Staff Writers, January 30, 2012

The people of California have plenty of reason to want to invest in solar power. Aside from its plentiful sunlight, the state boasts some of the country’s most stunning natural landscapes. It also suffers from some of the worst air pollution in certain places, with the Rockies to the east trapping emissions in the region.

But while many Americans are coming to find their own reasons to invest in cleaner, renewable energy solutions, there is one increasingly common argument that makes sense to everyone: it simply costs less.

Where Bill and Elizabeth Maxwell live in the Rancho Mirage in southern California, just outside of Palm Springs and east of Los Angeles, residents have grown used to dealing with excessive electricity prices. Between 1999 and 2009, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the state saw its average residential electricity rates rise from 10.64 cents per kilowatt-hour to 14.74 cents per kilowatt-hour, a staggering 38.5 percent increase.

Through October 2011, the EIA reports that those rates rose another 3.3 percent to 15.23 cents per kilowatt-hour. According to the EIA, California saw below average electricity bills in 2010 because of lower comparative usage, but notably that takes into account the entire state, while southern California almost certainly faced higher demand because of air conditioning along with some of the highest electricity rates.

However, Bill noted that his utility company, Southern California Edison, has created a system that only punishes the southern portion of the state even more heavily in the summer when the temperature rises. The utility uses a five-tiered electricity rate based upon the amount of the energy needed to power a basic amount of lighting, heating and refrigeration, what the California Public Utilities Commission sets as the ‘baseline’ energy allocation.

For homeowners that must run their air conditioners to survive the summer heat, that kind of rate plan can prove brutally expensive. Of course, that has been one of the selling points of rooftop solar installations, as they produce the most energy precisely when demand for air conditioning is at its highest.

The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that in 2010 residential solar installations made up nearly half of the state’s added capacity, largely for this reason. Through the first three quarters of 2011, the story was much the same, though commercial solarinstallations took a larger share of the additions.

While looking at one of these new solar installations on a neighbors house, this argument finally made Bill and Elizabeth realize how much they could gain from solar power.

“We had talked about why people don’t tap into the renewable energy source in our valley and realized all we were doing was talking and not acting,” Bill explained. “Light bulb moment, switch on.”

Asking their neighbor about his installation, they were pointed toward California solar installer Helio Energy Solutions. While some solar installers have developed reputations as consummate salespeople, the Maxwell’s were thrilled to be presented with a clear set of options, each of them thoroughly explained. Helio Energy Solutions offers access to residential solar (power purchase agreements/Helio Energy Solutions correction), which would allow the couple to add solar panels for little down payment, they could simply purchase the system and receive the various state and federal solar incentives themselves or they could purchase the system at a reduced price and cede the subsidies to Helio Energy Solutions.

After some thought, they decided to purchase their system at the lower cost and managed to afford a 32-panel solar installation with a peak capacity of 7.68 kilowatts. While the system would only account for around 58 percent of the energy they used, it would also serve to lower their electricity bills by three-quarters, simply by producing energy when they needed it most.

January 30, 2012