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If you are looking for something to make you optimistic and enthusiastic, consider this: We now have more than 220 significant residential and commercial solar photovoltaic installations in the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative service area, approximately doubling each of the last three years. Not only are these modest systems now growing at 10 or so each month, but the newer systems tend to be larger as their value is being recognized. In three and a half years since installation, our 6.0 kilowatt system is now considered small. The average tends to be more than 11.0 kilowatts, many in the high teens. While the overall solar contribution to the SMECO grid load is only 0.1 percent, we are having an affect, especially at summer peaks, and we anticipate that affect to continue to grow at the present rapid rate. Studies now show that having hundreds and thousands of small contributors scattered throughout the grid actually adds a stability and reliability to the grid.

Normally, the best model is to own the system. This keeps everything simple and maximizes the return to the owner. Leasing is also popular but has some issues. The many incentives are designed to go to the actual owner, which allows the leasing company (the actual owner) to recover their entire investment sometime early in the third year. That should be more than an adequate return when combined with monthly rental rates and state renewable energy credits, but most negotiate a split in the monthly bill as well. One selling point is protection from rate increases, but analysis shows local loaded rates have even gone down 13 percent since 2010. In normal applications, if the owner has access to investment dollars earning less than 15 percent, the owner comes out way ahead owning, even when borrowing to get there. Leasing may sound attractive but, in many cases, merely substitutes an existing $250 a month bill for a stable $150 a month lease with the option to buy at some future point.

In summary, Southern Maryland is on the higher end of the scale when analyzed for solar. That combined with attractive solar system prices and Marylandís high utility costs (11th highest in the nation), makes this an excellent way to improve the environment and earn a substantial return on your money. Ask any of the many neighbors who already have taken the plunge and are reaping the rewards. At no cost or risk, you can contact those who install locally and get a proposal.

Installing before the end of 2012 will get you the federal tax credit in this yearís tax return. Take the plunge; the waterís fine.

Mike Thompson, Hollywood