Astralux educates clients on solar-energy systems

BOULDER, COLORADO - With more than 360 days of sunshine a year, federal tax credits and Xcel rebates that reimburse about 60 percent of the cost of installation, this is a bright time and place for solar energy.

However, not every roof is suited for absorbing the full brunt of the sun's rays, and the upfront investment and paperwork can deter even the most environmentally devoted.

Boulder-based Astralux Power Systems, the renewable energy division of Environmental Solutions, has a mission to make it easy for customers - residential and business - to go solar.

"We want to be the most educated and educational of all solar-energy system providers," says Rande Treece, Astralux's president and chief executive.

Opting for solar energy is not as simple as flipping a switch. There's a hefty price tag and details aplenty to weigh before investing. The orientation, shading and size of the roof determine how much energy a system can produce, as well as the potential payback of tax incentives and rebates.

Astralux synthesizes the details and prepares a site survey and audit report, which delineates costs and benefits (decreased electrical bills by year, carbon offsets by using solar energy), so a customer can make an informed investment.

"We pride ourselves on fully explaining to our customers what to expect from a solar photovoltaic (PV) system, how much energy it will produce and then installing a system that delivers what is expected," Treece said.

Sometimes, that means saying a PV system is a not a good idea.

"Some customers we can't quote. Their house is facing the wrong direction, or there's too much shade," Treece said. "We will walk away from those jobs even if what we say is different than what other companies have told them."

Since 2004, the year of Amendment 37, solar energy has taken off in Colorado. "While most players in this business are very reputable because the business has burgeoned so rapidly, it has attracted people looking to make money quick," Treece said.

Astralux has been in business since 1991. Treece, who has a doctorate in inorganic chemistry from UCLA, started working at Astralux in 2001. He bought the company from its founders, Jacques and Ethel Pankove, in 2004. Originally the company focused on research and development of high-powered opto-electronic semiconductors and was funded primarily by government contracts.

In 2006 Treece decided to get into the sustainable-energy marketplace. Since the company had years of experience with both semiconductors (integral to solar panels) and inverters - used in solar-energy systems to convert the direct current in the PV panels into alternating current - it was a natural evolution to bring that technical expertise into a retail business.

"We jumped at the opportunity to use technology we were working with to serve the electricity needs of the community and help decrease the use of carbon-based energy sources," Treece said. The company is a recommended provider of solar-energy products on Network, an online source for sustainable businesses and services.

In addition to saving the planet, the financial enticements for solar energy are compelling. Xcel offers rebates for the installation of a system, determined by the total kilowatt power of the panels, usually at least 60 percent of the cost. Xcel also purchases renewable energy credits, or RECs, for further payback to the customer.

A federal tax credit (ending in 2008) allows homeowners to deduct 30 percent of the installation cost, up to $2,000. Businesses can also deduct 30 percent, with no cap, but the system must be up and running by December 31 to qualify.

Businesses have even more incentives. In addition to the tax credit, the government offers accelerated depreciation of about 30 percent depending on tax bracket. "Those two things, plus rebates and money saved on electricity provides a pay back for businesses of about 105 percent," Treece said.

To assess the cost and savings of a system, an Astralux client service professional visits the site to determine the number of PV panels that would fit on the roof and how much electricity it could generate, factoring in orientation and shading.

Using a calculation developed by National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is based on an area's latitude and altitude and average daily temperature, Astralux details costs and totals expected energy production.

If it's a go Astralux handles the paperwork for the Xcel rebate, obtains the work permits and provides a timeline of the installation process. If funding is an issue, the company refers clients to local banks for home equity loans or a refinance, rolling the cost of a PV system into a new mortgage.

A three kilowatt system - enough to cover a portion of an average house's energy use - runs about $11,000, decreased by tax credits to $9,000.

Most clients, because of the constraints of roof space, opt for a system generating about half of the household's electricity. One pre-installation consideration is the condition of the roof. If the roof needs replacement within five years, Treece advises doing that work first.

On the plus side, a PV system may augment the resale value of a house. According to a study by National Appraisal Institute, a PV system will add $10 to $20 to the value of your home for every dollar saved on electricity in a year.

Solar is just the first renewable energy for Astralux, and Colorado is the first market. Treece plans to expand into other states with climate conducive to solar energy, as well as adding solar thermal and wind. "We hope to become a one-stop renewable energy company."


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