Thursday, December 8th 2011 2:01 PM

There are a lot of ways for electricity bills to run high in a place like southern California. With high temperatures year-round and blistering summers, almost every home features at least some kind of air conditioning. Many homes also have pools that must be filtered. This only adds on top of all the televisions, computers and countless other consumer electronics that ring up the kilowatt-hours each month. Sam Spagnolo of Rancho Cucamonga, east of Los Angeles, paid for all of these with the added expense of having grandchildren who were all too happy to make use of them.

"My electric bills were averaging over $400 per month," Sam explained to California solar installer HelioPower when he first visited them about the possibility of adding a rooftop solar installation.

Four hundred dollars per month is fairly high for California, where the average bill was $82.85 per month in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but this includes the entire state, even the far cooler climes in the north. By comparison, nearby Arizona paid an average of $116.09 per month, despite seeing average electricity rates more than 25 percent lower. At California's excessive electricity prices, the sunny state could have been paying monthly bills of more than $156 on average.

Indeed, the state as a whole saw the second-lowest average monthly electricity usage in the entire country at 562 kilowatt-hours, behind only Maine. Tennessee, the state with the highest monthly usage in the country, would have faced average electricity bills of more than $205 per month at California's rates, though much of this disparity can be attributed to California's efforts at energy efficiency.

Nevertheless, the National Weather Service illustrates how much warmer it can get in the southern reaches of the state. Meanwhile, the state's tenth-highest residential electricity rates make clear how much of an impact this difference could have on residents' bills.

After a long talk with a representative from HelioPower, Sam was certainly interested in the potential savings a residential solar installation could offer him under these circumstances. But at the end of the day, he decided he simply could not afford it.

"Quite frankly, although I could clearly see the returns, I wasn’t ready to make that big a commitment by buying a system," Sam told them.

That problem quickly solved itself, however, when California-based SunRun struck an agreement to work with HelioPower. SunRun's residential solar financing program offers homeowners the opportunity to add a solar installation and to cut down on their electricity bills simply by paying a fixed monthly bill or a fixed rate for the electricity produced by the system.

Solar power purchase agreements arrangements can generally be made with little money down, and sometimes none at all. In Sam's case, it cost only $1,000 and work started on his roof within only a few weeks of having HelioPower put through paperwork for the various permits and federal and state solar incentives.

Now, a 33-panel photovoltaic solar installation sits on the back roof of Sam's house. At 230 watts each, the solar panels combine for a peak

capacity of 7.59 kilowatts and can produce more than 11,100 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's PVWATT Calculator. That represents more than one-and-a-half times the average Californian's annual energy needs. At California's average electricity price of 14.74 cents per kilowatt-hour, that amounts to more than $1,600 per year. Between a good first month that saw Sam's solar system produce enough to give him a $300 credit from his electricity company and a $500 rebate from the City of Rancho Cucamonga, it took only two months for Sam to earn back the $1,000 he paid in up-front costs, and he only expects to save more over the years.