[FoRK] Solar power hits suburbia (Christian Science Monitor)

Joseph S. Barrera III joe at barrera.org
Wed Feb 11 19:16:55 PST 2004


Solar power hits suburbia

By Mark Clayton | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the day came to throw the switch turning her suburban New Jersey 
home into a mini power plant, Gail Stocks could hardly believe her eyes.

Outside, parked up and down the quiet, leafy street were at least a 
dozen utility company trucks - and a gang of burly electricians were 
ambling toward her front door.

"There had to be 16 of them," she says. "I don't think they had ever 
seen a solar panel before. They just wanted to see the [electric] meter 
start spinning the other way after they flipped the switch."

To watch the meter running backward - in essence, selling electricity 
back to the utility - was a novelty in suburban New Jersey in fall 2001. 
Now, the concept is moving closer to being mainstream.

In one of life's little ironies, solar power is gaining a toehold in the 
most unlikely of places - the world of SUVs, big-screen TVs, and 
two-fridge families - the 'burbs. And if it can gain acceptance there, 
some analysts say, the technology is on the cusp of widespread acceptance.

"Even suburbia is starting to go solar," says Richard Perez, publisher 
of Home Power magazine, the bible of the home-renewable energy crowd. 
"Some new houses and subdivisions are being planned this way. It's not 
really common yet, but its happening."

Prodded by fears of global warming, lured by falling solar-cell prices 
and strong financial incentives, at least 10,000 US and 70,000 Japanese 
homeowners, along with tens of thousands more in Europe, installed solar 
energy between 2000 and 2002, say industry experts. Total global 
solar-generating capacity - including off-grid installations - is 
several gigawatts, Perez says.

But by far the fastest-growing solar group is residents who also are 
connected to local power grids, a segment that has gone from almost 
nothing in 1990 to an installed base of at least 730 megawatts in 2002 - 
about the size of a medium-size coal-fired power plant.

Of course, there are plenty of skeptics. Solar power has been one of the 
longest-running jokes in the energy industry - perpetually "just 10 
years away" from becoming a significant source to a power-hungry America 
since the 1970s. Solar power supplies less than 1 percent of the US 
power needs.

A recent "road map" report by the US Photovoltaics Industry envisions 
solar as providing a "significant share" of the US energy market by 
2020, and by 2030 meeting 10 percent of US peak energy demand, 
equivalent to about 180 million barrels of oil in that year. To reach 
that vision, millions of homeowners and businesses would have to go 
solar - which means solar power will have to become more affordable.

Though still expensive compared to commercial power, solar costs have 
fallen about 90 percent since the '70s. When today's $4.50-per-watt cost 
for solar reaches the "magic number" of $2 per watt, it will be cheaper 
than commercial power, Mr. Perez predicts. At that point, demand could 
skyrocket, he says.

But if solar power is to become standard on new homes, it will be due as 
much to its emerging compatibility with middle-class lifestyles as its 
lower price tag. And it appears to be happening, many say.

Not so very long ago "going solar" meant being willing to adopt a 
rough-and-ready "off the grid" lifestyle usually somewhere in the back 
woods far from utility lines, Perez says. Besides costing lots of money 
to install a system, it conjured dreaded images of energy frugality - 
winter nights reading beneath a bare bulb powered by batteries.

But Massachusetts and other states are paving the way for homeowners to 
do their part for the environment - without giving up their big-screen 
TVs. Spurred by energy deregulation, 38 states have enacted "net 
metering" laws over the past five years that require utilities to hook 
residential solar panels into the grid - and to compensate them for 
their energy output. Residents pay only for what they take from the grid 
- over and above what their solar panels produce.

"Most of our grid-tied customers today are average consumers - people 
with multiple TVs, pools, even luxury homes. They are not trying to live 
an alternative lifestyle in a cabin," says Sam Nutter of the 
Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. It runs an alternative-fuels 

In essence, by producing their own solar power - but also staying hooked 
to the grid - homeowners can have their solar cake and eat it too. They 
can slash their use of commercial power from fossil-fuel plants, but 
still be able to run their power-hungry amenities like electric dryers 
and air conditioners.

In addition, at least 15 states now use "public benefits funds" to 
subsidize renewable energy programs by taking a few pennies from each 
electric bill. And 24 states offer rebate programs that cover a big 
chunk of the cost. California and Massachusetts rebate up to half the 
cost, not including tax incentives. New Jersey and New York rebate up to 
70 percent.

Gail Stocks's husband, Ian, says his family's 2.5 kilowatt solar-panel 
system cost $21,000, including installation. But their out-of-pocket 
cost was only $9,000. It cuts their electric bill by a third. With 
commercial power costing him about 13 cents a kilowatt hour and rising, 
Mr. Stocks figures to be paid back in about 10 years.

Joanne and Stephen Hallisey, who live in Natick, Mass., just finished 
installing solar panels that cost $18,000 - but got rebates from the 
state that cover half the cost. They've put in energy-saving light bulbs 
and appliances, but draw the line on chopping their technology.

"We do have a lot of electronics around the house, and we don't want to 
give up a lot of that," Ms. Hallisey says. "We don't have a big-screen 
TV yet. We feel we are being less wasteful and, with solar, still have 
the renewable energy we need to power the things that we really want."

The Halliseys and thousands like them are adding to the nearly 40 
megawatts of grid-tied residential/commercial solar power installed in 
the US since 2000, more than was installed over the past decade, says 
industry analyst Paul Maycock. With solar panels being sold in many Home 
Depot stores and the cost of solar dropping, can the rest of America be 
far behind the Halliseys?

Well, yes, actually. Even boosters warn solar has only just begun to 
enter the mainstream. "It hasn't become so mainstream that people are 
just itching to jump on the bandwagon," says John Livermore of 
Conservation Services Group, a Westborough, Mass., solar installation 
company. He's trying to convince Massachusetts builders to put panels on 
new homes.

But it's difficult - especially in areas where home prices are already 
through the roof - to persuade buyers to shell out even a few thousand 
extra dollars to put a solar array on their roof.

In some states, however, solar is a no-brainer. Energized by turmoil in 
the electricity markets, rolling blackouts, and a new governor who 
favors solar - California has some of the best incentives in the US. It 
also has a lot of sun. The result is that builders like John Suppes are 
creating entire solar-powered subdivisions.

As vice president and cofounder of Clarum Homes, Mr. Suppes faces many 
of the same issues Massachusetts builders do - steep real estate prices 
and intense competition. So he can't just pass the cost of solar on to 
customers. The installment costs about $20,000 for each of his new "zero 
energy" homes, which cut utility bills up to 90 percent. "Our goal is to 
bring green to entry-level home buyers," he says.

So Suppes has decided that putting people in solar homes is something he 
wants to do - even if a chunk of the cost comes out of his profits. He 
also thinks his homes will gain a competitive edge as utility rates rise.

"It's true we don't recoup the full $20,000 cost of solar and other 
energy-saving features," he says. "We're looking at it more from an 
ethical and environmental standpoint and because, in the long run, we 
feel this is the way home-building is headed."

Margaret and Rick Ellis live in Clarum's 20-home Cherry Blossom 
development near Watsonville, Calif. Every home has solar panels and an 
inverter that turns currents from solar cells into currents suitable to 
be fed into the power grid.

"We actually were not even aware there was solar on the roof until we 
were already in love with the house," says Ms. Ellis.

Even so, Ms. Ellis says living in a grid-connected, partially 
solar-powered house has made her appreciate not just significantly lower 
electric bills, but the impact on the environment. "I don't think most 
people who bought these homes made this a moral decision," she says. 
"But it's become important to us."

• For a list of renewable energy funding programs, see www.dsireusa.org

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