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Driving around the area, we see a lot of solar panels being installed on houses. People are discovering these panels will save them money on their electricity bills, plus help reduce greenhouse gases.

Federal and state laws allocate funding for energy-saving projects and provide rebates.

County programs offer help in energy efficiency, and local ordinances make getting permits easier.

There are many incentives to encourage people to get solar panels. A federal solar investment tax credit of 30 percent is available for residential and commercial properties that convert to solar energy by the end of 2016.

People seem to be interested in promoting clean energy with the passage of Proposition 39, the California Clean Energy and Jobs Act of 2012, which closed a tax loophole on out-of-state corporations.

The state Legislature allocated half of the revenue generated to schools for energy-efficiency projects. The Santa Maria Joint Union  high School District was awarded $1,769,422 to use for energy projects.

In 2012, the California Energy Commission awarded Santa Maria a low-interest loan of $2 million to replace some 5,000 streetlights with light-emitting diodes (LED). Replacing these street lights could save $188,000 in electric costs, reduce consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 530 tons annually. Santa Maria has participated in PG&E’s program to replace streetlights with lower-energy LED lights.

Governmental agencies qualify because they own the streetlight structures and pay the electric bill. PG&E replaces the structures and the city gets a lower electric rate, plus reduced maintenance costs for the new fixtures.

Santa Barbara County is also involved in encouraging renewable energy. The county developed emPowerSBC to help homeowners improve their homes’ energy efficiency. The federal American Resource and Recovery Act allocated $2.4 million for emPowerSBC from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Another incentive program is Energy Upgrade California, which offers utility rebates. California utility ratepayers fund emPower, which is administered by gas and electric utilities.

Homeowners can qualify for emPower help by installing energy-efficient insulation, water heaters, windows, heating systems and solar systems.

Solar panels are photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into electricity. The direct electric current is then converted into alternating current (AC). All electric appliances worldwide operate on AC. The current flows into the household and then into the regional electric grid.

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With solar panels, a household can reduce its carbon dioxide use by 35,180 pounds a year, as much as planting 88 trees every year to compensate.

American-made solar panels are more expensive than those made in India, China, Japan, South Korea, Canada or Germany. The only solar manufacturer rated premium-plus is American while all others are rated standard.

Typical $1,800 installation of 6-kilowatt systems might cost $1.25 per watt for the premium panels. Imported panels cost 10 to 30 cents less per watt.

Some companies will lease solar panels, and pay for any maintenance needed over the life of the lease. Homeowner insurance premiums and property taxes may be higher with a solar system. 

Santa Maria and Lompoc city councils have recently passed ordinances to streamline the permitting process to install solar systems. Assembly Bill 2188 requires local governments to have such ordinances in place by this Wednesday. The permits can be issued from planning and development departments with inspections before final sign-off.

All levels of government are involved in encouraging energy efficiency. By incentives such as tax deductions, rebates, low-interest loans and lower utility bills, we can all benefit from these efforts. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one concern, but saving money is of interest to everyone.

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Joan Leon is a Santa Maria resident whose column runs twice monthly. Contact her at: joanleon@juno.com

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