Week of 09/26/10

Dear EarthTalk: What are some good resources out there for learning about investments that help the environment?

—Rob Johnson, Sherman Oaks, CA

The best green investing resources are available online, many for free. One good place to start is the Green Money Journal, which features a wide range of informative and free articles to help the individual investor make sense of the panoply of choices available when it comes to investing with the Earth in mind. Publisher Cliff Feigenbaum, also co-author of the book, Investing With Your Values (New Society, 2000), has been running the publication, first in print and now online, since 1992, and makes sure that each quarterly issue is chock full of tips and strategies for making a statement while making a buck.

Another great resource is SustainableBusiness.com’s online Progressive Investor newsletter. Publisher Rona Fried keeps each issue fresh with advice from leading green portfolio managers and other experts, and reports on trends in renewable energy and energy efficiency, green building, recycling, organic foods, healthy lifestyles, and more. Individual issues cost $21 or subscribers can get five issues for $112.

There are now also many green investing blogs. Tune in regularly to the Green Investing Times, which offers green investing strategies and tips as well as news and views on developments in the so-called "CleanTech" sectors. The Green Chip Stocks website also tracks news about clean and green companies. BusinessWeek’s Business Exchange blog features a live stream of up-to-the-minute posts pertaining to green business. For another perspective entirely, check out sites like Treehugger.com and Sustainablog, each which has unique takes on the latest and greatest in green technology and trends.

There are many online websites and blogs that offer green investing strategies and tips as well as news and views on developments in various green business sectors. Pictured: The websites of sustainablebusiness.com (which publishes the Progressive Investor e-newsletter), Green Investing Times and Green Money Journal.© E – The Environmental Magazine

Some of the general finance and investing websites have also put together pretty good sections on green investing. Investopedia‘s special feature on green investing offers dozens of articles, question-and-answer features and commentaries covering the gamut of options when it comes to investing with one’s values. The Motley Fool also runs information regularly pertaining to green investing.

If you don’t want to spend your days tracking the markets, you could leave it to the experts like the portfolio managers at Portland, Oregon-based Portfolio 21 Investments. The firm puts investor dollars to work supporting companies "developing cleaner and more efficient energy solutions, products designed to be reused and rebuilt, and processes that eliminate the need for toxic inputs while producing little or no waste." The firm’s global equity mutual fund is open to individual investors willing to put in at least $5,000, while the minimum on retirement accounts is only $1,000.

There are other green mutual funds out there, too, of course, that screen the stocks they pick according to environmental and social responsibility standards. Domini, Calvert, Sustainable Asset Management, Pax World and MMA Praxis all have offerings targeting specific industries and general green performance.

CONTACTS: Green Money Journal; Investopedia; Motley Fool; Progressive Investor; Green Investing Times; Treehugger; Sustainablog; BusinessWeek’s Business Exchange Green Investing.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it now feasible to provide all of a home’s energy needs—including air conditioning—with solar power alone? If so, why hasn’t solar caught on more, particularly in U.S. "Sun Belt" states from southern California east to Florida?

—Tim Douglas, Burlington, VT

Converting an existing home to solar power can cost upwards of ,000 and is probably not be a good investment for most people, strictly economically speaking. But if you"re building a new home, incorporating a solar system from the get-go is simply a matter of choosing solar over something else and therefore may pencil out much better.© Student Design and Experiential Learning Center

It has been possible for years if not decades to provide all of a home’s energy needs with solar power. The technology is here and is only getting more efficient and less obtrusive every day. The only real stumbling block is cost: Solar systems capable of meeting all of an average U.S. home’s energy needs start at around $25,000. Given how inexpensive the grid-based power we now get all across the country remains—and, bear in mind that many utilities are working more and more renewable energy sources, like wind power, into their mix—going solar alone just doesn’t pencil out economically for most people.

Of course, many of us are starting to think beyond our individual bottom lines when it comes to energy usage as global warming nips at our heels. The federal and many state governments feel likewise and have set up generous rebates and incentives to encourage homeowners (and businesses) to embrace alternative renewable energy sources (including solar but also, wind, geothermal, biomass and even tidal power, among other choices). The federal government offers up a 30 percent personal tax credit (with no ceiling) on the cost of photovoltaic or other solar installations. To find a list of what’s available from states, check out the free listings at the website of the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE).

In the nation’s top solar market, California, residents can cash in on some serious state-funded rebates as well. Thanks to the California Solar Initiative (CSI), a $3.2 billion solar rebate program funded by electric ratepayers, Golden State homeowners can get as much as a third or more off the cost to install a residential solar system. CSI’s website, Go Solar California, provides links to several online calculators that take into account home size and location as well as state and federal incentives to help you do the figuring.

In Arizona, homeowners can get 25 percent back (capped at $1,000 per residence) from the state on the cost of installing photovoltaic panels or other solar harvesters. Some Arizona utilities offer incentives, too. In Texas, homeowners who install solar panels can get a tax credit (capped at $2,000) for 30 percent of the cost of a system. Utilities in the Lone Star State also offer incentives for those who generate their own solar power, and some will buy the power back from customers via a program called "net-metering."

Meanwhile, the state of Florida offers a huge $4/watt rebate (capped at a whopping $20,000 for homeowners and $100,000 for businesses) for purchasers of solar photovoltaic systems there. But the website SolarPowerRocks.com reports that funding is running out and the program could end any day. Like Texas, Florida offers solar customers the ability to sell excess power back to the grid.

Even with such rebates, and the fact that solar energy is essentially free once the equipment to harness it is installed, the costs of converting an existing home to solar power is tough to swallow for most people, given that the cost to instead connect to the existing grid is zero. But if you’re building a new home, incorporating a solar system from the get-go is simply a matter of choosing solar over something else.

CONTACTS: DSIRE; Go Solar California; SolarPowerRocks.com.

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