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Is solar power for you?

Even before you're sure what you're seeing, the restaurant Habana Outpost, in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, has already hijacked your senses. The pink exterior encloses a lively outdoor market whose patio, formerly a decaying parking lot, hosts vendors selling funky t-shirts, jewelry and crafts. Hand-carved cantera-stone Mexican fountains enhance the eclecticism, as does a dazzlingly red postal truck that owner Sean Meenan retrofitted as a kitchen and walk-up window for his signature Mexican grilled corn and Cuban sandwiches. A throbbing Latin beat accompanies the chatter of diners.

Out on Fulton Street the facade is an eye- popping lime-green and blue. Almost lost in this riot of noise and color and commerce is a deep-blue awning, 40 feet by 12 feet, that is shading diners and vendors. Yet, this is the restaurant's true attention grabber. It is a five-kilowatt solar grid. Habana Outpost, as it proudly states in its tagline and all its marketing materials, is "New York City's first solar-powered restaurant and market."

Though restaurants have recycled, composted and used sustainable materials for years, solar power has remained an elusive environmental frontier. It's no wonder. The price of entry is high, and the return on investment can be long.

Attractive subsidies are beginning to make solar energy systems more affordable. Meenan spent $50,000 on a system that's heating his restaurant, plus two apartments. He got back $20,000 in state incentives plus a $3,700 state tax credit, bringing his cost down to $26,300.

Still, he figures he's saving only $800 to $900 a year on his energy bill—hardly enough to entice the average restaurant owner.

But Meenan says it's all about being friendly to the planet. "As far as the solar thing goes, that is a thing that excites me, and I want to be excited by my business," he says. "It's not profound. I don't want to dress it up for you, but truthfully, I'm not in the restaurant business for the dollars-and-cents aspect."

Still, the solar panels are working to differentiate Habana Outpost in a crowded restaurant town, garnering stories in the local press and online. But Meenan, a lanky 38-year-old in a baseball cap, calls any marketing benefit "a residual effect of trying to do the right thing."

Right now, it's still the more environmentally conscious who are investing in solar technology, but experts believe that as the energy crisis intensifies, more businesses will take advantage of subsidies, like the recent 30 percent federal tax credit for solar equipment.

Rebates in states like New York, New Jersey, California and Oregon are the tipping point for commercial solar, says Colin Murchie, government affairs director for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, D.C.

"If you're in a state with good incentives," Murchie says, "the ROI can be very compelling."

And so can the marketing benefits.

Hollie St. Clair, owner of the Cottage Restaurant in Cottage Grove, Oregon, says she regularly markets her restaurant as environmentally aware. "You get people that are environmentally friendly that like the whole atmosphere," she says.

St. Clair became a solar user by default, taking over the lease of a solar supply business for her fine-dining establishment 10 years ago. The restaurant's rooftop "passive" solar system heats water, which is pumped into 30-gallon drums, which heat the restaurant.

The place is so cutting-edge that university students regularly troop through to ooh and ah. Now St. Clair not only appreciates her award-winning building's environmental flair; she likes the benefits. "Our electric bill [$440 per month] runs about half of what a normal business this size would run in this area," she says.

In Brentwood, Long Island, Chris Castro, who owns his own solar business, installed 48 energy panels at his Solar Cafe. Castro recouped $53,700 of his $80,000 cost from the state and local power authority. He expects to save about $300 a month off his annual bill of about $12,500. Now the 44-year-old plans to harvest from an all-organic garden. "I'm doing something good for the planet," he says. "I'm doing something good for the community. And it's saving me money. What could be better?"

That's the kind of thinking you'll find at Mitch Wallis' Kung Food Express Cafe, a quick-serve place in San Diego that's all-organic and meatless.

Wallis, 44, who has been an environmental lawyer for 15 years, renovated his 1970s-era restaurant in 2004 but was stymied by the broken-down passive solar system on the roof, which heats water used for dishwashing. Engineers told Wallis to scrap the system, but he was stubborn, he says, and finally found a contractor to refurbish the thermal layout for $500. Now he says his restaurant is thriving—and he's just opened a drive-up window. "This has been the dream," Wallis says.

If you're thinking of going solar...

Before getting started on a solar installation to heat water or make electricity, don't look at the sun, look at your electric bill. The price-per-KW-hour paid varies wildly across the country, so those who are in higher-priced regions have more reason to make the switch.

"Solar panels [for electricity] make a lot more sense in Albany than in Salt Lake City," says Colin Murchie, government affairs director for the Solar Energy Industries Association (www.seia.org). How come? Because, Murchie explains, a one-KW system in Salt Lake will generate $96 worth of electricity versus $166 in Albany.

"If you're paying more than 10 cents per KW hour," he adds, "it's time to think about it." Next, look at your building's exposure—southern is ideal—and at the zoning and potential construction around you. Look at neighboring buildings' potential "to go vertical on you," suggests Thomas Hicks of the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C. The council (www.usgbc.org) offers a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification to buildings "going green" and its inspectors offer feedback and suggestions without trying to sell you something.

Check what your state's rebate offer is—if it even has one. Go to your state energy authority's web site or www.dsireusa.org for a list of state incentives. Another useful site is www.findsolar.com, which helps you calculate your building's sunlight and payback potential. Also check out www.dinegreen.com for the Green Restaurant Association in Sharon, Massachusetts.

When hiring a contractor, references and a contractor's license are paramount, says Murchie. Certification by the North American Board of Energy Practitioners is desirable but is not yet that widespread.

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