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Conn. pushing hard to expand solar energy to homes

MANCHESTER, Conn. — As Connecticut pushes aggressively to expand solar energy to homes across the state, few supporters are more enthusiastic than Eugene DeJoannis.

The retired mechanical engineer from Manchester has long been a booster of green energy and boasts a keen interest in home energy issues. He is now serving as a volunteer solar ambassador promoting a state program that subsidizes home solar projects and urges homeowners to participate.

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‘‘I have a personal fascination with the residential energy picture,’’ DeJoannis said. ‘‘Whenever we go to church, I invariably take out my literature and display it there.’’

Backed by a $27 million fund supplied by utility ratepayers, the state’s Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority administers several alternative energy programs and financing plans. It annually earmarks up to $9 million of the available funding to finance residential installation by solar panel businesses competitively picked.

The intent is to boost nonpolluting energy, reduce demand on the electric grid relied upon by utilities, and cut dependence on overseas sources of power such as oil.

Bob Wall, director of marketing and outreach at the clean energy authority, said the agency is running solar panel installation campaigns in 22 of the state’s 169 towns and cities and has completed solar energy installation campaigns in nine towns.

In the past 22 months, 2,160 residential solar systems contracts have been approved.

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Gary and Debbie Sweet, looking for information about putting solar panels on their house, attended a recent meeting in Manchester organized by state energy officials, bankers, and solar installers. Sweet, an architect, said solar panels could slash his electricity costs.

‘‘It doesn’t cost me anything. Why not?’’ he said.

The cost to homeowners is significantly reduced, and although it’s touted by Connecticut as a ‘‘once in a lifetime bargain,’’ it’s not free. Glenn Cucinell, solar division manager at Encon Solar Energy Division, which won the contract to install solar panels on homes in Manchester, said a typical system in Connecticut would cost about $24,000.

After a state rebate of about $8,000 and a 30 percent federal tax credit available for the remaining $16,000, a homeowner’s cost for a residential solar system would be cut by more than half, to $8,000 to $12,000, which can be paid for in long-term financing.

Connecticut’s subsidy is not unusual. Virtually every state offers loans, grants, rebates, and other incentives to support broader use of residential solar panels, according to the US Department of Energy. ‘‘It’s an incentive driven industry at this point,’’ Cucinell said.

In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, solar energy received $1.13 billion in federal subsidies in the form of direct spending, research, tax benefits, and loans, according to the US Energy Information Administration. In contrast, wind power received nearly $5 billion in subsidies, and coal was the beneficiary of $1.36 billion in subsidies.

Andy Pusateri, a utilities analyst at Edward Jones, said solar power will not be weaned off federal and state subsidies any time soon. Wind power is the fastest growing alternative source of power, but solar energy has a greater growth potential, he said.

‘‘We’re still a ways off from a competitive generation source without subsidies,’’ he said.

Pusateri said politics is a factor behind the push for public subsidies of solar energy.

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