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The Power of Free: Solar Poised for Bright Future in NJ

A new financing model makes residential solar installations financially viable to most homeowners. Thanks to our state's clean energy-friendly policies, locally tied Advanced Performance Solar is heating up.

Last week, I the fast-ramping field of wind energy, and lauded the transition to distributed power—meaning many smaller, spread-out power sources, in place of today's heavily centralized, ominous-sounding power plants.

There's no better example of that shift than the explosion of solar installations right here in the Garden State.

Rooftop solar as a means of generating electricity has been around for decades. It's only in the past few years that it's reached its tipping point of consumer acceptance. Photovoltaic solar is an industry that has experienced tenfold growth in just four years.

Next to California, New Jersey is to solar what the Middle East is to oil. And that's not because the sun shines inordinately more here than elsewhere. There's several factors, and they're a combination of market-driven forces, and smart governance.

Conventional electricity in NJ is expensive—19¢ per kilowatt-hour compared to the national average of 11¢. For that reason, an install in Burlington County makes a lot more sense than one in Kentucky. Secondly, in 2006, the state initiated a nation-leading incentive program that requires electric producers (e.g., PSEG) to transition away from dirty fuels. To do so, instead of building their own fields of solar panels, those power companies instead pay homeowners with solar installations to receive credit for clean production.

These factors combine for a burgeoning market right in our backyard.

graduate JT Hooper knows this firsthand. He sells solar systems for West Berlin-based Advanced Performance Solar.

"It's an exciting time to be in the industry," Hooper said. "Solar is good for people's energy budgets and good for the environment."

Hooper's father, John Hooper, came from the building trade, and was progressive in his adoption of green practices in his home construction business. He then teamed with veteran solar pro Augie Conte. In 2009, they formed APS and have watched it expand since.

JT Hooper serves as project manager, with his hands in sales, customer service and facilitating the sometimes lengthy paperwork process.

The types of installations APS focuses on are about 7 kilowatts in size—this may offset 60-70 percent of a homeowner's electricity needs.

And while an install that size is often a heavy investment (think mid-five figures), APS has an innovative approach that opens up solar to nearly any homeowner.

APS teams with SunRun, the nation's largest home solar service provider, to offer zero-upfront options. The business model is called a Power Purchasing Agreement. The panels are installed and remain the property of SunRun, who continues to maintain and provide web-based monitoring for the system.

The homeowner will usually be locked in at a rate at or even below current electricity rates for a 20-year period. This is a huge savings over the entire term, as utility rates will only be rising.

It's this pioneering model that surged SunRun to nationwide prominence, and keeps JT Hooper busy with an active stream of client leads.

"We work with 35 Home Depot stores, and educate homeowners right in the store. We'll pull up a satellite view of their home, and can tell them on the spot if they'd qualify for solar."

Roofs should face south in order to receive the optimum amount of sun exposure.

But solar isn't just ideal for lowering energy costs.

Just recently, a California-based study revealed that homes with solar are selling for about 3.5 percent higher than those without. As solar is fairly new to the energy game, only now is sufficient data coming out, but it's all pointing toward the benefit of sun power.

This, along with ever-increasing rates of conventional "dirty" fuels, means APS and SunRun will be active for a long time to come.

It increases our nation's energy-security. It eliminates the asthma-inducing, atmosphere-harming emissions of coal power production. Solar is only in its infancy, but its future prospects as a game-changing energy source are shining bright.

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