More commercial projects in the Golden State may be eligible for solar rebates as a result of recent modifications to the California Solar Initiative Thermal Program, experts believe. The changes to the program, which started paying rebates last year, include a dedicated budget for pool and spa systems, a cap on reimbursed amounts and changes to the method for calculating them. The modifications were requested by the California Solar Energy Industries Association and the program administrators.

A separate budget has been established solely for the solar pool heating system sub-program. Thirty percent of the thermal sub-program’s remaining funds will be dedicated to pool systems, totaling $50,078,180, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

The program now also caps cash-back at 50 percent of the total system cost. This change, which went into effect Jan. 30, will have the most impact on future clients.

But stakeholders requested it to allow the funds to be spread over more projects, said Roy Heine, the founder of Suntrek Industries in Irvine, Calif.

Without the cap, some projects saw reimbursements of 90- to 100 percent of the cost of the solar systems.

“For a period of time, some pool owners got lucky with what CALSEIA would consider to be an improper rollout of the program by the utilities,” said Brad Heavner, policy director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association.

In addition, the calculator for figuring rebates was changed, but this will have little impact on amounts. The intent remains to reward those who purchase and install the equipment earlier in the rebate cycle.

Projects with confirmed rebate reservations as of Dec. 12, 2014, can receive an uncapped rebate using the former calculator for therm savings. Installations that have a confirmed rebate reservation as of Jan. 30 can get an uncapped rebate with the new calculation. The cap and new calculation will be applied to those requesting rebates since Jan. 30. Rebate reservations are good for 1½ years.

To date, the program has paid rebates of $2.19 million for 157 projects.

Experiences with the program have been mixed. While some dealers are seeing increased business from the rebate program, they find some customers are hesitant to move forward because of cumbersome guidelines imposed in certain areas.

The program has had challenges since it went into effect in January 2013. Because of hiccups, rebates weren’t available until January 2014. Since then the recently announced changes have been underway.

Solar professionals say the changes have undermined the program’s effectiveness. “Instead of stimulating the commercial market in California, many would argue it’s actually stunted it by preventing people from moving forward with a program that’s somewhat in flux,” said Dan Sizelove, marketing coordinator at Lakewood, N.J.-based Aquatherm Industries Inc., which manufactures solar panels. “Everybody was waiting to see what might happen — if the rebate was going to go up or down, or how it might change.”

Some Aquatherm dealers have experienced a bottleneck with projects they bid on because facilities wanted to wait and see if their rebates might increase.

“Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens [with rebates]” Sizelove said.
“You get various entities involved and it tends to slow things down.”

Still, stakeholders remain optimistic. Since solar pool heating was included, Suntrek has secured more than $1 million in rebates for clients, mostly homeowners associations, country clubs and a few hotels. Some that hesitated last year, primarily public schools and municipalities, are beginning to show interest, Heine said.

“The economics for a pool heating system are still very strong with the new rules,” Heavner said.