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Solar energy is gaining fans in homeowners who aren’t just tree huggers — they’re penny pinchers.

Just ask 51-year-old Karl Hutter. The Silicon Valley tech executive refuses to drive a hybrid car but signed up with solar panel outfit SolarCity.

“You’re doing good by the planet, and you’re doing good by your pocket book,” says Hutter of Menlo Park, Calif. “Fundamentally, when you have both it makes perfect sense.”

Hutter has joined the ranks of people enticed as much by price as the feel-good element of saving the Earth. He’s hardly alone.

In the first quarter of 2011, U.S. solar panel installations shot up 66%, or the equivalent of powering roughly 20,000 average houses, compared with a year ago, says a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.

In the past year, falling prices for systems that capture the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity have helped spur growth as well. Prices of solar panel components dipped 15% in the quarter from a year ago, according to the SEIA.

“We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the price of solar power over the past year,” said the SEIA’s Tom Kimbis. “That has helped residential and commercial use of solar.”

The United States is now poised to lead the world in solar energy installations within just a few years as lower costs for the technology and zero-down financing plans and subsidies lure people across the nation to cleaner forms of power that save money and energy.

For Hutter, the money saved was a “no-brainer,” and he has pointed neighbors and family — scoring referral fees — to SolarCity. He says he’s saving 25% off his electricity bill, a story that likely resonates with others.

“SolarCity is not doing this for the heartstring pull. It’s pure economic benefit,” says Ron Pernick, co-founder of Clean Edge and co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution.

The U.S. will become the largest solar market in the world by 2014, experts at SEIA predict. The nation will leapfrog Europe, now No. 1, and No. 2 Japan for the crown on solar installations.

The result is that many of the world’s manufacturers are looking to set up shop here, making it even more affordable, experts say.

Worldwide spending on solar components and installation of equipment will jump from $71 billion in 2010 to $113.6 billion in 2020, according to industry researcher Clean Edge.

No-money-down deals grow

Yet solar is just getting started. In the U.S. there are only about 166,000 total residential and commercial solar installations, according to the SEIA, despite tax incentives and other breaks that can provide solar to consumers at no upfront cost.

But solar is catching on with consumers. Last year there were about 52,600 photovotaic installations around the nation, a figure that’s expected to nearly double in 2011. Analysts say the economics of solar are now starting to make sense as costs to produce clean power come down.

Homeowners right now can get solar panels from various providers at no upfront cost and in turn get lower electricity bills .

Companies such as SolarCity, SunRun and Sungevity promise to secure all the subsidies and building permits and make the paperwork process effortless. They all boast savings of as much as 10% on electricity bills. Some customers, like Hutter, save far more because of superior southern exposure. “One of the nicest things to see is the energy meter spinning backwards,” Hutter says.

Copyright 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.