Mar. 27, 2009
Energy conservation and green technologies have become all the rage these days, and there have never been better incentives to jump on the bandwagon. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — aka the stimulus bill — that President Obama signed into law on Feb. 17 extended tax credits that reward the use of energy-saving technology through 2010, raised the amount you get back from 10 percent of the cost to 30 percent, and raised the maximum credit available from $500 to $1,500 for efficient windows, doors, insulation and air conditioners, with no maximum cap on solar panels, solar water heaters or geothermal heat pumps.
But there’s a catch: Not every Energy Star product qualifies for the tax credits anymore. Only the highest-efficiency Energy Star models now do, and those products are usually the most expensive. (But they save you the most, too.) The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy created the Energy Star program in 1992 to help us save money on utilities and protect the environment through a product rating system. The program began with computers and monitors and has now grown to over 60 product categories. With the help of Energy Star, Americans saved $19 billion on our utility bills in 2008 — saving greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 29 million cars.
The federal government isn’t the only entity giving out money to conserve. The state of Florida offers up to $500 for solar thermal systems, $100 for solar thermal pool heaters and a $4-per-watt rebate for solar panels, which caps at $20,000 for residences and $100,000 for commercial properties.
The solar panel program has proven popular. The $5 million dollars allocated for both the fiscal years of 2008 and 2009 have already been exhausted. The state is still accepting applications and if the program receives funding for 2010 you can be put on a waiting list.
Forward-thinking Sarasota companies are taking advantage of all those dollars. High-end Italian fashion importer turned environmental warrior Andrew Tanner (pictured above) founded EcoTechnologies five years ago, originally under the name EcoInsulate. He wanted to build environmentally friendly homes that were energy-efficient and storm-resistant. “One of the products we came across was BioBased spray foam, which is a soy-base spray foam made in America,” says Tanner, “all the other products that were being sold at that time that were approved in Florida were petroleum based spray foams made in Canada.”
Two years ago Tanner expanded the company to include EcoWater, EcoAir and then finally EcoSolar. These would all be separate companies, each being a dealer, installer or distributor for different manufactured products, all under the umbrella of EcoTechnologies. “Now we’re using solar hot water systems made in Jacksonville,” says Tanner. “It’s the closest manufacturer of solar hot water panels to us. So we’ve got local distance, made-in-America products that we try to promote whenever possible.”
Tanner says if they go into an existing home and spray Biobased foam on the roof deck and put a solar hot water system up, that home will save 40-50 percent of their energy consumption. They can also spray hard closed-cell foam up the sides of trusses which bonds the truss to the roof deck and makes the house more wind-resistant. “So not only do you get a tax credit for insulating, you lower your insurance premiums.”
Realizing the high upfront costs on many of its systems, EcoTechnologies put together a finance package that makes it easier in these tough times. They give a 5 percent discount for installing two systems at once and there is nothing to pay for a year. “Within that 12 months, they’re getting their tax credits, they get their solar rebates,” from the state — so not necessarily, “and they get the energy savings of that first year. When you combine all of that and then roll it into a five-year payment plan, it’s pretty much the same cost as what you’re spending. You’re using green energy instead of brown” (i.e. dirty) “energy, feeling good about yourself and you’re also adding value to your house.”
Tanner wants renewable energy to become a statewide priority: He and his partners are preparing to head to Tallahassee to lobby for a feed-in tariff in Florida. The tariff is the European model for creating a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS. Gov. Crist, for example, says he wants an RPS of 20 percent met by 2020, meaning he wants 20 percent of all the power we use to come from renewable energy sources.
A feed-in tariff would allow homeowners to sign a contract with utility companies to sell them all the energy their solar panels produce. The utility provider would pay about 32 cents per kilowatt-hour while still charging you only 12 cents, the current rate. This has been proven in Germany to lower costs because it offsets the utilities’ need to expand infrastructure due to demand. The companies just buy the energy you produce.
On March 1, Gainesville became the first city in America to implement a solar feed-in tariff. In the first two weeks, Gainesville Regional Utilities contracted four megawatts of power to be extracted from citizens’ solar panels. “That four megawatts is going to bring $40 million worth of money to the local Gainesville economy,” says Tanner. “In Germany, they’ve found that they’re charging the consumers about $2.50 more a month to provide all these extra jobs and provide all this extra energy. Just the extension of the tax credit to Florida I think is going to create 9,000 new jobs over the next year in solar. And if we had a feed-in tariff we’d create about 40,000 new jobs — within a year.”