Tax credits in the federal stimulus package - plus a slew of other incentives - are creating an unparalleled opportunity for people considering hybrid vehicles or making their homes more energy efficient.

Want solar panels? Federal tax incentives amount to a 30 percent discount on the price.

Need energy-efficient windows or insulation? Spend $4,500 and get $1,500 back as a tax credit.

While some in Congress decry the spending, environmentalists see a crucial convergence. Now, as never before, people will be able to make changes that not only reduce their energy bills but also help wean the nation off foreign oil and counter climate change, they believe.

"It's a golden moment," said Suzanne Watson, energy-policy director of the nonprofit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington. "Weatherization, change-out of appliances, windows, doors. There's going to be money."

Just how much - and from whom - remains a work in progress. Details seem to be emerging daily.

Yesterday, Pennsylvania put the latest financial dollop into the energy-savings pot.

Gov. Rendell announced $16 million in low-interest loans and $1 million in rebates through Keystone HELP, a state home-energy loan program primarily for households with combined incomes of $150,000 or less.

Eligible projects include high-efficiency heating or cooling systems, geothermal heat pumps, insulation, and new windows and doors.

The federal program that President Obama signed Feb. 17 is open to all income levels.

It includes tax credits of up to $1,500 for windows, roofs, insulation, water heaters, heating and cooling systems, and more.

Also part of the package are tax credits of $250 to $3,400, based on complex formulas, for buying or leasing hybrid vehicles.

Solar-energy systems and small wind-energy systems are eligible for a 30 percent tax credit, with no cap on the amount.

The federal government also is funneling $300 million in rebates for energy-efficient appliances to the states. Details are scarce, but states that already have a rebate program, such as New Jersey, will be able to move quickly. Pennsylvania has yet to establish a program.

In the end, the high-efficiency product could for the first time cost less than the low-efficiency product.

For low-income residents, $5 billion from the federal stimulus package is gushing into weatherization programs, which send crews to homes to do such work as seal leaks and add insulation.

New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs, which administers that program, expects its federal funding to jump from $10.5 million to nearly $122 million. Pennsylvania stands to get $258 million.

In addition, New Jersey already has myriad programs, including incentives for wind and biopower, reduced costs on household audits, and low-interest financing.

"Everybody wins," said Sean Crane, a Media energy contractor and owner of HomeTown Green.

"What it all means is that for the first time, there is a combination of both support in a tax-credit form and support in a loan form, where a large number of people are now going to be able to afford to make major improvements that will have megawatt effects on our need for energy."

The biggest problem for consumers might not be affording the improvements but sorting out the details.

The criteria for qualifying products and projects are complicated. People will have to be "very careful" to get what qualifies, said Ronnie Kweller, spokeswoman for Alliance to Save Energy, a national nonprofit.

There is also concern that with an influx of new contractors and other workers, some will be qualified and others not. Consumers will have to check credentials and references.

But the astute can find ways to piggyback funding and even programs.

Take solar panels. A typical household system can cost $20,000, so the 30 percent federal credit returns roughly $6,000.

On top of that, PSE&G customers in New Jersey can get low-interest loans for 40 to 60 percent of the cost.

Also, a New Jersey state program offers rebates as high as $5,250 for a typical 3-kilowatt household system.

Pennsylvania's solar-incentive program - part of a $650 million alternative-energy investment fund the legislature passed in the summer - is still being worked out. But insiders say consumers could see rebates of $6,000 to $7,500 for a typical house. Adding in the federal credit, they could get back $12,000 to $13,500 for a $20,000 system.

That's not all.

Prices for solar panels are declining, thanks to both technology and the bad economy.

Put it all together, and Tom Tuffey, an energy expert with the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, predicts that residential solar installations in the state will grow from the current 600 or 700 to 13,000 to 14,000 in the next few years.

And that's still not all.

In response to state legislation passed last year to reduce electricity demand, Pennsylvania utilities are developing programs - likely more rebates, Tuffey said - to help customers improve energy efficiency.

"It's just coming fast and furious from every side," Tuffey said.

Solar installers say they're ready, albeit still waiting for details to be worked out. The nuances change frequently.

Charlie Reichner, owner of Heat Shed, a Bucks County solar-installation firm, said he had 90-plus people signed up. He has done the prerequisites, such as analyzing shade and filing municipal paperwork, "so when the time comes we'll be able to move forward quickly."

Rick Reis of Phoenixville said he felt so strongly about reducing the environmental footprint of his home that he was already getting solar panels installed. He plans to halt work shy of completion so he can take advantage of the state program when it's announced.

"There's a lot of pieces to this puzzle," he said.

When he first considered solar, Reis said, "it didn't make sense. There was no payback ever."

Not long ago, enough credits were in place for him to predict a payback of 10 to 11 years. Now "I think you may be able to get this to pay back in six to seven years."

Watson said people should start thinking about how to take full advantage of the money. She recommended getting a home energy audit - costing $500 or more, but in some cases also eligible for loans or rebates.

The one big question remaining: Will all the credits, loans, and rebates be enough to pry open the ever-shrinking wallets of consumers?

Brian Keane, president of SmartPower, a nonprofit clean-energy marketing organization in Washington, said he wasn't so sure.

"Now that the money's available, we still need to motivate people to do this," he said. Alas, he said, "giving people the money is only an enabler. It is not the motivator."

SmartPower has been shopping a plan for municipalities - and a certain percentage of their residents - to buy renewable energy and commit to reducing consumption.

For those that do, SmartPower puts a solar system on a municipal roof. One is going up this week in Tredyffrin.

"All the pieces are here," Keane added. "Let's just not miss the piece of motivating the American consumer."

Web Sites for Going Greener

To get the most, consumers will have to do careful research.

Here are some Web sites that offer help:

This is the U.S. Energy Star Program. Scroll down to the lower-left

box labeled "Tax credits for energy efficiency."

The nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy's site may be easier to read, and it has more details on cars.

The nonprofit Tax Incentives Assistance Project explains incentive programs.

Focused more on states, this site is run by North Carolina State University. Note: The address is dsire, not desire.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities runs this site. Click on "residential" for loan and rebate programs.

On the utility's Web site, look in the middle on the left for a box marked "PSE&G Solar Loan Program."

Go here for Pennsylvania's home-energy loan program and how

to find a contractor or a home-energy auditor.

The nonprofit Energy Coordinating Agency in Philadelphia lists resources, contractors, and auditors.

Click on "energy" at top left, then "funding sources for projects"

on the right.

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Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers
at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.