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Thursday, Feb 09 2006 01:50 PM

Homeowners turning to solar power for relief

By MISTY WILLIAMS, Californian staff writer e-mail: mwilliams@bakersfield.com

In Bakersfield's blistering summer heat, Jeffrey Krausse's power bill can sometimes shoot up to $300. Instead of shelling out that cash every month, he found a way to save.

The local architect had a $20,000 solar panel system installed on his northeast Bakersfield house two years ago. It's a long-term investment, he said.

"The cost of electricity is only going to go up," Krausse said.

As if soaring prices at the gas pump weren't enough, Americans also face climbing natural-gas rates this winter after production losses on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

The steady increase in costs could push homeowners toward other sources of energy like solar power, industry experts say.

Photovoltaics, or solar cells, convert sunlight into electricity.

But it remains to be seen whether the decades-old technology will finally catch on with the public.

One local builder is betting on it.

Developer Castle & Cooke wants to integrate solar panels into between 20 percent and 40 percent of houses in its latest subdivision west of Buena Vista Road.

Focus groups show the demand is there, said Pat Henneberry, vice president of home building. About 10 or 11 of the first homes will include solar, he said. The tract will have more than 230 houses.

"Our risk is saying, 'We believe in it. Do you believe in it?' " he said.

Other major builders, like Centex Homes, also are looking into solar.

The United States is far behind countries like Japan and Germany when it comes to investing in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, said Joseph Bork, owner of Golden State Solar Power.

But local businessmen like Phil Tyrwhitt, owner of Pure Energy, say sales have picked up in recent years.

"Ten years ago, I had a hard time making a living out of solar," Tyrwhitt said. "Now, I turn business away."

Still, the high price tag deters many homeowners from considering solar as an option.

A solar system for an average house costs around $16,000 to $18,000, said Marwan Masri, who heads California's Renewable Energy Program.

A system of that size, which would provide roughly half of the home's energy needs, could be worth more than $5,000 in rebates from the state, Masri said.

The state set aside roughly $300 million for residential and commercial projects in recent years, he said.

Millions of rebate dollars were approved for projects in Bakersfield, according to state data.

Some building industry experts say that despite rebates, there's historically been little demand for solar panels.

Homeowners don't want to pay the extra cash, said Brian Todd with the local Building Industry Association.

The public needs to be educated about solar, said Harlan Odé, president of Sharpe Solar Energy Systems.

Most people don't understand that solar panels can do more than run a ceiling fan, Odé said.

"People don't know that," he said. "It scares them to death."

For Deborah Olson and her husband, solar made sense.

The couple had a $68,000 solar system installed on their 10-acre property northeast of Bakersfield last summer.

The panels generate the most power during the afternoon when demand for energy is generally greatest. The Olsons also receive credit from PG&E when they generate more electricity than they consume.

Olson figures the system will pay for itself within 10 years and will continue to provide power for decades after that.

"It's a practical thing that each and every one of us can actually do to contribute to saving fossil fuel," she said.

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