So You Want to Make Your Own Energy...

You Can Install Solar Systems ...

If you want to generate your own green power, Austin Energy will refer you to contractors who can install solar photovoltaic systems in your home for anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, depending on just how self-reliant you want to be. The Yellow Pages also provides a list of solar energy systems dealers. Sixteen Austin homes now operate these systems, which convert sunlight into electricity during the day but switch the home back over to the utility grid at night. When the system generates more electricity than the home is using, the meter will spin backward, so you'll be essentially selling power to Austin Energy.

... But It'll Cost You

Contractors warn, however, that it takes about 20 years for today's solar generators to pay for themselves. The generators are recommended primarily for homes built long distances from power lines. Furthermore, photovoltaic systems aren't practical for homes that are not well-insulated and super-efficient, says Michaele Fossum of Sun Trapper Solar in San Antonio: Compact fluorescent bulbs, a high-efficiency air conditioner and refrigerator, and a gas or solar water heater are prerequisites, she says.

Another Option: Solar Water Heaters

A more affordable way to cut your electricity bill, Sun Trapper advises, is converting to a solar water heater, which runs about $3,000. Electric water heaters account for about one-third of a home's energy consumption, Michaele Fossum says, costing as much to operate yearly as an air conditioner. Solar water heaters can pay for themselves within four or five years, says Rick Fossum, co-owner of Sun Trapper, adding that in 25 years he's never encountered a single house that couldn't be fitted with one. Fossum cautions that quality varies among solar heaters, so customers should make sure the system they buy is freeze-proof and doesn't allow water to stagnate. The heaters consist of two flat panels that lie on top of the roof, can store hot water for cloudy days, and are built to last a lifetime, says Fossum.

Getting the Rebates

Austin Energy offers its customers rebates of up to $350 if they replace their electric water heaters with solar heaters. Rebates are also available for installing other energy-efficient systems in your home, such as air conditioners, weatherstripping and caulking, attic insulation, and solar screens. Consumers cash in on this program by paying the individual contractors and the city processes your rebate check, which generally averages about 20% of the cost of the job. Call 499-7827 for details.

Or How About a Loan?

The local utility also offers residential customers a home energy loan program in partnership with Fannie Mae. The applicant must be an Austin Energy customer, and the work must be done by an approved contractor. The contractor, in turn, is responsible for ensuring that an AE inspector visits your home before any work begins to verify the recommendations of your energy audit and approve the bid. You can get a list of registered contractors by calling 499-7827.

Building Green

Austin Energy's Green Builder program provides assistance to builders in the design of energy- and resource-efficient homes. Call 505-3703, or go to http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/greenbuilder.

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