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Businesses and individuals in California have received almost 30 percent of solar electricity grants given out under a program aimed at boosting green energy projects nationwide.

An inewsource analysis of records released last week found that 85 companies in California received $69.8 million of $241 million the U.S. Treasury Department gave out to solar projects.

In San Diego County, at least nine businesses received a total of $4.9 million in grants.

A $324,000 grant helped Dave Rudie install 1,056 photovoltaic panels on the roof of his business, Catalina Offshore Products, Inc., in the Morena neighborhood of San Diego.

“We wanted to do our part to reduce emissions,” he said. “And there were some good tax credits, too.”

A combination of the Treasury grant, California energy rebates and a federal credit for rapidly depreciating equipment helped Rudie complete the $1 million project.

Rudie earns his living from the sea, supplying restaurants and sushi bars with seafood and shellfish.

Catalina bills itself as a forward-looking, sustainable business. It buys its products from local fishermen in San Diego and day-boat panga fishermen in Baja, Mexico, who Rudie said use non-invasive fishing techniques such as hand lines and hand-drawn nets.

A solar project was another way for Catalina to walk the walk.

“Basically, it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for business,” he said.

Catalina’s electric bills have plummeted since San Diego-based Laser Electric, Inc., installed 22,500 square feet of solar panels on Catalina’s roof. Rudie received the Treasury grant in April.

In December, Catalina’s energy bill was about $5,294. In May, it dropped to $2,398, about $1,500 of which came from monthly service fees, bond charges and connection charges. Rudie, president of the company, calculates the panels will pay themselves off in about five years.

Elsewhere in San Diego, two Wal-Mart locations and a Kohl’s outlet received a total of $2.4 million of the solar stimulus money, and SunEdison, based in Maryland, received $1.8 million for construction a photovoltaic plant at the Otay Mesa Water Treatment facility. The City of San Diego is currently purchasing power for the water treatment plant from SunEdison’s installation.

The grants the Treasury distributes under The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 cover up to 30 percent of costs for green energy projects, such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, put online or that are under construction by the end of this year.

The Treasury has awarded far more grants for solar electricity installations than any other type, but most of the money —$3.9 billion — has gone to wind facilities. Solar electricity grants averaged about $439,000, while grants for wind facilities averaged about $41 million.

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury

Businesses are continuing to look for savings in solar, but the payoff could take longer to see.

The number of grants surged this year compared to last. As of Jan. 11, the department had given out 202 grants totaling $1.9 billion. By June 17, the department distributed $4.5 billion in 759 grants, 591 of which were for solar projects.

However, a tax break for rapidly depreciating equipment ended at the end of 2009 and the California Solar Initiative is lowering the amount of rebates as more solar projects are completed. Those two events make solar projects more difficult to pay off, said Jesse Elliot, a project developer for Laser Electric, the company that installed Catalina’s solar electricity project.

Last year, the projected payoff time for many solar installations was five years, Elliot said. Now, it’s closer to seven or nine years, and that makes it harder for businesses to commit to solar.

“They can look at their business plans and say ‘I’ll be here in five years’,” Elliot said. “But they can’t say that about seven.”

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