The California Solar Initiative and a growing number of state and federal tax credits, rebates, loan programs and other financial incentives are designed to encourage more home owners to equip their houses with photovoltaic (PV) solar power.

However, reducing the cost of a system that allows a home owner to net an electricity bill no larger than the cost to remain connected to the grid is an incentive with implications that go far beyond the monthly utility bill.

California's $3.2 billion initiative alone is designed to help finance PV systems on 1 million homes and businesses by 2017 generating some 3,000 megawatts of electricity -- the capacity of six power plants cranking enough juice to serve 2.3 million people.

That's clean, reliable, renewable juice.

Also, continued growth in the solar technology could ultimately end brownouts, blackouts and other power interruptions that have become all too common. The goal is to reduce reliance upon the existing infrastructure of fossil fuel generated power that currently is growing so fast many jurisdictions can't build power plants fast enough to keep pace.

California's historic initiative could also be considered the "Solar Contractors' Full Employment Act" as more and more contractors -- the good and the bad -- hang a "solar installer" shingle, take to rooftops and cash in on the demand. While other forms of renewable energy, including wind power and fuel cells, are included in the incentives, the big push is on solar power, especially PV systems because of their proven in-the-field reliability.

It's relatively simple to install and maintain a $27,000 flush-mounted, rooftop, 320-square-foot, PV array efficiently generating 3 kilowatts -- enough power to meet the needs of a 2,500 square foot home.

Simple that is, provided the PV panel installer is experienced in the task at hand.

As with hiring any professional, a good start to finding a solar contractor is to seek referrals from family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and others you trust who also recently purchased a system with which they are satisfied.

The referrals should be to licensed contractors or, better yet, licensed solar contractors who work in your area. Contractors typically obtain a license by proving their skills through education or training, testing, in-the-field experience or some combination of all those efforts.

More specifically, solar contractors are licensed after meeting requirements specific to the specialty.

In California, designated solar contractors are licensed to perform solar energy work and only other building or construction work necessary to install an active solar system.

The licensing process typically also comes with continuing education services to keep contractors current on techniques, codes and the like. It also includes a regulatory system that helps weed out the bad apples. Consumers get an official agency where they can check the record of contractors, lodge complaints and seek redress for problems.

Truly professional contractors also don't complete work without a permit, which means the local building inspector will examine the work for compliance with current building codes. Avoid even licensed contractors who try to "save" you money by circumventing the permit process.

Unfortunately, not all states have a regulated designated "solar contractor." That's where each state's renewable energy incentive program could help.

The Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy was established in 1995 as an ongoing project of the U.S. Department of Energy's Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) and is managed by the North Carolina Solar Center.

The service offers a clickable-map data base of federal, state and local renewable energy programs, each of which can help you find qualified contractors. The programs also offer educational and financing information for consumers.

Even in states that don't designate a "solar contractor" license category, their incentive programs typically come with state-registered or program-registered contractors and or approved solar and other renewable energy systems that meet current electrical and building codes as well as performance standards.

You can also look to solar energy trade groups to find contractors, especially in areas where they aren't regulated. Trade groups typically come with a code of ethics, training requirements and a network of product research, development and educational services for its members.

Home owners considering hiring a professional solar system installer should also get schooled in solar technology to determine their home's true needs and to be better equipped to interview prospective contractors.

Select a contractor who has years of experience installing grid-connected systems and who isn't afraid to refer you to satisfied customers.

The contractor should also have site savvy -- clear, unobstructed access to the sun is crucial. South-facing exposure is best. If the roof won't do because of its location, a ground mounted system may be necessary.

The contractor should also be able to help you decide what size system you need to generate all the power necessary for your home or just a portion, but don't let the contractor sell you more power than you need.

The incentive programs and utilities can help you calculate how much of a PV array you really need based on past energy use. Some programs provide rebates and incentives only for systems that generate up to a certain level and energy and no more. For instance, you can't install your own neighborhood power plant.

The contractor should also be familiar with special features your system may need including an inverter necessary to change the direct current (DC) power from the solar panels into alternating current (AC) electricity to power your electrical devices and to be compatible with the electric grid. Batteries, which increase your cans, provide back-up and storage power for your home during grid outages and gray days.

Each program explains the local utility connection requirements including which utilities will buy excess power and which will let you pump juice back into the grid without reimbursing you, but the contractor also should be familiar with grid connections, metering and what happens to excess power.

Finally, get several bids and make sure the bids are for the identical solar system. The system should be approved by the rebate or incentive program which typically designates an acceptable warranty period required to qualify for the rebate or tax break.

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