Going green without the sting

CALIFORNIA - The dream of a solar-powered home energized Rick Mielbrecht.

"Until I saw the price tag," he said. The retired San Joaquin Delta College instructor figured he would be dead by the time he saved enough on his utility bill to offset the $30,000 cost.

But there may be another way.

Mielbrecht signed on with a startup company that says it will manufacture solar panels and loan them to customers, who will buy their energy from the company at a fixed rate for up to 25 years. Some see this as a way to dodge future hikes in utility rates.

The Delaware-based company, Citizenre, says it is a way to make solar power mainstream as California strives to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Existing solar providers, such as Stockton-based BTA Solar, say plenty of people are willing to buy solar units outright, adding that companies are coming from out of the area to court prospective buyers. Those who do invest in the purchase of solar panels can make the cost less colossal. Cash incentives can cover about 25 percent of purchased solar panels, and federal tax credits also are available.

Still, the idea of relatively little money down - Citizenre requires a $500 security deposit - has prompted about 24,000 people across the nation to sign up for renting solar panels, including nearly a dozen Stocktonians who attended a meeting organized by Mielbrecht.

Citizenre has its critics, who point out that the company has not actually built any of the solar equipment that it promises to one day install on residential rooftops. It has not even decided where its manufacturing facility will be located. This leaves other solar providers skeptical whether Citizenre can deliver.

Jeffrey Wolfe, chief executive officer of national solar firm GroSolar, earlier this year said Citizenre is "not going to be able to stand up to their promises."

Solar power harvests energy from the sun and converts it for use in the home. This can reduce global warming, since much of the state's conventional energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels.

Power plants emit gases that scientists say are contributing to climate change, future consequences of which include rising sea levels, more intense floods and droughts, and the demise of some animal species. Homes with permanent solar systems are more desirable to potential buyers than homes without, said Terri Steele of the California Center for Sustainable Energy.

Citizenre officials said those who can afford to buy solar panels should go ahead and do so. "Our goal is just to have the solar out there," company representative Mike Hackley said. "This is a new option that we offer."


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