Thirty-three solar panels on James Clark's South Williamsport garage rooftop supplies all the electricity he needs year-round - and even some left over for his neighbors.
The installer from Renewable Energy for PA, a city-based company that provides solar electric and hot water systems, gets a smile on his face when he sees his utility meter run backward. Clark's electric bill for the past year has been under $9 each month, and that's just for PPL lines coming into his residence, he said.
Since it was installed 1 1/2 years ago, the solar, or photovoltalic (PV) system as it's known, has saved almost 6 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the environment, Clark said.
The meter is running backward at the South Williamsport home of Jim Clark, left. Dave Splain, owner of Renewable Energy for PA, stands right.
"You could wipe out your heating and electric bill if you put in a big enough system," he said.
And now might be a time to consider a solar system, Clark and his boss, Dave Splain, owner of the company, said. Systems are more affordable, interest rates are low and some state and federal incentives are in place, making the payback period quicker, they said. Add to that, the idea of saving the environment with the production of clean energy.
Prices have come down almost by half compared to last year because of a glut of material in the marketplace, Clark and Splain said. A typical family household system runs about $35,000 to $40,000.
"It's never been more affordable than it is now," Clark said. "Once those panels come off the market, the price will be way up."
The solar energy systems are largely self-sufficient and extremely efficient, according to Clark.
"It's a maintenance-free project. Once it's turned on, I don't have to do anything," he said. "You don't have to have (direct) sunlight. You just need light."
Pam Denlinger, owner of Solaire Energy Inc., with offices in Williamsport and Ralston, said her business has seen a slowdown because there aren't enough state rebates available.
She said Solaire focuses on energy conservation along with creating renewable energy with solar systems.
"We really like that two-prong approach," Denlinger said.
Although smaller-scale wind turbines were popular for a number of years, according to Denlinger, she said solar is a much better option. She said wind turbines require regular maintenance and don't always product the power they're supposed to.
"Solar, on the other hand, is a reliable, predictable resource," she said.
Another option for renewable energy that Solaire works with is microhydro power. In those systems, electricity is generated from small streams or other free-flowing water sources. Denlinger said microhydro systems are more difficult to locate because of state regulations and limited areas in which they can be placed.
According to the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group that represents organizations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, PV systems generally last 30 to 40 years and are warranted to supply at least 80 percent of their power potential for 25 years.
Clark and Splain argue that more of Pennsylvania's energy should come from solar. There are more than 6,000 solar electric systems in place in the state, according to www.solarpowerworldonline.com. Pennsylvania House Bill 1580 would require that utility companies acquire more of the energy that they provide from solar. That legislation, however, has met with resistance from some utilities and has been delayed in committee.
Because of that and limited government funding support, Clark and Splain said state rebates back to homeowners are tough to come by. However, there is a 30-percent federal tax credit on installed systems until 2016, they added.
The lack of state rebates has taken a bite out of their business, they said.
Like Denlinger, Splain said "this is the first slow season that we've had."
The company makes up for that by providing other services like weatherization, insulation, carpentry and electrical work.
Renewable Energy for PA has done most of its work in the Northern Tier for families that have signed natural gas leases. But Splain said he and Clark will go where their work is needed.
Clark and Splain said the country needs a long-term energy solution. Solar power may provide that answer, they said.
"Too many people are thinking about today, not tomorrow," said Clark. "Why have we waited so long? The sun comes up every day."