Thinking solar power? It’s never been more affordable

Costs in Kansas and elsewhere

Solar companies offer rooftop panels at wildly different prices, depending on where they’re being installed and the kind of incentives available. Here’s how much installers say customers in different states would pay for a 5-kilowatt solar system.

• Kansas: A spokesman with Diamond Solar Solutions in Manhattan said a 5-kilowatt system would cost about $40,000 to install. A 30 percent federal tax credit is available, which would reduce the price to $28,000. Unlike many states, Kansas doesn’t offer a state tax credit for solar.

• New Jersey: $2,625. The original $37,500 sticker price drops after applying a state tax rebate of $8,750 from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities’ Clean Energy Program, a federal tax credit of $8,625 and a loan program through the Public Service Enterprise Group that’s worth up to $17,500 for customers with excellent credit, according to Rumson, N.J.-based installer Gaurav Naik.

• New York: $13,228. The $40,250 cost is slashed after applying a federal tax credit of $8,243, a state tax credit of $5,000, a city property tax abatement worth $2,404 and other local incentives worth $12,775, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

• Massachusetts: $21,350. The original $36,500 price tag gets cut down after applying a federal tax credit of $9,150 and state incentives of $6,000, according to San Francisco-based home solar service company SunRun Inc., which does business in the state.

• California: $22,610. The original $40,000 sticker price would be cut after applying a federal tax credit of $9,690 and a rebate through Southern California Edison, according to Foster City, Calif.-based installer Solar City.

• Arkansas: $35,000. The $50,000 price is cut by $15,000 after applying a federal tax credit, according to Bob Moore, a solar panel dealer in Ft. Smith, Ark.

? Jillian Lung says she’s no environmentalist. Still, she couldn’t pass up a chance to install a carpet of solar panels atop her co-op in Queens.

“At these prices, why not?” Lung said.

The government has plowed so much cash into the solar industry that it’s effectively pulled the luxury tag off of home solar systems. Combined with local incentives, buyers can save up to 90 percent on a system, whether it’s for a single-family home or a 75-unit condo in the city.

Thousands of homeowners are finding they can pay off a rooftop solar system in just a few years and then start pocketing the energy savings.

Lung, the co-op president, stumbled into solar subsidy programs last year as she priced out roof repairs. City, state and federal incentives covered nearly three-quarters of the tab for a $394,514 solar system.

The building flipped the switch on in July and already cut last month’s electric bill in half.

“This was just icing on the cake,” Lung said. “We had to change the roof anyway.”

Solar power has been getting cheaper for years. Panel prices declined 31 percent from 1998 to 2008 because of lower manufacturing and installation costs and state and local subsidies, according to a study released Wednesday by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. But it still took a ramp up in federal incentives this year to bring the cost within many people’s reach.

More than half the states in the U.S. and Washington D.C. offer enough incentives to cut the costs by 40 percent or more, according to Amy Heinemann, a policy analyst at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

How much you’ll spend depends on where you live.

In New Jersey, generous state incentives can pay for more than 90 percent of a home solar system. A 5-kilowatt solar system would drop from $37,500 to about $2,625 after applying the federal tax credit, a state rebate, and a renewable energy program through the state’s largest electric utility, PSE&G.

A system that size can shrink a typical home’s electricity consumption by up to 40 percent and cut an electric bill by several hundred dollars a year. The owner would recoup the cost in roughly three years.

With labor and electricity rates likely to rebound, people should do the math and determine if now is the best time to buy solar.

In some cases, it may pay to wait.

Solar technology is advancing quickly, and homeowners can expect to see more powerful solar panels in the near future.

And solar components are getting cheaper too. A glut in polysilicon, a key ingredient in panels, should push prices even lower in coming years.

“We’re looking anywhere between an 8 to 10 percent price drop a year long term,” said Piper Jaffray analyst Jesse Pichel.

First Solar Inc. hopes to cut manufacturing costs for thin film modules — the cheapest solar option — by a third in the next five years.

Once large and boxy, solar panels are also being designed to blend in better with a rooftop.

Meanwhile, even more government money is on the way.

The Department of Treasury plans to begin issuing $2.3 billion in tax credits next year for companies that make energy equipment, including solar panels. Solar companies also are competing for $11.3 billion more in stimulus money for states. And Congress last year agreed on $2.5 billion more in tax credits for homeowners over the next 10 years.