Roof-mounted solar energy systems, designed to convert sunlight to electricity, are back. What's different? Some solar components today are photovoltaic tiles or shingles designed to blend with the building envelope rather than being mounted on top of it. “It's a building-integrated product,” notes Dr. Richard Blieden, senior business development adviser for Luma Resources and a pioneer in the development of alternative energy technologies.

Caveat? They're still expensive. That means upward of $15,000. Miguel de Anquin, executive vice president of Premier Power, a leading California solar installer for both residential and commercial buildings, estimates that the systems his company erects cost from $20,000 to $100,000, before incentives, and take several days to install.

INCENTIVES BOOST SOLAR Many states offer incentives, with California and New Jersey leading the way. Incentives, says Monique Hanis, director of communications for the Solar Energy Industries Association, “are the key to making this happen faster.” Beginning in 2005, the federal government offered a $2,000 tax rebate to homeowners who installed solar energy systems. But in June, Congress failed to pass the Energy Independence and Tax Relief Act, which would have extended that solar investment tax credit for eight years. Advocates haven't given up trying, but incentives, de Anquin says, “are necessary.”

The lack of clarity and consistency in government support has deterred some prospective solar installers. Ken Wolfbauer, owner of Seal Guard Systems, in Blaine, Minn., was prepared to offer and install a solar power system and solar hot water heater by German manufacturer Schuco. Right now, though, “incentives aren't great for solar, so we've stepped back,” he says.

BY ROOFERS, FOR ROOFERS Will reductions in federal and state tax and rebate incentives diminish the market? Robert Allen doesn't think so. According to the owner of Allen Brothers Roofing, in Rochester, Mich., subsidies “don't last forever. It has to be driven by demand.”

Allen, who founded Luma Resources, is set to market a “solar roofing kit.” The kit, consisting of the shingle and electrical components necessary for a fully functioning solar power system, integrates with the roofline and can be installed in a day and a half. Allen points out that a re-roofing job is the ideal time for homeowners to install solar, and that the roofing contractor is the logical person to do the work. He estimates that a 2-kilowatt system, powering a 2,400 square-foot house, would cost $13,000, installed. With energy costs steadily rising, he says, solar products will make an attractive investment — with or without subsidies.