Each of the 45 homes built in Meritage Homes Corporation's new Encore Community development, in Vacaville, California, is equipped with a 2.3-kilowatt (kW) solar roof tile system from SunPower Corporation. The homes are also built to exceed state and federal energy efficiency standards by 35 percent or more.
This combination of solar power and energy-efficient materials should save each homeowner up to 70 percent on their utility bills, according to the builder.
OK, that's in sunny California. And it also should work in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and wherever else the sun shines consistently.
But what about in the cooler, shadier and often smoggier states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. Could such developments work here?
The surprising fact is that New Jersey, while it does not enjoy as many cloud-free days, is second only to California in the number of installed solar-energy systems. In 2001, a total of six NJ residents had installed solar tiles on the roofs of their homes to capture the sun's rays and convert them into electricity. Since then, some 2,300 homes, businesses, houses of worship and schools have installed solar panels that generate about 38 megawatts of electricity -- enough energy to power about 4,500 homes.
Those installing the systems have been encouraged both by the prospect of reducing their monthly electric bills and by generous state rebates paying up to 70 percent of the average $60,000 residential installation cost. (Commercial systems tend to be more expensive and their rebates are smaller).
But the New Jersey solar energy program has become a victim of its own success. It now has far more applicants than rebate money available, and the state is looking to develop a new funding source, which has some folks in the solar-energy business worried.
What we haven't seen so far are entirely new residential construction developments--like the California example above--that offer homes engineered from scratch to be both highly energy efficient and energy producing.
Current land costs, environmental restrictions, and municipal add-ons have already pushed the cost of a new home beyond the reach of the average New Jersey wage earner. Solar energy systems can actually pay for themselves in avoided energy costs when operating for more than a decade. But their initial cost might pose too high a hurdle for residential track housing.
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