Consumers looking to take a big step to help the environment may wonder whether it's better to buy a hybrid vehicle or install home solar panels.

Thanks to rebates and tax incentives, the net costs of a hybrid vehicle, an electric solar system or a hot water solar system are surprisingly similar.

The time it takes for the three options to pay back owners through reduced gas and energy use are also comparable.

Although every vehicle model is different, manufacturers have Web sites that allow consumers to easily compare the suggested retail price of a hybrid vehicle to its standard cousin. Some even have calculators that tell consumers how much money they can save on gas with a hybrid.

For people interested in solar energy, the city of Ashland's Conservation Division has done much of the homework for residents by preparing fact sheets that spell out the economics of either electric solar panels or solar panels that heat water.

Hybrid math

Like many hybrid vehicles, the 2007 Honda Civic Hybrid costs several thousand dollars more than its standard version, the 2007 Honda Civic.

The manufacturer's suggested retail starting price for the hybrid is $22,600, or $7,590 more than the $15,010 starting price for the regular Civic.

But a $2,100 federal tax credit and $1,500 in state tax credits shrinks the gap in price to $3,990.

Be aware when shopping for a hybrid vehicle that the federal tax credit drops after a manufacturer sells 60,000 of a given model in 2007. Check with or your accountant for updates on whether the manufacturer of a vehicle you want to buy has hit that number.

Honda has a fuel savings calculator at

http:automobiles.honda.com/models/model_overview.asp?ModelName=Civic+Hybrid.

The 2007 Honda Civic Hybrid gets 49 miles per gallon in the city and 51 miles per gallon on the highway.

The regular Civic has a rating of 30 miles per gallon in the city and 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

Nationally, the average driver travels 12,000 miles per year. Using a cost of $3.00 per gallon of gas, the Honda Civic Hybrid will pay off the net difference between itself and the regular Civic through fuel savings in 12.2 years.

Ashland City Councilor David Chapman, who drives a Toyota Prius hybrid car, said the vehicle was more expensive than a normal car, but the environmental benefits have been worth it to him.

"Less air pollutants are generated and that's important to us," he said.

He noted that his hybrid gets slightly fewer miles per gallon than advertised for city driving because of the hills in Ashland.

While out-of-pocket costs and payback periods are similar for hybrid vehicles and solar systems, some consumers choose to buy hybrids to reduce their dependence on foreign oil.

Solar hot water

A solar panel system for heating water is a proven and reliable technology, said city of Ashland Conservation Analyst Larry Giardina.

Without considering tax incentives and rebates, a solar hot water system is actually a better investment than a solar electric system, he said.

At $5,500 to $7,000, the initial cost for a solar hot water system is less expensive.

The city of Ashland offers a rebate of up to $1,000, the state has a rebate of up to $1,500 and a federal government tax credit covers 30 percent of the cost.

That pushes the range out-of-pocket cost for a typical system down to $1,650 to $2,700.

The value of the energy production is about $175 per year, creating a payback period of 9.4 years to 15.4 years.

In addition to driving a hybrid car, Chapman has a solar water heating system on his house.

He said he paid about $5,000 for the system but received about half of the money back.

"I really like solar hot water. It's an easy choice. The payback is fairly short," Chapman said.

He said he is holding off on installing an electric solar system because of the higher cost.

Electric solar system

A home electric solar system costs about $14,000 to $16,000.

A city rebate for an average sized system is about $4,500. (The maximum rebate is $10,000.) The federal government offers a tax credit for 30 percent of the cost of a system, up to $2,000. The state will pay up to $6,000 based on a per-watt tax credit.

The city rebate and government tax credits bring the out-of-pocket cost for a typical home solar electric system down to $1,500 to $3,500.

With annual energy production valued at about $182, the payback period is 8.2 years to 19.2 years. Giardina said some consumers think that because so much of the Pacific Northwest's electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, using alternative energy is not important.

But demand for electricity is growing as the population increases and more people use air conditioners, electronics and other energy-intensive products, he said.

"It's not necessarily today's energy that we're thinking about. The Bonneville Power Administration's system of dams is maxed out. We're not building any more dams," Giardina said. "What's it going to need to come from in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years?"

During years when rain and snow are plentiful, BPA is able to sell its excess hydro power to other regions that use dirtier power sources. When water levels drop, BPA must buy dirtier power from outside the region at market rates, Giardina said.

Conservation first

Giardina said that installing a home solar electric system is an expensive investment for the relatively small amount of energy it produces.

Conserving electricity is usually more cost-effective than installing a solar electric system, he said.

One of the best moves is to replace regular light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. The city of Ashland and Pacific Power have teamed up to buy down the price of fluorescent bulbs at local Costco, Lowe's Home Improvement, Home Depot and Wal-Mart stores through June, Giardina said.

Ashland residents don't have to show proof of where they live to get the bulb discount, which lowers the price to about $1. Because Ashland has about 15 percent of the Rogue Valley's population, the city of Ashland is paying for 15 percent of the buy-down program and Pacific Power is covering 85 percent of the program's cost, Giardina said.

Call the city of Ashland Conservation Division at 552-2063 to arrange a home leakage test that is free to customers who heat with electricity. The fee for residents who heat with gas is $100.

Fixing leaks in heating system and air conditioning ducts can yield significant savings, as can adding insulation in problem areas such as behind old built-in cabinets, Giardina said.

The city also has rebate programs for energy-efficient refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers and clothes washers, but not clothes dryers.

"Those measures are most important to do first &

before you go out and pay $16,000 for a solar system," Giardina said.

Brochures on various city programs are available at the Community Development and Engineering Services Buildings on Winburn Way, near the entrance to Lithia Park. The Conservation Division can be reached by calling 488-5306. Information is also on the city's Web site at .

For information on state tax credits, go to /ENERGY/CONS/RES/tax/docs/retcbro.pdf.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.