Orlando Sentinel, October 1, 2006
by Carrie Alexander | Special to the Sentinel
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Seeing the light
Like a growing number of homeowners, Pedro Santiago has trimmed his utility bills by harnessing the power of the sun.
When some of us look into the sky on a sunny Florida day, we see an outing at the beach, an afternoon that’s perfect for golf or a chance to work on our tan. When Pedro Santiago looks skyward, however, he sees something else: dollars in his pocket.
At Santiago’s DeBARY home, that bright sunshine heats water for his pool, spa and shower. It helps light his homes interior. And it generates electricity – enough to lower his monthly power bill by 50 percent or more.
Santiago and his wife, Janet, recently remade their year-old contemporary home – and the intent was to harness the sun’s power. The Santiagos installed an array of solar panels in the backyard for hearing water and two roof-mounted tubular solar skylights for lighting the kitchen area.
A recirculation system provides hot water on demand, and a solar pool heater allows them to swim year-round. The goal was to replace conventional gas or electric power. The logic, Santiago says, is simple: Solar energy equals free money. “Nobody knows about the free energy,” he says. “Nobody realizes.”
The Santiagos’ solar home makeover is part of a national trend that is making inroads in the Sunshine State. Central Florida Homeowners can get a firsthand look at these alternative-energy sources on Saturday during the 11th annual American Solar Energy Society’s National Solar Tour. The Santiagos and 10 other Central Florida homes that are using solar power and other energy-efficient technologies will be open for tours.
Nationally, the tour encompasses 44 states and thousands of solar-powered homes and buildings. The purpose is to show how solar-electric and solar-thermal systems make sense for a reliable residential-energy program, says Craig Williams, executive director of the Florida Renewable Energy Association.
The Homes – in Orlando, Winter Park, St. Cloud, Longwood and DeBary – will open from 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and 1.30 to 4 p.m. A solar contractor or representative will be at each location to answer questions. As part of the tour, the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa will be open on Friday. Consumers can view features such as energy-efficient windows; a reflective white roof; and zoned heating, venting and air-conditioning systems.
More home owners are adding solar power because solar systems offer savings on utility bills, says Dale Gulden, CEO of Solar Direct, a Bradenton Company that specializes in alternative energy. His company installed the solar equipment at the Santiago’s home.
Santiago says he wanted to incorporate solar features as his home was being built, but his builder wasn’t familiar with the technology. So the couple waited until their home was finished.
“One of the obstacles right now is builders,” Gulden says. “If they haven’t used solar they don’t want to deal with solar. It’s just a mind set. It’s just going to take time.”
Cost too has been a hurdle. In the past, consumers balked at using the sun for energy because solar equipment was expensive while conventional energy sources were relatively low-cost, Gulden says. But today, the Santiagos and other home owners are talking advantage of tax incentives to lower their solar-installation cost.
Conventional utility bills, meanwhile, are rising. “When people tire of high [energy] costs and foreign dependence on oil, they’ll begin to look for alternatives such as solar,” Gulden says. William agrees. Previously, he says, “there was a little bit of reluctance to get into something new” on the part of homeowners and builders. But, he says, consumers must consider the consequences of how electricity is made.
“The sun’s always going to be there. The price is never going to go up on the sun. It’s a no-brainer.”
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE FLORIDA RENEWABLE ENERGY ASSOCIATION
“We’re so disconnected from the process of making that electricity. We use coal, and coal miners are catching diseases and being put in dangerous situations. We use oil, and we have to depend on foreign countries for that,” he says. “We’ve got other alternatives. The sun is beating down on our roof every day and that can easily heat our water. The sun’s always going to be there. The price is never going to go up on the sun. It’s a no-brainer.”
Santiago would agree. He says he is thrilled with the benefits of his new solar-energy equipment. Although the up-front cost of the equipment was a daunting $43,000, the out-of -pocket costs to the Santiagos will be much lower- $24,400 – because of rebates and tax credits offered as incentives by the state and federal governments.
They include $14,600 in Florida rebates for the solar water heater, photovoltaic panel system and pool heater; and $4,000 in federal tax incentives for the solar PV panel system and the water heater.
Santiago says he has seen immediate results in his utility bills. When he and his family moved into their 3,800-square-foot home, their power bill was about $650. Now it’s half that, he says.
“My goal is, I want to see the meter go backwards,” Santiago says. “I want to get so energy-efficient that I feed the grid.” Home owners who don’t think of using solar energy, he says, are missing out on a great opportunity. “They don’t realize the potential for making money. They haven’t come to the understanding that they are improving the value of their home,” he says.
And the changes can last a lifetime, says Gulden. Once the system is paid off, utility bills will be lower for the life of house. “If you don’t like your electric bill, you don’t have to settle for it,” says Gulden. “You can change it. It’s money that you’re already spending or going to spend one way or the other.”