Best Solar Rebates in Califonia: Southern California Edison (SCE)

If you’re a residential customer of Southern California Edison (SCE), you’ve got more than SoCal’s sunny days to be happy about. You’re alsositting on what is arguably the state’s best solar rebate. We’ve discussed this before. But, looking at the numbers this morning, I could help but mention it again.

Here’s the deal. In 2006, the state’s public utilities commission launched the California Solar Initiative (CSI), a multi-year program aimed at providing more than $3 billion inincentives to solar-energy projects through 2016. The program was broken up into ten “steps,” each representing a certain amount solar power (in megawatts, or MW). According to the program structure, as more solar gets installed, the incentive level is reduced. Like this:

Step goes up, solar incentive and rebate goes down

In which step are we? That depends on your utility. Residentialcustomers of California’s other investor-owned utilities — Pacific Gas& Electric (PG&E) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) — are in Step 8, which means they are entitled to receive a solar rebateof $0.35 for each watt of solar panels they install. By comparison,customers of SCE (which is in Step 6) are entitled to a rebate of $1.10per watt — more than three times as much as what’s available to their neighbors in SDG&E and PG&E territory! Check out the following chart, courtesy of Go Solar California:

California's solar rebates

While installing solar panels can still make great sense with thelower rebate from PG&E and SDG&E, I can’t emphasize enough what a good opportunity SCE’s solar rebate presents to homeowners who arethinking about installing solar panels. Think about it this way: if youinstalled a typical solar home energy system of 5-kW in SDG&E orPG&E territory, you’d be eligible for a solar rebate of roughly$1,750. That same system installed on the home of a SCE customer couldreceive a rebate of $5,500.

Finally, remember that back in the day (2006-07), all these rebateswere $2.50 or more per watt. Solar incentive levels are a moving targetin California — the sooner you get moving on your solar energy project,the better. (This goes for everyone!)

SoCal Edison (Still) Offers the Best Solar Rebate in California

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New ‘Open Source’ Solar PPA

When it comes to large solar energy installations in the commercial,institutional and industrial sectors, rarely are the solar panels andthe host building owned by the same entity.

In other words, say Walmart installs solar power atop one of its stores. Instead of going it alone and owning the system itself, the retailer instead contracts with one or more other companies to get the project done. A solar company may design, install andmaintain the system, which may actually be owned by, say, a third-partyfinancing firm. Walmart, for its part, simply agrees to purchase thesystem’s electricity output at a fixed rate for a specified term.

This arrangement — and variations thereof — are commonly called apower purchase agreement (PPA). When done right, PPAs offer a win-winsituation: the host client benefits from predictably priced cleanenergy, while the counter parties to the agreement enjoy steady cashflows, tax credits and any other government incentives associated withcompleting a qualifying project. Moreover, under a PPA approach eachparty is responsible for what it does best: the financer, finances; thesolar company designs, engineers and installs the system; and the hostclient continues to manage its business.

When done wrong, however, PPAs can add considerable cost andhand-wringing to the solar energy project development process. Simplyput, a PPA is a legal contract — which means lawyers are involved. Costs associated with legal counsel and negotiations can pile up quickly. Soquickly, in fact, that these transaction costs often kill smaller projects.

What to do? One approach floating around out there is to create aboilerplate PPA that would, at very least, provide a standard jumpingoff point for negotiations. The latest incarnation of this idea comesfrom Tioga Energy, which today announced the release of its SurePath Solar power purchaseagreement. The California-based renewable energy services company ismaking this standard contract available to the public, billing thedocument as an “open source PPA.”

Via the press release:

“The PPA is a highly specialized contract that must meetthe needs of a variety of stakeholders, including tax investors, project developers and customers,” said Marc Roper, vice president of sales and marketing for Tioga Energy. “We see a lot of resources going toward the drafting and negotiation of these agreements, and it’s clear that someof this expense can be avoided. We feel that by placing ourproven, annotated contract in the public domain and offering it as afree template, we will immediately impact transactional costs.”

Pretty interesting — and clever. The full annotated document is available on Tioga’s website. It’s worth checking out.

New ‘Open Source’ PPA Aims to Cut Costs for Solar Energy Projects

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Maryland Revises Solar Grant Program

Thanks largely to its solar energy grant and solar renewable energy credit (SREC) programs, Maryland is a great place to go solar. The state recentlyupdated the application process for the grant program, making it easierfor homeowners (and businesses) to secure the $500-per-kilowatt (kW)rebate that’s available to help offset upfront installation costs.Here’s a blurb from the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA):

The first step when applying for a Clean Energy Grant isfor the homeowner to decide if they or their installer will be thePrimary Point of Contact (PPC). The PPC is responsible for ensuring allgrant documentation is submitted in a timely, accurate, and completemanner. Installers often include these services as part of theirofferings, but please check with your installer to ensure the correctPPC is designated at the beginning of the Grant application process.

In most cases, we find homeowners prefer to have their installer bethe primary point of contact, as he or she is usually familiar with thestate’s process and more than happy to handle the solar rebateapplication process, which looks like this:

Maryland's solar rebate application process

What does all this add up to? Maryland homeowners who install solarphotovoltaic (PV) panels are eligible to receive grant funds worth up to $10,000. Maryland businesses, meanwhile, may receive a solar grantworth up to $50,000.

Maryland Revises Solar Energy Grant Program

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Running Your Electric Meter Backwards with Solar

As any owner of solar panels will tell you, it’s a pretty cool moment when you see your electric meter running backwards for the first time.Not only is it fun to witness your solar home energy system in action;after all those years of paying the utility, it feels good to sit thereand watch the utility pay you.

So, what’s there to know about using solar power to run your electric meter backwards?

First off, the technical word for this kind of setup is “net metering.” If you request a solar home energy analysis, you may hear installers use this term, so it’s worth remembering.

Second, generally speaking only solar electric systems — also calledphotovoltaic (PV) systems — are capable of running a meter backwards. It goes without saying that the system must be connected to the utility’selectricity grid in order for excess power to flow out through themeter. These kinds of systems are commonly referred to as “grid-tied” or “grid-connected” systems.

>>> Info-graphic: How Does Solar Home Energy Work?

Third, the utility doesn’t really “pay” for your excess electricity.Rather, it issues credit. As an example, let’s say you take two weeks of vacation in August. While you’re off exploring the American southwest,your solar home energy system keeps cranking out power. All that excesselectricity will show up as credit on your next month’s bill — in thiscase, in September. More commonly, your system will accrue an excess ofelectricity during the day, while you’re off at work and your kids areat school. This credit will then be used up in the evening and morninghours.

Fourth, many — but not all — states require utilities to offer netmetering to their customers. In the “good” states, credit is issued atthe prevailing retail rate for electricity: if you’re paying the utility 16 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), the utility is required to issuecredit at 16 cents/kWh. In the “bad” states, utilities issue credit at a lower rate, sometimes called their avoided-cost rate. In really badstates — of which there are only a few — net metering isn’t required bystate law.

Finally, before you can start running your meter backwards, you’lllikely have to sign an interconnection agreement with your utility.Luckily, qualified solar installer are adept at handling all the related paperwork. So when the time comes to throw the switch on your new solar home energy system, all should go off without a hitch. You’ll bewatching your meter spin our count backwards in no time!

How to Run Your Meter Backwards with Solar Panels

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How Do High Oil Prices Impact Solar?

Solar panels can do a lot of things. They can significantly reduce —and in some cases eliminate — your monthly electricity bill, savinghundreds or even thousands of dollars a year. They can add real value to your home. They can reduce your reliance on dirty sources of energy,like coal. They can even make your home look pretty.

But there’s one thing solar panels can’t really do — at least not right now. They can’t reduce our reliance on foreign oil.

How can this be?

As explained nicely by Eric Rosenbaum,

[o]il is not what developed markets use as an input forpower generation. In some developing markets, like India and Kenya,diesel is used as a source of power generation. Indeed, solar isexpected to grow as an alternative for mini-grid community powersolutions in India, and as a replacement for diesel fuel, but that’s onthe margins and not relevant for solar…

Translation: as a general rule, we don’t use oil to generateelectricity. We use it to fuel our cars and trucks. So, no matter howmuch electricity we generate using solar panels, we won’t reduce theamount of oil we consume on a daily basis driving to work or shippingboxes across the country.

I’d argue that, as Americans, we don’t settle for the status quo. Ifsomething’s broken, we (eventually) figure out a way to fix it. In away, high oil prices are a reminder that something needs to be fixed. Recall that in July of 2008, when the price of oil touched $147 abarrel and we were facing the prospect of $4- or even $5-a-gallongasoline, everyone was buzzing about energy conservation, alternativefuels — even carpooling was on the table.

Now, with turmoil in Libya and the price of oil creeping up again, it appears there’s renewed interest in preventing the same old story fromplaying out again. Luckily, there’s good news.

While solar panels can’t reduce our reliance on imported oil today,they can — and will — do so in the future. Consider two scenarios:

  1. We drive more electric vehicles (like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt)
  2. We put more natural-gas vehicles (particularly long-haul trucks) on the road

In the first scenario, our total consumption of gasoline goes down as more and more electric vehicles hit the road. If at the same time we’re able to increase the amount of electricity generated from solarresources, we’d effectively be powering a portion of our transportationfleet with solar energy. Outcome: solar power could reduce our consumption of imported oil.

The second scenario is a little less straightforward. First, it’sworth noting we have vast natural gas reserves that, thanks to recentadvancements in extraction technology, are readily accessible. Poweringmore of our trucks with domestically abundant natural gas would, allelse equal, reduce our need to import oil. If at the same time we’reable to increase the amount of electricity generated from solarresources, we could free up more natural gas for use in thetransportation sector. (About 20 percent of our electricity comes fromnatural gas, nationwide.) This scenario is akin to the plan hatched byTexas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, although he envisions replacingnatural gas electricity generation with wind power rather than solar. Outcome: solar power could reduce our consumption of imported oil.

In sum, solar power can in the future play a key role in reducing our reliance to imported oil, provided a few tweaks are made. High oilprices serve to remind us that these tweaks should be made sooner rather than later.

How Do High Oil Prices Impact Solar Power?

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Solar Helps the California Superfund Site Cleanup

What’s better than producing clean energy using nothing but the power of the sun? Using that energy to power the cleanup of a federalsuperfund site that for years has been polluted by pesticides,herbicides and fertilizer runoff.

The EPA is using solar power to clean up groundwater in Davis, California

It’s enough to make any environmentalist giddy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Jared Blumenfeld, U.S.Congressman Mike Thompson and Linda Adams, Secretary of the CaliforniaEnvironmental Protection Agency, yesterday announced just that: solar panels will power the cleanup of the Frontier Fertilizer Superfund site in Davis, California.

“For the first time ever, solar will provide all of thepower for a Superfund groundwater cleanup,” said Blumenfeld, EPA’sRegional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “Our goal should be to clean the environment in the greenest way possible—and this newtreatment plant sets the benchmark for future actions.”

Solar panels were first installed at the Frontier site in 2007. Theinitial system, however, offset only a portion of the facility’selectricity needs. In 2010, $350,000 in federal stimulus funds were used to expand the system, which now provides 100 percent of the energyneeded to power the groundwater treatment system. The solar panels cover half-an-acre of land and are expected to reduce the site’s electricitycosts by about $15,000 a year.

Linda Adams of the EPA

Linda Adams of Cal EPA makes remarks at the Frontier Fertilizer event in Davis, California

Remarkably, the groundwater project is expected to reduce the projected timeline for cleanup from 150 years to 30 years. You can read about electrical resistive remediation to learn how, exactly, the fertilizer site is being cleaned up.

California Superfund Site Cleanup Aided By Solar Power

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Florida Solar Rebates Available to Some Starting March 15

Good news for Florida customers of Progress Energy: they’ll soon beeligible to receive up to $20,000 for installing solar panels.

The utility, which serves 3 million customers in Florida and the Carolinas, is expanding to the Sunshine State its popular SunSense solar rebate program. Starting March 15, homeowners who install solar panels will be eligible to receive a rebate of $2.00 per watt for systems up to 10-kilowatts(kW) in size. That means a maximum rebate of $20,000 is on the table for interested residential solar buyers. When combined with the 30-percent federal tax credit, the new solar rebate program will provide strong incentive for Florida homeowners to get solar.

Progress Energy is expanding its SunSense program to Florida

Businesses, meanwhile, won’t be left behind. Commercial customers ofProgress Energy Florida (PEF) may apply for solar rebate funds not toexceed $130,000 per applicant. Funds will be allocated according thefollowing schedule:

  • $2.00/watt for the first 10 kW
  • $1.50/watt 11 kW – 50 kW
  • $1.00/watt 51 kW – 100 kW

Given that the program’s annual budget is $1 million and demand forsolar power among Floridians is strong, we expect the solar rebate funds to go quickly. If you’re a PEF customers who’s interested in installing solar panels, we’d encourage you to act sooner rather than later.

Florida Solar Rebates Available to Some Starting March 15

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Poll Suggests Solar Bill to Have Broad Support

Pay attention, freshman members of Congress… In case you missed it, a couple of weeks ago Gallup released results from a recent poll suggesting that Americans want more alternative energy. Here’s what folks were asked:

Gallup poll shows strong support for U.S. alternative energy bill

What’s really interesting here is that, of all eight potential legislative actions, the passage of an alternative energy bill ranks at the top of the list. What’s even more interesting is that a majority of both Republican respondents (75 percent) and Democrat respondents (93 percents) voiced theirsupport for such a bill. Try finding that much bipartisan support on any other issue — I dare you.

One more thing worth noting: you’ll see that, beyond alternativeenergy, Americans also seem to support expanding exploration anddrilling for oil and natural gas. While renewable energy and fossilfuels are by no means incompatible, it’s interesting that respondentssupport both. This suggests to me that Americans are interested aboveall in energy sources that are clean (like solar, wind and otherrenewables) and domestic (like solar, wind and natural gas). Shocker, Iknow…

Notably absent from the poll question is coal, which is dirty,domestic and divisive. It also accounts for about half of allelectricity generation, nationwide.

Poll Suggests Solar, Alternative Energy Bill Would Have Broad Support

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University of Maryland Goes Solar

On Valentines Day, the University of Maryland, College Park agreed to install one of the largest photovoltaic (PV) rooftop solar energysystems in the entire state atop its Severn Building — a building thatstands roughly one mile away from the main College Park campus.University officials also announced that they will use a $630,000grant from the state’s Sunburst Initiative Program to fund a majority of the installation. The Sunburst funds are meant to help fund renewable energy projects at public buildings throughout thestate, and the University of Maryland is one of the first public schools in the state to receive funding through the program. The rest of the$2.6 million project will be funded by Washington Gas Energy services.

University of Maryland recently bought the former Washington Postprinting press and, after installing the PV solar energy system atop it, the school will transform it into a multi-purpose center with acombination of offices and trade shops. When the solar energy systemis completely built and installed this summer, the Washington Post reports that the more than 2,500-panel system will be able to produce 792megawatt-hours (mWh) of electricity each year and annually reduce thecarbon footprint of the entire university by over 600 tons.

Here’s Ann Wylie, Vice President of Administrative Affairs and Chairof the University on the University’s most recent environmentalendeavour:

“The University is committed to addressing thesignificant challenges of this generation, including environmentalsustainability, climate change, and renewable energy. The use of solarenergy – a clean energy source that produces no greenhouse gases – willmove us another step closer to achieving our vision for a greener campus embodied in the university’s Strategic Plan.”

The University of Maryland has been one of many schools at theforefront of the renewable energy movement at public schools around thecountry. In May 2007, it was one of about 700 schools to sign theAmerican College & University President’s Climate Commitment. Justtwo years later, the University released a blueprint to become a carbonneutral campus by 2050.

University of Maryland to Install Solar Power

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The Role of Inverters in Solar Energy Systems

Before installing a solar photovoltaic (PV) system at your home orbusiness, it’s important to know as much as you can about how the system actually works. This way, when you get solar home energy quotes, you’ll know exactly what they’re talking about and won’t drown in a sea offoreign vocabulary.

So today we’re going to delve into one of the most important piecesof your solar energy system: the inverter. The solar energy that your PV solar panels generate is direct current (DC), meaning it flows in asingle direction. The inverter converts the electricity into alternating current (AC), so that the it can flow back and forth and feedelectricity to different areas of your home.

solar energy inverter
Conventional inverter

The solar PV energy system atop your home or business likely features several PV solar panels wired together in series in a single row, ormultiple rows depending on the size of your solar energy system.Conventionally, the PV solar panels have to be wired together so thatall of the electricity that the PV panels produce is fed into a singleinverter.

But there is a new type of inverter that changes the rules of thegame: the microinverter. Microinverters are installed on each individual panel. So each panel produces AC power on its own. As a result, thesolar PV panels don’t have to be wired together to flow energy to asingle inverter.

Solar Energy Micro Inverter

Today, microinverters are not as common for solar energy homeinstallations because they haven’t been around as long as conventionalinverters. Panels equipped with microinverters cost a bit more, too, but they may generate more AC output per panel than a system with aconventional inverter.

If you’re interested in PV panels with micro inverters, talk to yourinstaller about it before choosing a system. And be sure to check outthis podcast courtesy of Renewable Energy World in which solar industry professionals debate which type of inverter is best to use. Also interesting is this 2009 article from MIT’s Technology Review.

What Does an Inverter Do for My Solar Energy System?

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The Solar-Powered Vaccine Refrigerator

Just last week, we introduced you to the LED solar pebble — a dependable and easily transportable solar-powered light that can be used in rural areas that lack a steady source of electricity. Today,it’s the solar refrigerator — an equally fascinating and usefuldevelopment that is also made for those same remote areas.

True Energy Solar Powered Refrigerator

The solar powered refrigerator was developed by the sustainable engineering firm True Energy and runs on what the company calls Sure Chill Technology. True Energy says that Sure Chill can guarantee a constant and reliablecooling temperature in “the toughest environments. Here’s how it works:

A refrigerator using Sure Chill Technology accesses grid energyand/or solar power when the energy is at its cheapest and mostavailable. If the energy rate is too expensive at a certain time, thesolar powered refrigerator can hold out for up to 10 days without usingany electricity at all and still maintain a low, cooling temperature.How? It uses a high-density polyurethane foam as an insulator and aphase change material to store energy until it’s needed. So if thetemperature rises too high, that stored energy kicks in and cools therefrigerator down.

The solar powered refrigerator keeps everything inside of it betweenfour and six degrees Celsius (39 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s notwidely used at the moment as far as residential use. But Unicef and theWorld Health Organization (WHO) are already using the solar-poweredrefrigerator to store vaccinations in remote areas of Africa where theywould otherwise not have a place to store vaccinations.

Photo credit: True Energy

Solar-Powered Vaccine Refrigerator to Aid Health Agencies

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The LED Solar Pebble

The LED solar pebble is not one of those“cool-but-who-really-needs-that” solar gadgets that we sometimes see.It’s actually a very significant development, specifically for peopleliving in rural parts of Africa using kerosene lamps. According to Inhabitat, kerosene poisoning in some of the most remote and poorest parts of theworld kills someone every 2o seconds. The solar pebble is a game-changer with the potential to eliminate the need for such a toxin.

Solar Pebble LED Light

The Solar Pebble was created by Adam Robinson of Plus Minus Solar — a research and design firm based in the UK. It can be used as both alamp and as a solar charger for smaller electronics like cell phones and batteries. It’s perfect for people in areas that don’t have a steadysource of electricity, and it lasts for 12 hours, meaning it can be used throughout an entire day before it needs a charge.

But what makes this solar pebble sovaluable is its portability. After all, it’s the size of a pebble. Ifyou’re at home, you can use it to light up a room. If you’re hiking, you can toss it in your backpack and use it to charge electronics. Ifyou’re camping, use the solar pebble to light up the camp site.

Plus Minus Design hasn’t released a priceyet because the LED solar pebble is still a few months away fromofficially being released, but Inhabitat says it costs roughly one-tenth of what a family would otherwise spend on a kerosene lamp. We’ll knowmore when it hits the market in June 2010, and of course, we’ll keep you updated.

Photo courtesy of Yanko Design.

Introducing… The LED Solar Pebble!

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Rutgers to Battle New Jersey in Solar Decathlon Finals

Biennially since 2002, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has held the solar decathlon, a competition between 20 university teams from around the world thatdesign, construct and operate homes that are affordable, energyefficient and attractive.

The finalists for the competition were recently announced. Among them is Team New Jersey, a collaboration of faculty members and studentsfrom Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Itis the first trip to the finals for Team New Jersey and yesterday atCivic Square Building in New Brunswick, New Jersey, State Senator Robert Menendez recognized Team New Jersey and its project, “eNJoy: A Generation House.” The team will next travel to Washington D.C. for the finals.

eNJoy: A Generation House
A look at the front of “eNJoy: A Generation House”

The home is concrete, making it durable. It’s been described as a“passive solar house,” meaning the sun’s heat enters the home in itsnatural state of solar radiation by way of the roof and is used forboth heating and light. This means there’s no need for fans or pumps to maintain a comfortable temperature. Additionally, Team New Jerseybuilt the roof in the shape of an inverted hip for optimal solarexposure and rainwater collection.

The 20 finalists are chosen after schools submit proposals to bereviewed by renewable energy experts from the National Renewable EnergyLaboratory, American Institute of Architects, National Association ofHome Builders, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the AmericanSociety of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers.After the competition, the homes are on display for the public free ofcharge and are usually used as energy research labs.

Here is a list of Solar Decathlon Accomplishments since the 2002 inaugural competition:

  • Involved 92 collegiate teams, which pursued multidisciplinarycourse curricula to study the requirements for designing and buildingenergy-efficient, solar-powered houses
  • Established a worldwide reputation as a successful educationalprogram and workforce development opportunity for thousands of students
  • Affected the lives of 15,000 collegiate participants
  • Expanded its outreach to K–12 students by inviting schools in the Washington, D.C., area to visit on class tours.

Check out images of the 2009 Solar Decathalon.

Rutgers, New Jersey IT Team in Solar Decathlon Finals

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Should You Wait for Better Solar Technology?

A Solar  Home

First of all, you’re right: at some point during the lifetime of your rooftop solar energy system, a better version of what you have willlikely come out. That’s going to be the case whether you install solarpanels now or 20 years from now. The difference is that every month youchoose not to invest in a solar energy system, you’re continuing to payyour utility. Depending on your electric rate and usage patterns, youmay be overpaying for your electricity. What’s more? If you live in astate with a market for solar renewable energy credits (SRECs), the longer you wait to install solar, the longer you go without making money by selling your SRECs.

Second, the solar energy systems available today are pretty darngood. SunPower’s E19 solar panels have a 19 percent efficiency rating,and  Kyocera’s 190-watt solar panel boasts a 15 percent efficiencylevel. Each of these is a great choice when looking into installing arooftop solar energy system.

The third reason why now is the time to go solar? Solar rebates, taxcredits and other incentives. Utility, state and federal incentives areavailable right now throughout the United States. Five states inparticular are making big pushes in 2011 to incorporate more solar into their power grids, and financialincentives are among the main ways they plan to do this. But the goal is to get to a point in time when the solar energy industry can stand onits own feet without the help of incentives. So, if you wait a fewyears, more efficient panels will be available, but incentive programswill be few and far between. So take advantage of the incentives whilethey’re still around and invest in a solar energy system today.

Don’t Hold Out for Tomorrow’s Solar Energy Technology

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