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Keepin' It Real Estate: Going Green on Uncle Sam's Dime


Getting to the "bottom" of the housing market.

It's starting to make economic sense to go green.

Last summer, with gas prices topping $4 per gallon and commodities of all kinds becoming more expensive, renewable energy advocates thought their day in sun -- so to speak -- had finally arrived.

Investors flocked to industry leaders like First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA), whose stocks leapt to new highs. On July 8, 2008, renowned investor T. Boone Pickens announced an ambitious plan to wean America off its dependence on foreign oil. Later that week, crude touched an all-time high of $147.02 per barrel.

Since then, oil -- along the rest of the commodity complex -- has plunged, dashing hopes that renewable energy would soon be as cheap, if not cheaper, than traditional, dirty fossil fuels. But now, with the economy in free fall and Washington scrambling to boost productivity, renewable energy has been taken off life support.

Part of the recently passed $797 billion economic stimulus package gives incentives to homeowners to adopt energy-saving appliances, solar panels and other eco-friendly add-ons. Increased tax credits for qualifying expenditures can reduce tax bills by thousands of dollars a year. The catch (and there's always a catch when the government is involved): Benefits only arrive if you shell out big bucks for pricey green gear.

Tax credits are applicable on new expenditures, and since solar-panel systems run in the tens of thousands of dollars, the 30% tax credit isn't exactly like socking money away in the bank. Still, green construction firms and solar panel installation outfits like Akeena Solar (AKNS) are eager snatch up new business.

Before the credit crunch and the ensuing financial meltdown, Akeena had actually partnered with Comerica Bank (CMA) to offer low interest loans for buyers of new solar-energy systems, a portion of which could be backed by the value of the home. Since monthly loan payments were easier to stomach than plunking down cash to buy a new system, these new lending programs could have made solar available to the masses.

But now that home values have plummeted and lenders are reticent to part with their precious dollars, such borrowing programs are nearly impossible to find. Still, for those homeowners intrepid enough to take the plunge, tax credits offer an attractive reason to get off the green fence.

While solar power isn't as economically efficient as traditional electricity sources, the more money that's pumped into new technologies -- even if it's through a combination of private and public investment -- the sooner we're likely to reach the parity solar advocates have been promising for decades.

And the sooner that happens, the better.
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