When Martha and Tom Baxter renovated their 23-year-old split-level house in Columbia last year, they installed an oversized bath tub and solar hot water heating for what Martha calls a "guilt-free soak."
Now Howard County is chipping in $1,500 in property tax credits on their July 1 bill to help pay for it - the first solar energy project approved under a county law enacted in October. The law allows a property tax credit of up to $5,000 for solar or geothermal heating, or $1,500 for solar hot water. The county program has $250,000 to spend annually. Applications are due by April 1 each year, but county finance officials are allowing some leeway this, the first year. Anyone applying too late to get the local tax break in July would get it the next year.
Added to federal and state incentives, the county credit will cut the cost of the Baxters' $5,500 thermal system to about $1,255. Tom Baxter said it will take less than four years of energy savings to recoup their costs.
"We have kind of a 'green' bent," said Tom, 59.
"We were in the middle of a house renovation, and this seemed like a good first step," added Martha, 61.
They got rid of an old refrigerator that sat in the garage, installed energy-saving light bulbs and replaced windows and aluminum siding. They also are thinking about a hybrid vehicle and perhaps a more extensive solar electricity project in the future.
Three more applicants were approved for credits after the Baxters, county officials said.
Nick Nichols, a 37-year-old Ellicott City resident, had a $7,500 solar hot water system installed in his family's rancher in April and was approved last week for the county property tax credit.
His electricity bill dropped by $30 for April, he said.
"I've been wanting to do something solar ever since I was a kid," said Nichols, married and the father of a 2-year-old. The federal Environmental Protection Agency employee said he expects to be in his current house for years, and believed this was the time to do it. Every day, he said, he wakes up thinking about whether the sun will be out and how much electricity his new system will generate. An electronic meter wired to the single, oversized basement water tank gives him all the measurements he wants.
Nichols figures he will get $1,500 each from the Howard County and state programs, and a $1,920 federal tax credit, which is applied after local credits are calculated. That makes his final cost $2,580. When BGE bills rise about 50 percent Friday, Nichols figures his savings will rise, too.
Maryland Del. Guy Guzzone, a former Sierra Club official, sponsored the county bill last fall as he finished two terms on the County Council.
Now he's thinking of taking advantage of the law, too.
"I'm looking at a number of things to 'green' up the house," he said, mentioning a new, low-water-usage toilet, too.
While the tax credit may not be the main reason people install solar energy devices, it helps.
"The whole idea is to make it more affordable to recoup your money in a reasonable amount of time," Guzzone said.
State energy officials and private installers say interest is rising, and tax credits are helping.
"We've been seeing a direct positive benefit" from the county credit, said Tim Grahl, sales manager of Chesapeake Wind and Solar in Jessup, which features news of the Howard tax program on its Web site.
"We've gotten a handful of jobs from it already," he said.
Carlos LaPorta, a partner in Capital Sun Group of Cabin John in Montgomery County, the Baxters' contractor, said the solar energy business has been struggling for decades.
"We've had falling energy prices for three decades," he said, and new-home builders would rather entice buyers with granite kitchen counters or other luxury items than with solar energy.
Tim LaRonde, solar energy program manager for the Maryland Energy Administration, said the state program, which pays 20 percent of the cost up to $2,000, is now fully funded, unlike the first two years after the state credit took effect Jan. 1, 2005. The federal credit is 30 percent of the remaining bill once the local credits are applied.
In 2005, the state gave out $103,500 for 44 projects statewide, but the funding ran out after the first five months, he said. On Jan. 1, 2006, another $75,000 became available, and that ran out early, too, after just 30 projects. But on July 1, more state money became available, and the state awarded $275,000 for energy projects. It has about $600,000 for the fiscal year starting July 1.
The Baxters, both retired federal employees who work as outside contractors for the government, said they are delighted with their system.
The solar cells on the roof heat anti-freeze, which moves through pipes to an oversized tank in their basement. The heated glycol remains in sealed tubes and warms the water in the tank. The new tank stands next to the original water tank, which operates as a backup.
Nichols said the house he shares with his wife and child has just one 80-gallon tank, instead of two - which saves space in the basement.
The Baxters said their electricity bill is down 15 percent a month so far, and when their adult children are visiting, the solar power helps even more.
"I'm really grateful the county did this. It's within the reach of more people," Tom Baxter said.