Going Solar Without Spending a Lot of Dough

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Solar remains a niche player in the energy market, meeting less than one percent of America's energy needs. Still, instillations are growing rapidly, especially for commercial properties.

Data from Greentech Media (GTM) Research, which tracks green technologies, indicate that in 2009 new solar energy systems were installed in about 5,000 commercial buildings. That number more than doubled in 2010. The growth in home installations has not been that steep, but it too is on the upswing. Greentech says in 2010, about 48,000 new home solar systems were installed; that jumped to more than 51,000 new systems in 2011.

Prices are dropping too, partly because of inexpensive solar panels from China. In fact, the price of the solar cells and panels has dropped so low that the Commerce Department has determined Chinese manufacturers are improperly receiving government subsidies and dumping the panels on the U.S. market. The Department is recommending for a 31 percent tariff on Chinese-made solar panels and cells. Shyam Mehta of GTM Research says Chinese manufacturers will find a way around the tariff, and that consumers will not see a "really big bump in the cost of solar electricity."

If so, that's good news for the growing solar industry, which employed some 100,000 workers in 2010, double the number in 2009, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Those numbers have added up to make a believer out of Chad Tromblee, who is an accountant. Right now, his system produces so much energy that some of it is going back into the grid. Tromblee gets a credit for those extra kilowatts, something he can draw on during months with less sunshine. For Tromblee and his wife Amanda, this wasn't only about the savings. They also wanted to do something to conserve energy.

That was not the main motivation for Jamie Christensen and his wife. "We're not save-the- planet, go-green people," he said. But Christensen said that considering the deal he got, you don't have to be a committed environmentalist to act like one.

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