer. He figures the savings will pay for the panels in about eight years. Bono of Solar Universe, which installed Rapacilo's panels, estimated most homeowners will recover the cost in seven to nine years.

Before installing panels in November, Rapacilo's peak bills would reach $180 to $190 for his 1,890-square-foot house. His solar panels cost $28,750, but an SRP rebate took that down to about $18,000. State and federal credits reduced his cost to just below $10,000. He's eager to reach the break-even point and then have annual electric bills of nearly zero.

"I never thought I'd ever see something like that in my life," said Rapacilo, 48. "It's pretty amazing."

Commercial demand has ballooned since the federal government removed a cap on its incentives in 2009, said Tanner Bishop of Chandler-based Royal Solar of Arizona. Businesses can get 30 percent of the cost back with no limit. Solar is especially attractive to small manufacturing businesses with flat roofs or covered parking to mount the panels on, he said.

Businesses with a $1,000 monthly bill can expect to cut that in half and pay for the panels in about 7 years, Bishop said.

It used to take more effort to sell solar panels, Bishop said. Rising electric bills increasingly lead to solar selling itself.

"Very few people say I'm an environmentalist. It's almost always, ‘I got a $450 bill from APS or SRP. I can't believe this. It wasn't like this last year and I don't want to pay these high electric bills,'" Bishop said. "A lot of it is emotional. You see a huge electric bill and that solar system seems a lot more attractive."

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