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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Ken Schreiner of Salt Lake City has installed a solar power system in his backyard. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon is pushing forward with new measures to make solar power more affordable to county residents.

After announcing an expansive plan to install solar panels on the roofs of Salt Lake County-owned buildings a couple of months ago, Mayor Peter Corroon is pushing forward with new measures aimed at making it easy – and affordable – for county residents to tap the power of the sun.

The county has teamed up with Salt Lake City, Utah Clean Energy and Kennecott Land and will solicit help from Sandia National Laboratories and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to move plans forward. Current incentives available through utility companies and federal/state governments can reduce system costs by as much as 50 percent.

Ann Ober, Corroon's environmental policy coordinator, said a recent study, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, will focus on identifying current hindrances to home solar installations.

"We want to find where the barriers are to residential solar," Ober said. "Based on the findings, the county's goal will be to remove those barriers … and institute a solar incentive program."

Concurrent with the launch of that study, and also funded with the DOE Solar City grant money, is the development of a new Web site that will function as a one-stop information source for those interested in utilizing their rooftops for solar panel installation.

Included in that site will be basics on the workings of residential solar power, equipment manufacturers, links to the various state, federal and utility company rebates/credits for homeowner-financed renewable energy systems and a handy calculator that performs cost estimates for those systems.

Kelly Knutsen, senior policy associate for Utah Clean Energy, is heading the Web site project and said some unique, new technology will be utilized to make the site particularly useful to residents. Site designers will have access to ultra-detailed Utah geographic information system maps created with laser-imaging equipment.

"These images show things like trees and obstructions that could greatly affect solar collection," Knutsen said. "Residents will be able to access the information on their homes and get a pretty good idea of what their (solar power) potential is."

Knutsen said a user-friendly calculator on the site will allow an easy estimate of system cost, based on location, mapping information and how much utility-provided power a resident wants to offset with their solar panels, minus the available credits for residential solar systems.

Knutsen said that cost comes in at about $10,000 per kilowatt. Based on figures from 2006, the average Utah household consumes about 9,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity every year and, offsetting about 50 percent of that consumption, would require a 3-kilowatt solar panel system. That $30,000 investment could currently be offset by a handful of credits and rebates including $2,000 via the state's renewable energy tax credit, $6,000 from Rocky Mountain Power's Solar Incentive Program and, as of Jan. 1, an additional 30 percent from the federal government in the form of their Solar Energy Tax Credit. The net cost minus credits for that 3-kilowatt system is $15,400. For those who'd prefer to just dip their toes into the solar pool instead of taking a five-figure plunge, more frugal options are available.

Orrin Farnsworth, president of the Utah Solar Energy Association, said new advances in solar panel design have made entry-level forays into residential power production much more affordable.

"We have solar equipment now that we didn't have a year ago that have technology that makes it easy to just buy one or two panels," Farnsworth said. The new panels have built in "micro-inverters" that change the DC power produced by the panels into the AC power that runs through homes, and can be had for $1,000-2,000.

Typically, a residential solar system consists of the power-producing panels, an outboard inverter (for that necessary conversion) and a link from the system to utility-provided power that comes into the home if the owner wants to "sell" the unused electricity to the utility. Other options include a battery system to store the power that the panel(s) produce as a backup for power failures.

E-mail: araymond@desnews.com