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Is Solar Right for Your House?

Homeowners can learn the costs and benefits of solar at SCE classes throughout Southern California.

David Edwards was thinking about putting solar panels on his Yorba Linda home, but he wasn’t really sure where to start.

Ann Pearce, an Anaheim Hills real estate agent, was just trying to figure out how to lower the $300 average monthly electric bill on her 2,900-square-foot Yorba Linda home.

Others said contractors had contacted them to pitch solar and they wanted independent information before signing a contract.

They were among more than 40 homeowners who attended a recent SCE Solar Connection Event in Brea to learn about the costs and benefits of solar, and the tax credits and financing that are available.

With solar costs coming down, the number of SCE customers who have installed solar has increased dramatically in the last few years. As of mid-June, 122,318 homes with solar systems produced 622 megawatts of electricity in SCE’s territory.

The two speakers at the Brea workshop — Poloi Lin, a project manager in SCE’s solar program, and Eric Bornstein, a project manager for The Energy Coalition, a nonprofit whose goal is to help people with energy-savings — said the event was designed to provide information, not recommendations.

“I’m not going to tell you what you should do, but rather what to ask,” Bornstein said.

Lin noted that solar isn’t for everybody. For instance, homes in cloudy or shaded areas or that don’t have good exposure to the sun also might not be suitable. Also, the math may not pencil out for customers with a monthly electric bill of $150 or less.

Before investing in a solar system, Lin said every homeowner should first do energy-efficiency upgrades like replacing windows and buying energy-efficient appliances.

She noted the energy-savings from the upgrades, plus rebates offered by SCE, could go far in cutting electric bills. Under the Energy Upgrade California Home Upgrade program alone, there are rebates up to $6,500. Other incentives are also available.

However, for high-usage customers — those in the Tier 3 and Tier 4 rates — or for those who want solar for environmental reasons, it is an option.

Bornstein cautioned the attendees not to expect financial miracles from solar by selling electricity back to SCE, but Federal Investment Tax Credits can make it an attractive alternative.

“You aren’t going to be making money,” he said. “But it’s a great way to save money on your utility bills.”

Homeowners who own their own solar system can get a 30 percent federal investment tax credit through Dec. 31, 2016. Those who lease their solar or have a power-purchase agreement through a third party are not eligible for the tax credit. The third party gets it. In 2017, the credit for homeowners who own their system ends completely.

Once installed and approved, solar homeowners can sign up for Net Energy Metering. In this program, SCE will provide credits on the customer’s electric bill for any surplus energy sent back to the grid. To be eligible, the house must remain connected to the grid. Most homes stay connected because they need to draw power at night and on cloudy days when the solar system isn’t producing electricity.

Homeowners also have flexibility in financing their solar. Choices range from buying a system outright with cash or a bank loan to paying over time to a third party that will maintain the system but charge a monthly fee. There are several calculators available to help do a cost-benefit analysis about the various approaches.

Lin urged high-usage homeowners to consider the tradeoffs between a larger, more expensive system that could get their costs down to zero versus a smaller, more affordable system to get reduce their bills to the lower Tier 1 and Tier 2 rate levels — which may be a better option for many.

Most of the people who attended the event found it helpful, although some, like Edwards, said it raised even more questions.

“They give you a lot to think about,” he said.

Pearce, who was looking for a way to lower her electric bill, said she came away with an unexpected conclusion.

“I don’t need to get to zero,” she said. “I need to make my house energy-efficient first — change out my windows, check the threshold on my French doors for leaks.”

The Solar Connection Events, held monthly throughout the SCE region, are part of the utility’s efforts to encourage solar to help customers manage their use of electricity to lower their bills. Solar also aids California in meeting its goal of bringing more renewable and sustainable sources of power into the electric grid