Arizona community has a leg up on solar

ENCANTERRA, ARIZONA - When Don and Lorraine Kilner decided to move to the East Valley from San Diego, it didn't take them long to sign up for a solar photovoltaic system on their new home.

"We had friends in San Diego who had put solar on, and they had an electric bill of $250 a year," Don said. "Once they made it available here, we jumped on it.... We knew what electric bills were like here in the summer."

And now that he has the system, he knows it works — his energy cost from the Salt River Project grid was just $1.75 in April.

The Kilners are residents of Encanterra, a new golf-resort community in San Tan Valley near Queen Creek, that is doing something still unusual in Arizona — including rooftop photovoltaic systems as a standard feature on their new homes.

It's not just an option. Since last August, anyone buying a home in the community at Combs and Gantzel roads got solar energy as part of the deal.

A total of 24 of the solar electric systems, which convert sunlight into electricity, have been completed in the community, according to American Solar Electric, a Scottsdale-based subcontractor that is installing the systems. They are churning out a collective 85 kilowatts of electricity to power the houses.

Another 38 are under construction, which will bring the community's total generating capacity to 215 kilowatts when completed.

The program is part of a companywide effort by Trilogy by Shea Homes to provide solar energy in all of the Trilogy communities in four states, including Encanterra. Trilogy is the Scottsdale-based upscale resort community division of Shea Homes.

So far, Trilogy is the only builder in the East Valley that is adding photovoltaics as a standard amenity in newly built homes, according to utility companies.

The solar modules, which are supplied by BP Solar, fit flush with the concrete tiles on the roof, integrating the system into the architecture of the home.

"You really have to look to tell they're there," Kilner said.

Shea Homes decided to implement the program because "integrating a solar system into a home during construction is less expensive than adding it later, making solar more accessible and affordable than it's ever been," said Rick Andreen, president of Shea Homes' Active Lifestyle Communities.

Progress has been slow so far in integrating solar energy into Arizona's new housing stock, largely because the housing market has been so weak.

But construction of new homes has picked up slightly in the past few months as the inventory of unsold new houses has been worked off. With the increase in construction, the number of solar systems being installed at Encanterra also has increased.

Six systems were started in April, and the number more than doubled to 13 each month in May and June. And six were started in just the first week in July, according to American Solar Electric.

Phebe Blitz, another homeowner in Encanterra, said the utility bills for her 1,900-square-foot house have ranged from about $8 to $50 a month. But she was attracted to the solar community more by her interest in preserving the environment than saving money.

"I'm not an environmental extremist, but I think we need to be mindful of taking care of the planet," she said.

The Kilners said their five-kilowatt system provides between 51 percent and 97 percent of their home's electric consumption, depending on the season. Don Kilner thinks that on average, it will supply about 75 percent of his home's annual consumption.

The up-front cost of the solar system is folded into the price of the homes, which range from the low $200,000s to $350,000 at the gated community.

Homeowners pay for the cost of the system in their monthly mortgage payments and also benefit from state and federal tax credits. Rebates from SRP for solar systems go to Shea Homes, which passes them on to buyers, said Jay Seymoure, Encanterra sales manager.

So why haven't more homebuilders been installing solar-electric technology in their new homes?

Arizona Public Service spokesman Steven Gotfried said the utility's programs for homebuilders are new. But they're drawing a lot of interest - which means that more solar communities may be forthcoming when the economy picks up.

"We think, going forward, this will be an excellent way to increase solar energy on individual homes," Gottfried said.

Seymoure thinks more builders will adopt the technology once consumers start to expect it.

"We are still having to do a lot of education on the benefits of solar," he said. "They (homebuyers) view it as a positive, but they don't expect it. More builders will move to it when their customers expect it."


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