Solar power hits suburbia

By , 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."

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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.

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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