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It's all sunshine for solar power

Up-front cost can be steep, but the payoff can come in tiny power bills

Posted: June 21, 2009 10:28 p.m.
Updated: June 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
The economy is in the tank and gas prices are going back up, but things still look pretty sunny when it comes to solar power.

"Right now it seems like everything's come together," said Mark Figearo, chief executive officer of The Green Convergence. "We're busier than we've ever been."

The Santa Clarita-based company specializes in solar-panel systems.

Property owners seem to be taking a long-term view and realizing energy prices will continue to rise, Figearo said.

He used his own home as an example.

In May 2008, the electricity bill for Figearo's 2,400 square-foot home was about $288. He now has a 6.3-kilowatt solar system installed, and said last month his power bill was about $25.

Solar-panel installations range from $10,000 to $40,000 in cost.

Figearo has been doing solar system installations for about 20 years, and he said the technology has consistently become more efficient.

When it comes to the solar cells themselves, he said the upside is there no moving parts.

Even after 20 years, cells made by Sunpower are guaranteed to produce at least 80 percent of their original output, he said.

It's not just homeowners who are on the solar bandwagon.

Tucked off Railroad Avenue, across the train tracks from Saugus Cafe, the 35-acre Saugus Industrial Center looks like pretty much any other similar site. It's a landscape of blocky buildings, heavy machinery and concrete and asphalt.

That said, it's also a little bit greener than it used to be.

About a year ago owner Hank Arklin had a $500,000, 66-kilowatt solar-panel system installed on the roof of one of the buildings, providing natural solar energy to the dozen businesses below.

On Tuesday morning it was pumping out 46 kilowatts - about enough to power 10 homes.

"I've probably been an environmentalist all my life," Arklin said, who had the system installed to both conserve energy and save some money in the process.

Arklin's commitment to solar power and on-site recycling is particularly notable given the property's history.

Between the 1950s and 2002, the Keysor-Century Corp. manufactured resins used in everything from record albums to credit cards.

In February 2002, agents from the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency raided Keysor-Century's headquarters after a lengthy investigation, and the company finally pleaded guilty to releasing toxins into the air and water in violation of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and lying to federal officials.

The Saugus Industrial Center has occupied the property for about four years, and Arklin said the site is "within a hair of being completely cleaned up."

The rooftop network of 319 solar panels was installed by Advanced Solar Electric, based in Thousand Oaks.

The center draws power first from the solar network, and taps into the Southern California Electric grid for remaining needs, said Carlos Vega, co-owner of Advanced Solar.

Vega's company has installed solar systems at businesses throughout the Southland. In 2002, Advanced Solar installed a 468-kilowatt system - at the time the largest in California - at Showa Marine, a large meat-and-seafood-processing warehouse in Los Angeles.

While final results depend on a business' draw, Vega said Arklin's solar network could easily create 70 percent to 90 percent of the energy needed by the center.

The center's monthly electricity bill averages around $5,000, site manager Larry Goodman said. Through federal and state tax solar incentive programs, he said he's seen anywhere from $1,300 to $2,400 monthly rebates.

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