Until the economic collapse of 2008, the residential solar market was doubling every year, according to Don Sipes, director of solar product development for Sunovia Energy Technologies, Sarasota, Florida; however, according to Ted Campbell, senior vice president of renewable energies for Schneider Electric, Palatine, Ill., even today, residential solar is a dynamic market that is headed toward grid parity.

“The global market is expected to shrink about 30 percent in 2009 over 2008, while the U.S. will maintain a more flat orientation, as it has historically been a smaller market,” Campbell said.

According to Sipes, homeowners view installing a residential solar power system as an issue of civic participation.

“Even with incentives, installing a residential solar power system has a 20-year payback period, meaning economics is a secondary consideration, while climate change, the implications of dependence on foreign oil, and the rising costs of grid electricity are primary,” Sipes said.

That’s not to say incentives, rebates and state and local programs are not drivers of homeowner interest in solar technology. For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 extended many consumer tax incentives originally introduced in the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005, including a 30 percent tax credit for solar power systems placed in service before Dec. 31, 2016. In addition, states such as California, Colorado and New Jersey have their own incentives for homeowners to install a solar-power system. For example, the California Solar Initiative builds on 10 years of state solar rebates offered to customers in California’s investor-owned utility territories for existing homes, while the New Solar Homes Partnership provides financial incentives and other support to home builders to encourage the construction of new, energy-efficient solar homes. The Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy Web site (www.dsire.org) is an important tool for homeowners and electrical contractors to learn about the rebates and utility programs in their area.

“DSIRE is a Department of Energy--supported resource that provides confidence that the local utility will support the photovoltaic system being considered,” said Cecile Warner, principal engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Golden, Colo.

Grid parity also is of interest to homeowners, according to Mike Matthews, Schneider Electric’s residential segment manager.

“Solar has not reached parity yet, but with federal and local incentives, some areas have seen the cost of solar-produced electricity reach a par with utility-produced power,” he said.

Contractors and solar

The shift electrical contractors made a decade ago into the telecommunications industry holds valuable lessons for moving into the solar market.

“The electrical contractors that can change their mindset from installer to service provider that meets all the homeowner’s needs in a long-term relationship can thrive and survive in the solar market,” Sipe said.

However, to facilitate homeowner interest in solar technology, electrical contractors must demonstrate both the technology’s and the company’s ability to fulfill their needs for reduced electrical consumption and costs and for the increased feeling of civic participation.

“Demonstrating that expertise requires training in system integration and an understanding of how today’s sophisticated systems in a home, including solar, work together to provide homeowners with comfort and security,” Sipes said.

Electrical contractors can facilitate homeowner interest in solar technology by helping them understand how they consume energy, how to change their consumption and the appropriate solutions to their energy needs, according to Melissa Golden, market segment manager at Schneider Electric.

“Contractors need to know that the drivers that influence consumers’ energy decisions include environmental impact, financial impact and becoming independent, on a day-to-day basis, from the utility grid,” she said.

But to become the installer of choice for the homeowner, Campbell said, contractors need to be trained in the actual installation of the array, working with DC voltages, and the additional safety aspects of a photovoltaic installation.

“Since homeowners will typically search for a provider with ‘solar’ in its name, electrical contractors can differentiate themselves by obtaining a solar installation certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners,” Warner said.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and darbremer@comcast.net.