Rising Sun: Solar makes a comeback!

In the Hook's May 2005 cover story about Carter-era solar technology, we asked whether solar can make a "Cher-like comeback in Charlottesville, or is it doomed to loll in obscurity like the Captain and Tennille?" Well, it looks like solar has dumped Sonny, gotten a face-lift, and taken up acting.

Just six months after the Hook story appeared, Roger Voisinet, the area's most visible solar tech entrepreneur (whose solar business tanked in the late 1980s), has partnered with a Virginia Beach-based solar company to supply area homeowners with solar water heating systems, and has just installed his first system in 20 years. Here's the news: He says it's now cheaper than other fuels.

"So many people are interested in saving energy now that fuel prices are so high," says Voisinet. "And it helps that a tax credit for solar use passed in July."

For G.R. Falls, a Barboursville resident who purchased a solar-thermal system through Voisinet, it's also about sticking it to the man.

"Having this system installed is my own little personal protest against a system gone awry," says Falls, who points out that Exxon profits will top $10 billion this year, nearly 75 percent more than last year. "I just go down in the basement and see my water temperature at 140 degrees without having bought a drop of heating fuel... and that's my own little personal win against Exxon."

Of course, you don't have to be mad at Big Oil to find a reason to "go green." For most folks, rising fuel costs are enough. Indeed, energy prices have gone from "groan" to "ouch" so fast (and seem to be staying there) that people are turning "green" faster than you can say, "$60 to fill my $&*@ gas tank?!"

For example, hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, which gets 60 miles per gallon, are rolling off the lots. Although they're still just a fraction of the number of SUVs sold, Toyota had to up the production of the Prius in August by 50 percent to meet demand.

This winter's heating bills could make a few people green, as well. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's official Winter Fuels Outlook for 2005-2006, folks who use natural gas to heat their homes can expect to pay 48 percent more than last year. As if that weren't incentive enough to go solar, the national energy bill, which was passed into law this summer by president George W. Bush, offers up this Carter-era flashback: a 30 percent tax credit– or up to $2,000– for purchasing a solar-powered water heater for your home.

Businesses, which could already claim a 10 percent tax credit for going solar, can now claim a 30 percent credit. In addition, a $300 credit is available for putting in a highly efficient central air conditioner, heat pump, or water heater, and there's a $200 credit for installing energy-saving windows. People can claim these credits on units bought after January 1, 2006 and before December 31, 2007.

According to Voisinet, 64-square-feet of roof-mounted solar panels with an 80 gallon storage tank, heat exchanger, controller, insulated piping, and installation labor (it takes only a day to install) will costs about $4,600. The 96-square-foot version with a 120-gallon tank is $6,400. Requirements are a reasonable roof pitch and a somewhat southern exposure.

Let's do the math: buy a $6,400 solar water heating system and take the 30 percent tax credit ($1,900), which brings it down to $4,494. It's still far more expensive than a conventional hot water heater– until monthly savings kick in– around $53 a month vs. electric HOW MUCH? (based on usage for a family of four).

But that's not all. According to the American Appraisal Institute, a solar water heater adds $20 to the value of a home for every $1 saved in annual utility bills. And as the cost of electric goes up over the years, so do the savings. All this means the system could pay for itself in as little as four years. Plus, the system is good for about 20 years with proper maintenance. Oh, yeah... and its good for the environment.

All this bodes well for sun power. Finally. Like many sun-lovers, Voisinet rues 1986, the year Jimmy Carter's federal tax break for using solar technology was revoked.

"The government just destroyed the solar industry," Voisinet recalled in the Hook's May article. Along with the entire solar industry, Voisinet's solar business took a hit it never recovered from. "Sales dropped to almost nothing overnight," he says of his company, Virginia Solar Contracting Services

"The wisdom of the Jimmy Carter approach was to give solar a kick-start," adds David Watkins, Voisinet's business partner at the time. "The idiocy of the Reagan approach was to cut it off immediately" rather than phase it out over several years."

In 1979, when the oil embargos shocked the nation, Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House. But when Reagan took office and axed the tax credit, he had them removed to assure people that the energy crisis was over.

Flash forward 20 years, and global concerns seem to have trumped Republican unease over subsidies. Even the White House has become green again.

Just last year, two hot water systems and one photo-electric system were installed in two buildings on White House grounds. In fact, one of the solar systems heats president Bush's hot tub!

With political symbolism like that, the new tax credits, and high fuel prices that seem to be here to stay, solar technology's future looks... well, pretty sunny.


G.R. Fall's new solar panels heat his water for free. "And that's my own little personal win against Exxon," he says.


Roger Voisinet says solar water's now cheaper than on the grid.