More residents turn to solar power as North Coast faces growing threat of wildfires, blackouts

Until recently, solar power mainly had been used by home and business owners to reduce electric bills.|

When Rick Mead and Mark Marion finally flip the switch on the solar array atop their rural Sebastopol home, their $300 monthly electric bill will drop to $25 — the cost of maintaining a connection to PG&E's power grid.

A 30% federal tax credit, which declines next year to 26%, on the cost of the solar energy system made the investment a good idea, Mead said.

'It no longer made sense not to go with solar,' he said. 'PG&E rates will increase in the coming years — in the long run, the estimate is that our system will pay for itself in seven years.'

But it wasn't just economics that motivated Mead and Marion. The idea of powering their home on renewable energy was the right thing to do, Mead said, at a time when many people are troubled by the fallout of climate change, such as increasingly deadly and destructive wildfires in Northern California.

'It's a great investment in ourselves, our community and our planet,' he said.

Jeff Mathias, owner and chief financial officer of Sebastopol-based Synergy Solar, which installed Mead and Marion's solar system, said recent wildfires — which many argue have been exacerbated and supercharged by climate change — are bringing more attention to rooftop solar systems.

The increasing threat of fires and public safety efforts to prevent them that include potential blackouts are bringing more attention to residential solar energy systems that are environmentally friendly. Until recently, solar power mainly had been used by home and business owners to reduce electric bills.

A big concern among Sonoma County residents is a PG&E wildfire-prevention measure to temporarily turn off power to certain customers and entire communities, if necessary, threatened by a blaze, Mathias said.

'When power goes out, the system disconnects from PG&E and allows that home to continue to operate,' Mathias said.

Even though state rebates for residential solar systems no longer exist, he said federal tax credits and higher PG&E electric rates continue to make solar energy a money-saving endeavor.

Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, said battery storage is the key to solar systems being self-sufficient. Generating energy through solar power is one of the least costly alternative methods today, but it only works when the sun shines, he said.

At night, other customers on the utility grid are essentially paying for the cost of delivering power to solar-powered homes that don't have the ability to store energy, Syphers said. That cost includes taking the home's excess solar energy produced during the daytime and sending it elsewhere on the wider power grid for use, he said.

Mead said he and Marion opted not to buy battery storage because of the current additional cost. But their new electrical system to accommodate the solar array is 'battery-ready' should they decide to add storage in the future.

Syphers said the price of batteries declines about 10% a year. He expects that battery storage cost to drop even more in the coming years, making it more attractive to residential and commercial customers with solar systems.

'The good news is that all the pieces of a microgrid that let you have 24-hour power are starting to come down in price,' Syphers said. 'Where batteries are today on price is kind of where solar was about a decade ago, which is very expensive but falling fast.'

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission announced it was expanding the state's Self-Generation Incentive Program to help people be more resilient against fire threats.

The CPUC on Thursday established a $100 million program to support the installation of energy storage that can provide electricity when there is an outage or utility blackout due to high wildfire risk.

The CPUC said the expansion substantially increases opportunities for participation among low-income and disadvantaged communities.

The incentive program was started during the energy crisis in 2000 and 2001 as a way to reduce energy consumption during times of the day when the electrical grid experienced peak demand. After the launch of the California Solar Initiative in 2006, the program has evolved over time and now supports energy storage technologies.

Mathias said solar system installations got a boost about 10 years ago because of the state's solar initiative, which had offered significant rebates to residents for putting rooftop solar panels on their homes.

Before that, the Synergy Solar owner said solar power systems still were somewhat of a fringe technology used mainly by those who wanted to disconnect from the grid. The state's solar incentive program had offered customer rebates for residential solar systems operated in conjunction with the grid.

Combined with federal tax credits, many homeowners began to view a solar array as an investment that could quickly pay for itself by reducing their monthly electric bill, Mathias said.

'Because there were federal and state incentives, solar became financially viable,' Mathias said. 'It wasn't just about saving the planet.'

Ten years ago, the average cost of installing a residential solar energy system was about $7 a watt and now it's half that, he said. For a home with a $150 to $200 monthly electric bill, solar panel installations can pay for themselves in roughly seven years, Mathias said. With battery storage, too, the period increases to 10 years, though most of Synergy's customers do not opt to buy energy storage capacity.

The upfront cost for a typical Synergy residential solar energy system is between $21,000 to $31,000. Adding energy storage capability costs $12,000 to $30,000 more, depending on need.

Mead said a battery storage system is not yet financially realistic for him and Marion. Still, he said installing a solar system with a 25-year warranty that would pay for itself in seven years was too hard to pass up.

'Everyone we know who has gone solar loves it,' Mead said.

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