The cost for a 6.7-kilowatt system with 36 photovoltaic cells on the roof, the energy her home, pool and hot tub used, was about $46,000 with a state rebate of $17,160.
"Forty-six thousand," Kneer repeated, sucking in her breath as she sat in her living room that earlier was filled with four children, a few tropical birds and a Sheltie.
The cost brought her back to reality. "My initial reaction was 'Oh no, we're not doing that. That's a nice BMW for Mommy.'"
Kneer, 42, knew that solar power installation wasn't cheap -- it's one of the main reasons it hasn't cracked the mainstream -- but she said she was open to any idea that would give the utility company less of her money. She and her husband, Keith, bought Energy Star appliances and curbed usage but still didn't see a significant change.
Although equity rich since the Kneers bought the home in 1994, the idea of a home equity line of credit with high interest rates and wading through junk fees wasn't appealing.
When she talked with New Resource Bank, a "green" bank in San Francisco, it promised a cost-effective no-fee, no-points second mortgage that would cost about $300 a month, $200 less than her average monthly
She signed and the system was installed Feb. 19. The last half of February cut the bill to $200 and the most recent bill was $7.63 from PG&E for taxes and fees.
Since then the Kneers have had co-workers, neighbors and relatives come over to look at the system. They get a mixed reaction: People show interest and then shock when they disclose the price.
"A lot of people can't justify the cost," Keith Kneer, 42, said. "But at energy bills of $500 to $600 a month, how much money are they pouring down the drain?"
According to Harry Kauffman, director of sales for Next Energy in Concord, the company's typical client is a residential homeowner with a PG&E bill that exceeds $150 per month.
A typical system is about 3.5 kilowatts, which usually takes the customer back to the baseline of the utility bill rather than eliminating the bill entirely, he said.
Kauffman said that homeowners want solar energy for a variety of reasons, but most of their customers are from Alameda and Contra Costa counties, a reason the company moved its headquarters from San Francisco to Concord three years ago.
"It's mainly people who say, 'We have to put in solar because we can't afford our PG&E bill,'" he said.
People in East County tend to have large houses, air conditioning and pools, which can mean a typical bill of $600 to $800. "This is a way for them to get this under control," he said. "You will have a $300-a-month payment, so why not pay off the solar system instead of PG&E?"
The California Public Utilities Commission, which administers the California Solar Initiative, reports that homeowners are given incentives of $2.50 per watt until 70 megawatts of solar power systems are installed. Then homeowners are moved to Step 3, in which the incentive will drop to $2.20 a watt. When more than 100 megawatts are installed, it drops to $1.90 a watt.
Most of the paperwork, including the application for the rebate, is handled by the solar installer.
Kauffman said that since the initiative changed Jan. 1 to a "performance-based incentive" based on the amount of power generated by solar systems statewide instead of a simple cut-off date, it has been more difficult for homeowners. The paperwork went from one signed page to more than 52 pages.
"There is more paperwork that is needed," said Keely Wachs, PG&E's environmental communications manager. "But we are working to streamline the project."
PG&E has more than 16,000 solar customers, the largest number of any utility in the nation. Wachs said that's because the company has promoted renewable energy and helps its customers be energy efficient. He denied it had to do with complaints about the utility's high rates.
"PG&E does not make more money for selling more energy," he said.
According to PG&E rate information, electricity rates for residential customers have changed 21 times since Jan. 1, 1996. According to its residential tiered energy rate schedule, since Jan. 1, 2005, rates rose from 18 cents to 23 cents per kilowatt-hour, or 27.8 percent in Tier 3; 22 cents to 32 cents, or 45.5 percent, in Tier 4; and 22 cents to 36 cents, or 63.6 percent, in Tier 5. Tiers 1 and 2, which represent baseline energy use and 101 percent to 130 percent of baseline energy, respectively, remained the same.
Baseline energy use is the minimum electricity and gas at the lowest possible cost, said PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer.
"About 18 percent of our customers are in Tier 3, 18 percent in Tier 4 and 17 percent in Tier 5," he said.
That means more than half of PG&E customers use more than 131 percent of baseline energy, or Tier 3 and above, and are the most affected by the rate increases.
Glen Laughton of Antioch used Next Energy for his 3-kilowatt system on his 1,680-square-foot home. He said the price, $25,900, was sizable, but Laughton said that his $1,000 down payment was paid for by his $2,000 federal tax credit for the system.
Laughton's typical monthly bill was $125 a month, and last month's was a 58-cent credit, he said. Although he said he was using solar power to save on costs, it also taught him about renewable energy.
"When you start generating power you start really thinking about it," Laughton, 49, said. "I really started to become more energy-aware and ended up saving a lot more."
Barbara E. Hernandez covers real estate. Reach her at 925-952-5063 or email@example.com.