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Originally published Saturday, April 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Solar power in Seattle? It may not boost a home's price but can cut energy bills

The Northwest's well-earned reputation for cloud cover does make solar energy a tough path to "getting off the grid" — disconnecting from the local public utility and producing all of a household's energy needs by alternative means — but more homeowners in the Seattle area are turning to solar.

Special to The Seattle Times

A sun break

Current incentives for residential utility customers investing in renewable energy:

Federal: Tax credit of up to 30 percent of cost ($2,000 maximum) per new residential solar-energy installation.

State: Sales-tax exemption on equipment and installation.

Local: Seattle City Light production credit of 15 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity generated.

— Nancy Chaney

Solar resourceson the Web

American Solar Energy Society, state chapter: Includes upcoming event listings and reference information. www.solarwashington.org

Solar contractors: Search by state and county.www.findsolar.com

Solar research: A Washington State University project, promotes and does research on solar power in the Northwest. www.northwestsolarcenter.org

Solar sites: Information about solar sites to see around the country from the American Solar Energy Society. www.nationalsolartour.org

Basic information: FAQs from Seattle City Light about solar power. www.seattle.gov/light/solar

Workshops, training: Solar Energy International, an organization offering workshops and online training. www.solarenergy.org

— Nancy Chaney

Mike Evans could use some sunshine, even more than the next waterlogged Seattleite, pressed down under gray skies. Evans counts on the sun to help power his life. Last year, Dr. Evans and his wife, Barb, had an array of photovoltaic solar panels installed at their Seattle home. Perched on a steep hillside, the Evans home appears to reach out to the sky. And its roof is ideal for going solar; south-facing, unshaded, and about 30 degrees in pitch.

The Evanses called in a solar-energy expert who performed an assessment and gave the roof the equivalent of an "A" grade — scoring a 91 percent of "optimal solar efficiency" for Seattle.

"They confirmed what I knew," Mike Evans recalled, "that [installing solar panels] would be worth doing." The system cost them $15,000 for equipment and installation and is designed to produce about 1,800 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, roughly 20 percent of the home's overall usage.

Evans estimates his system will pay for itself in 15 years. The panels are expected to last 50 to 80 years.

That's a long view for the 62-year-old Evans, a family physician at Group Health, but his reasons and solar's advantages go beyond dollars to "an increasing awareness of the global-warming issue."

"I decided it was time to do something on a personal level," he said.

Some home-improvement projects — such as remodeling the kitchen, adding a deck or landscaping the yard — can pay off by increasing a home's value for a future sale.

Can installing solar panels have a similar effect?

"Most sales are still based on price, location and design," said real-estate agent Eva Otto, of Seattle's GreenWorks Realty, which specializes in the green-home market.

That's especially true in the current softer real-estate market, though, according to Otto, there is a slice of the homebuyers' market dedicated to environmentally conscious home features.

She would caution homeowners against investing in solar solely as a way to boost the value of their home but has found that solar can have what she called a "feel-good factor."

If the panels are visible, potential buyers may be attracted to them, she explained.

Extra insulation, on the other hand, while an important green feature, can never garner such attention being stuffed into walls and attics.

Viable source

Decreasing one's carbon footprint may be a laudable goal, but really, does solar work in Seattle?

It's hard to imagine making electricity from sunlight in our so-often shady corner of the world.

The region's well-earned reputation for cloud cover does make solar energy a tough path to "getting off the grid" — disconnecting from the local public utility and producing all of a household's energy needs by alternative means — but more homeowners in the Seattle area, like the Evanses, are turning to solar.

Several factors make solar panels a viable source of electricity in our region and are spurring interest.

First off, we do get sun. It's just concentrated in the summer months.

Our strong summer sun and weak winter sun necessitate another important factor to solar in our region; the institution of net-metering.

Net-metering allows utility customers like the Evanses to, in effect, straddle the grid.

In the sunny summer months, their solar panels can produce more electricity than they need.

The surplus power feeds back into the grid and the utility company pays them for it.

During the winter's shorter, typically cloudy days, solar panels can't produce all the power the average household uses. Homeowners draw additional electricity from the grid and pay the utility like any other customer.

The Evanses are among a growing number of homeowners across the nation looking to the sun for electricity. Reasons include improved technology, the desire for clean energy and the rising cost of traditional energy sources.

As a sign of how interest has spiked in recent years, the American Solar Energy Society reported that attendance at sites on its National Solar Tour rose from about 5,000 people in 1996 to about 115,000 in 2007.

Locally, solar guru Mike Nelson of Northwest Solar Center packed the house at Ballard's Sunset Hill Community Club for a talk last November.

About 120 Seattleites in rain parkas listened to his energetic presentation on the power and simplicity of converting sunlight to electricity.

"It's as close to magic as you're going to get," Nelson told the crowd.

Site evaluation

For his project, Mike Evans selected a local contractor, Puget Sound Solar. The first step was a site evaluation at the Evans home.

Puget Sound Solar's initial visits are technical and personal — part interview and part measurement.

First, co-owner Jeremy Smithson and employee Sean Izzarone scrutinize past electricity bills and probe to find out a potential client's goals.

To help solar electricity play a bigger role in the home's power supply, they also offer suggestions to reduce overall electricity usage, such as beefing up insulation, sealing drafts, upgrading windows and installing compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Next they measure the size and orientation of a home's roof. They climb on the roof for a fish-eye photo of the sky from the intended solar site.

Software in their special camera overlays a diagram of the sun's path onto the photo, revealing shade from trees or neighboring homes at different points through the year. It also rates the potential efficiency of photovoltaic panels in that spot.

Using the information gathered at the site evaluation, Izzarone sent the Evanses four estimates; different solar-panel layouts, each with corresponding costs and projected annual electricity generation.

After the Evanses made their choice, the Puget Sound Solar team installed a rack on their roof, set up the solar panels and wired in an inverter to convert the DC electricity produced to the AC used in homes.

Later, Seattle City Light installed the special net-meter to record electricity production.

"There are days it's been running backward," Evans said of his net-meter, "It's pretty cool."

The meter running backward means his panels are producing. During a few sunny days recently, the system generated 7 or 8 kilowatt hours a day. (A typical house in the Seattle area uses about 30 kilowatt hours of electricity a day.)

As the days lengthen and the angle of the sun gets higher in the sky, Dr. Evans will have much more, enough to help power his other green investment, his ZENN electric car.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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