Ohio State budget opens door to solar heat in homes

July 19, 2009

Homeowners who want to put solar panels on their roofs but can't afford to might soon be able to pay for them through their property-tax bills.

A change in Ohio law tucked into the state budget bill would let city and township residents create special-improvement tax districts to help pay for the pricey solar power systems.
Typical home solar systems use between 12 and 40 panels and cost between $20,000 and $40,000, according to Dovetail Solar and Wind, a renewable-energy installation and service company.
The initiative expands Ohio's special-improvement district law, which allows neighbors and businesses to band together to pay for such things as sidewalks, speed bumps and fancy streetlights through annual property-tax payments.
The idea originally came from Athens city officials, who say it can help homeowners cut electricity costs and reduce global-warming pollution from coal-fired power plants.
"We think it's really going to open the gates and allow for a lot more residential use of solar systems," said Gary Houser, an Athens City Council aide who helped draft the plan.
The tax incentive also covers solar water-heating systems, which ease reliance on natural-gas-powered water heaters.
Houser said he thinks more people would install solar panels if it weren't for the cost. He said the plan is needed even though there are federal tax credits and grants that can cover up to 60 percent of panels' costs. If an individual is able to pay for 60 percent of a $30,000 system with grants and tax credits, Houser said, Athens would pay the remaining $12,000. The homeowner could then repay Athens with $480 annual assessments over the next 25 years. Depending on the number of panels installed, a homeowner could cut utility bills by 10 percent to 50 percent, said Amy Gomberg, program director at Columbus-based Environment Ohio.
Athens intends to apply for as much as $8 million in state and federal alternative-energy grants to help create a solar-power loan fund. Houser said the property-tax payments would replenish the fund and let the city make more loans.
Environmental groups love the idea.
"If all of Ohio's major cities adopted this financing model, it would allow for millions of Ohioans to take advantage of solar energy," said Gomberg. As Athens moves forward with its plan, Gomberg said her group plans to encourage other cities to offer these incentives to their residents.
Erin Miller, Columbus' environmental steward, said the assessments sound like a good idea, but she and other officials need to examine how it would work before they would offer them here.
"Financing is usually the most difficult part, especially for something like solar panels," Miller said.