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Solar power hits suburbia

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2004

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.

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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 program.