Solar Energy Gets New Spark; Tax Credits Could Bolster Interest

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Byline: Maggie FitzRoy

As a chemical engineer, Howard Wallenstein has long been intrigued by the uses and benefits of solar energy.

In 1999, when he and his wife moved from Atlanta to Ponte Vedra Beach, he decided to install a solar water heating system in his Sawmill Lakes home.

Now, "I would chop wood before I would have an electric hot water heater in my home," Wallenstein said.

A fan of the environmental and economic benefits of using the sun's rays for heat, he said he estimates he saves about $70 a month or about $800 a year on his electric bill.

Solar energy experts predict that many more people will install solar water heater and pool-heating systems in their homes this year, thanks to a federal energy bill that goes into effect Sunday. The bill will give home owners a tax credit of 30 percent, up to $2,000, of the cost of installing a solar energy system.

"The tax credit, coupled with spiraling energy prices should make the move to clean, renewable solar energy easier than ever," said Mark Krenn, president of Jacksonville-based American Solar Energy, one of several solar energy companies in the area.

Across the country, most homes use electricity or gas for their water heaters and pools. Hot water and air-conditioning are the two largest users of energy in the average home, Krenn said.

The cost of installing a solar hot water system ranges from $2,500 to $4,000. But tax credits or utility incentives can further lower the cost up to $2,500 depending on the size and type of system.

Some electric companies, including JEA, Jacksonville's electric utility, already provide incentives for installing solar systems, but there hasn't been a federal tax incentive for about 25 years.

"Jimmy Carter started a tax credit during the oil embargo. It took off really well," said Krenn, who has been in the solar energy business for 21 years. Carter's 40 percent credit lasted until the end of his administration, Krenn said.

"Reagan did not renew the energy credit," Krenn said. In fact, "he had the solar panels removed from the White House roof."

Many people got out of the solar energy business after its popularity faded. But rising oil prices, concerns about burning fossil fuels for energy and local and federal incentives or tax credits have renewed the interest in solar heat.

"We knew that sooner or later solar would come back really strong," Krenn said. "We didn't know when or what would cause it."

Dylan Morgan of Atlantic Beach, a regional manager for an energy company, said environmental concerns spurred him to begin using solar energy. A solar energy company, SunWorks, installed his water heater when his home was built in 2002.

"Instead of burning fossil fuels and polluting the air, you are using the sun's energy to heat water for free," he said. …

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