This week, the U.S. Department of Energy unveiled one of the largest photovoltaic systems in Washington, D.C., installed on the roof of the DOE's Forrestal Building. DOE secretary Samuel Bodman said the installation was significant because it's practical (saves energy and money), and because it's "a symbol of America's commitment to using the best available new technologies to confront the energy challenges we face today and will face tomorrow."

I agree with Bodman; the DOE solar array is sensible. But I had to chuckle at the statement that it's symbolic. The federal government, Congress, and the administrations of the past 25 years have done little to promote solar or other renewable energy technologies. The most recent example is that the Senate failed this summer to pass a bill sponsored by the House to extend tax breaks and other incentives for alternative energies due to expire in December, despite the support of even oil companies, utilities, and other businesses.

"In order for us to have nationwide solar, we really need the federal government to step forward," Julie Blunden, vice president of public policy and corporate communications for SunPower, which designed and installed the DOE system, told EcoHome Online.

It's difficult to say if the Feds will quicken the pace of change with the new administration. The official Web site for Republican presidential candidate John McCain does not say what he thinks about solar energy, and I was unable to find any information about his convictions. As for Democrat Barack Obama, he states he wants 25% of U.S. electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025, and for 30% of the federal government's electricity to come from renewables by 2020. He doesn't outline, however, what incentives he'd push for to reach those lofty goals.

Earlier in the year, the House of Representatives passed the Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act that would have extended $18 billion worth of tax credits for renewable energy, including solar. But the legislation fizzled in the Senate this summer when Republican lawmakers prevented the bill from moving forward because it didn't include support for domestic oil drilling.

But even if the bill passes this fall, the legislation doesn't go far enough. It would extend the tax deduction for energy-efficient commercial buildings through 2013 and for super- efficient appliances through 2010, but it doesn't provide additional breaks or other incentives for homeowners. According to Internal Revenue Service documents, homeowners at present only can deduct up to $2,000 for solar electric installations and $2,000 for solar hot water installations for any home they own.

I believe greater financial incentives are what's desperately needed in order for sun power to make significant inroads in the housing industry. Residential solar systems cost tens of thousands of dollars, and because of the small federal tax credits and few state, local, and utility  rebates, only well-to-do Americans (or the greenest of consumers) might pay full-price for a heating and cooling system that they will not see a return on investment if they sell their home in a few years.

Although the green movement is hotter than a chili pepper, I can't imagine solar energy will be top of mind for the new president and Congress in 2009 because they must aggressively attack a number of critical issues: the war in Iraq, a depressed housing market, the troubled mortgage industry, a floundering economy, and a rising jobless rate, to name a few. Nevertheless, as the nation lives with $4-a-gallon gasoline prices and rising energy and food costs, Americans will begin demanding cheaper energy alternatives for their homes. And it's during this slowdown that you should educate yourself on solar energy, as well as all the products and materials that support an energy-efficient home. Incentives for residential solar may be years off, but homebuyers' demands for more efficient dwellings are here to stay. 

Jean Dimeo is Chief Editor, Online for EcoHome.