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Council launches rooftop solar program for Philly homeowners, businesses

Solarize Philly will offer discounted installations and, separately, job training for students who seek a career in solar installations.

Ever dream of having your own solar rooftop system?

If you live in Philadelphia, the city might be able to help.  City Council announced a program Thursday that it says will help reduce the cost for up to 500 residents wanting to install solar rooftop systems by next year. There is also a job-training component for students interested in solar installation as a career.

Known as Solarize Philly, the program is administered by the Philadelphia Energy Authority.  The goal is to get solar installations at below-market cost to homeowners by the end of 2018 and to create 75 jobs.  The job training is under a partnership with the Philadelphia School District.

Residents can apply online from July 1 through the end of September. Homes will be assessed for solar potential. Qualifying homeowners would get a cost proposal, along with financing and leasing options.

Officials said the more people who sign-up, the cheaper the cost to homeowners.  Vendors and contractors are now submitting bid proposals to handle the installations.

The program is part of Council President Darrell Clarke's Philadelphia Energy Campaign.  The 10-year, $1 billion energy campaign, funded through public and private sources, seeks to make the city more energy-efficient through home and business upgrades and to create 10,000 jobs within the energy sector as a result.

Separately, the School District will offer solar installer training programs to give graduates a jump on careers within the renewable-energy market. Twenty slots are open this summer; the number  could grow next year.

"Philadelphia's solar market is dramatically underdeveloped compared to other cities,"  said Emily Schapira, the Energy Authority's director. "This program will ensure that that changes."

Schapira said she did not know how much a homeowner in the city might pay for a rooftop solar system. She said typical costs run $8,000 to $20,000 in other communities, depending on wattage needs.

But costs could be up to 20 percent lower under the Solarize Philly program because of the ability to purchase at a larger scale, she said. That would translate to anywhere from $1,600 to $4,000 less.  Residents purchasing through the program would also qualify for tax credits, bringing the cost down further, Schapira said.

Any excess electricity generated from the solar panels gets fed into the electric grid.

Though the initial cost might sound high for a solar rooftop purchase, Schapira said there is pent-up demand.  She also said that Philadelphia, despite its location,  has ample swaths that are good for solar. An estimated 128,000 rooftops are within good range; rowhouses, because they typically have flat roofs, make for easier installations.

A leased system is another option, Schapira said. Under a solar lease agreement, the homeowner doesn't own the rooftop system. Rather, the owner buys electricity from the contractor that installed the system at a discount from regular electric utility rates. The contractor makes money from incentives and tax breaks.

Another bonus, according to Schapira: consumer protection. She said that Solarize Philly will be able to offer homeowners standard contracts and systems that are vetted.

"We'll design contracts and make sure everybody is reputable," Schapira said.

Officials made the announcement Thursday morning on the rooftop of Parkway Central Library. Council members Blondell Reynolds Brown and Derek Green were joined by members of the Energy Authority, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner David Sweet, representatives from the city's Office of Sustainability, Peco, and others.

"Residential solar is good for the environment and for air quality, creates lots of living-wage jobs, and will ensure that electricity remains affordable for our residents into the future," Green said in a statement.