Bruce and Roseanna Phillips are getting $17,000 worth of solar panels installed on the roof of their Cordova Park home for about $2,000. On top of that sweet deal, the bank of solar panels will generate enough electricity to take a big chunk out of their monthly power bill. If it sounds too good to be true, think again.
The Pensacola couple is taking advantage of a host of cash incentives and tax rebates the Sunshine State and the U.S. Department of Energy are offering to amp up residential solar energy usage like never before.
And for business owners Dan Gardner, Sean Gardner and Scott Arnold, the big solar energy push could not have come at a better time.
The trio recently merged three local companies into Compass Solar Energy and are fast making a name for themselves in the Florida Panhandle and South Alabama.
Business on the rise
In addition to installing the Phillipses' solar panels, Compass Solar is working on a thermal water heating system for a building at Whiting Field Naval Air Station and a 15-kilowatt solar electrical system for the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama.
"When completed, the Sea Lab will be the largest solar electric generating building in Alabama," Dan Gardner said.
Compass's commercial solar business has increased some 40 percent over the past year, and the company has its eye on even bigger commercial and governmental projects, he said.
"The biggest challenge we have right now is education, getting the word out to homebuyers and builders about the efficiencies and environmental benefits of solar energy conversion," he said.
Builders such as Hal Lovato of T.O.P. Construction in Gulf Breeze have gotten the word, promoting solar and thermal water heating for just about every project they undertake.
"We're trying to build solar and thermal heating into every single structure we're involved in," Lovato said. "It's something we're always trying to sell, and it does take some explanation. But now most of our customers are coming to us and asking about what it will cost to install solar in the homes we design and build."
For the Phillipses, the incentive to install a 2.5-kilowatt bank of solar panels — a 2-kilowatt bank was installed in 1996 — was about more than just saving money.
They are true believers in each family doing its part to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and help the environment by cutting carbon emissions.
And the Phillipses' have another inducement.
"Our son is majoring in environmental engineering at the University of Florida," Roseanna Phillips said. "He's always been pushing us on this, that we need to worry about the environment and how we use our resources."
When they installed their first bank of solar panels in 1996, their motivation was relatively simple: They wanted a backup for electrical power during outages, especially after hurricanes.
"The battery storage system we have in the garage will run simple appliances and lights in our house for two or three days," Bruce Phillips said.
When their new panels are installed, boosting their solar generating power up to 4.5 kilowatts, the Phillips not only will have a backup system in place but also will be tied into the Gulf Power grid.
That means on most sunny days they will be sharply reducing their power usage and, in some cases, may even be returning power to the grid.
With their net cost topping out at just over $2,000, the Phillipses will pay for their system in a few years, thanks to $10,000 cash back from the Florida Department of Energy and a $5,000 tax rebate from the federal government.
Had they installed a thermal water heating unit along with the solar panels, they would have been eligible for a $1,000 rebate from Gulf Power, said company spokesman Jeff Rogers.
The lucrative incentives for solar electric generation and thermal water heating make Dan Gardner's job of marketing Compass' services a lot easier.
The promise and potential of solar energy has been touted for decades, but previous efforts to promote solar energy generation in homes and businesses have fizzled.
High up-front installation costs and length of time for recovery of investment have made selling solar an uphill battle.
But now, with substantial cash incentives and tax rebates, solar electric generating panel and thermal water heating units are increasingly attractive to homeowners and builders.
Compass' Scott Arnold, an electrical engineer and partner in the firm, said in addition to the lucrative incentives, the efficiency of solar panels have improved, and, coupled with dramatic improvements in home construction and insulation, power bills can be lowered to near pocket change.
"One lady who we had done work for sent me her power bill for the past month," Arnold said. "It was $14."
Arnold also notes that some banks and home mortgage lenders are more amenable to loans that include the cost of solar and thermal water heating units.
But Arnold admits it has been a slow educational process with banks, builders, Realtors and city and county building inspectors.
Gardner is optimistic about the future of solar energy generation in the Sunshine State.
"Now more than ever people are about building green, energy-efficient elements into their homes," he said. "I think the growth potential for solar and thermal heat generation is wide open."
Available incentives from the State of Florida, U.S. Department of Energy and Gulf Power:
- Florida's Department of Environmental Protection offers a $4 per watt cash back for installation of solar panels. For a typical, roof-mounted banks of solar panels that generate 2.5 kilowatts, the state would offer a $10,000 rebate to the homeowner.
- The U.S. Department of Energy allows homeowners a tax rebate equal to 30 percent of the cost of the solar unit.
- Gulf Power offers customers a $1,000 rebate for installation of a thermal water heating unit.