A combination of federal and state tax credits, plummeting equipment prices and an environmentally savvy population has led to a dramatic increase in the number of Wilmington rooftops outfitted with solar panels, according to local installers.
From 2008 to 2010, Wilmington-based Cape Fear Solar Systems outfitted approximately 17 homes with solar panels; from 2010 to 2012, that number jumped to 51, a 200 percent increase, said Linda Hanykova, a spokeswoman for the company. Solar Star Energy Corp., also located in the Port City, saw its solar panel installation business nearly double in the same time period, according to Gary LeBer, general manager.
“It’s partly because of the rising cost of electricity. People are becoming more aware of the potential to be energy-independent,” he said. “Equipment prices have come down over the years. It’s still a sizable investment, but as long as the tax credits are there to offset, they’ll pay for themselves in anywhere from seven to eight years.”
Through the end of 2016, residential solar installations are eligible for a 30 percent reimbursement from the federal government, with no cap. In North Carolina, residents are also eligible for a 35 percent reimbursement on system costs, up to $10,500. Additionally, Progress Energy ratepayers can enroll in the utility’s SunSense program, which offers an up-front rebate of $1,000 per kilowatt of the solar system’s installed capacity, among other incentives.
Combined, the available programs can be enough to offset a large portion of the initial costs. Johanna and James Timberlake, who installed a dozen panels on their Hampstead home late last year, will recoup around two-thirds of the $30,000 they paid for equipment and installation.
“That’s the main reason that allowed us to do it,” said Johanna, who made the switch to solar for environmental reasons. “We could not have done it without the tax credits.”
Those reimbursement programs, coupled with the decreasing cost of the solar panels themselves, have made solar a more realistic option for Tar Heel State residents, said John Donoghue, owner of Cape Fear Solar Systems.
“The price decrease is significant. It’s probably down 30 to 40 percent in the last two to three years,” he said. “It’s happening everywhere, but there are pockets scattered throughout the country where it’s more popular than others. We happen to have a state with extremely good tax credits.”
But even with those offsets, the initial cost of a solar panel array remains expensive. For now, residential systems are a possibility mostly for wealthier homeowners who are interested in long-term energy savings or environmental conservation – qualities that happen to fit a sizable chunk of the population in the Port City.
“We have 209 customers enrolled in the SunSense program. Forty-eight of those are in the Wilmington area,” said Scott Sutton, a spokesman for Progress Energy Carolinas. “The type of person attracted to the Wilmington area might be a little more environmentally conscious, might be a little more affluent, and I know there are active solar developers there that have been marketing and getting referrals.”
Though solar panels have become more common along the coast, new systems are still enough of a rarity to attract attention. Jacqui Leiblein, who oversaw the installation of an array at Culligan Water Conditioning on Carolina Beach Road, was unprepared for the interest generated by the panels.
“You would not believe how many people we have had call here about those panels,” said Leiblein, whose father owns the company. “We’ve had other businesses call about them, individuals, and they all want to talk to him about the solar panels and how they work. People are really interested in them.”
The Timberlakes have also fielded questions from friends, neighbors and, in one case, a stranger riding past on his bicycle. No one who’s inquired about the panels has purchased their own system yet, though that may change soon.
“When I mentioned to a friend that we were doing it, he was very interested from a conservation standpoint,” Johanna said. “I think it’s not just the financial savings, because we have a long time before we’ll break even. It is a sense that we need to be doing something to protect the environment, and this is our best effort.”
Written by: Kate Queram
Wilmington Star News