[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
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
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
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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