On the Grid 

Solar power finally took off once it plugged into the larger electrical system.

Liz Horowitz of Berkeley installed her solar electric system to salve her anger at "those greedy bastards at the utilities and energy companies." Dahv Kliner of San Ramon got one partly to assuage his guilt over wanting a hot tub. "They turned it on September 11, 2001," said Kliner, a research scientist at Sandia National Labs, who line-dries his clothes to offset the spa. "Everyone was watching airplanes hit the World Trade Center, but I don't have a television so I was watching my meter run backward."

It's been 52 years since Bell Laboratories produced the first modern solar cells, and the combination of Enron, terrorist attacks, and the war in Iraq have finally done for the solar industry what the Arab oil embargo alone couldn't. After floundering through the dark days of the 1980s and early 1990s, when incentive programs dried up, solar started to recapture the public's imagination as Y2K approached. Since then, interest has snowballed, prices have dropped, and rebates are plentiful. A medium-sized home system now runs about $16,000 to $22,000 after rebates.

Between 2003 and 2004, US shipments of photovoltaic modules — those shiny black panels full of silicon wafers whose electrons get excited when the sun hits them — jumped 61 percent, according to the latest information from the Energy Information Administration. The industry as a whole has grown 36 percent annually since 1999.

"We're dealing with great increases in energy costs, and most people think that's going to continue," said Gary Gerber, president of Berkeley's Sun Light and Power, a thirty-year-old company that survived the hardscrabble '80s and has doubled its sales each year for the past three years. "If I were to characterize what I hear from customers, there are a lot of people who are trying to stick it to PG&E. But I'd say the typical customer is comfortable enough to afford it and looking to the future to get their costs stabilized."

The early adopters tend to be people who love to watch their meters and keep obsessive logbooks. That profile will soon expand. The Public Utilities Commission's California Solar Initiative, or "million solar roofs" program, which goes into effect in 2007, will provide $3.6 billion in rebates over the next decade with the goal of adding 3,000 new megawatts (up from about 135 megawatts now) to the state's solar-power generation. During that time, sales of new materials such as solar roof tiles and shingles are expected to take off.

That's relatively speaking, of course. Solar accounts for just 1 percent of renewable energy consumed in the United States, dwarfed by hydroelectric and biomass, and even trailing wind. Yet for the first time this year, the solar industry will consume more refined silicon than the entire semiconductor industry, Gerber said. Solar manufacturers used to depend on the electronics industry's castoff wafers — too flawed to turn into Pentium processors, but plenty pure to make electricity. Solar is now big enough to buy its own lower-grade silicon, and the demand has created a supply crunch and higher prices.

It's not off-the-grid hippies who have fueled the new solar boom. It's the availability of systems connected to the power grid that has made solar practical for homeowners. Back when Gerber started out, "going solar" essentially meant installing a sun-heated hot water system. Thanks to then-Governor Jerry Brown and President Jimmy Carter, state and federal tax credits were a generous 55 percent, but consumer options were limited. Solar electric systems were prohibitively expensive, more suited to remote uses like satellites and emergency call boxes than in the home.

That was changing by the mid-1990s, when home systems consisting of an array of photovoltaic panels and an inverter that converts the direct current they produce to the alternating current of the grid came to market. In 1996, California enacted its net-metering law, which lets solar customers send their excess electricity back into the grid at peak times, and draw on it when the sun is not shining. Two years later, the state adopted the Emerging Renewables Program, offering hefty rebates that decrease as solar gets more popular. Those programs, combined with Y2K fears and then the so-called energy crisis of 2001, helped push solar over the hump.

By 2004, grid-tied systems had taken over, comprising 71 percent of new systems compared with just 39 percent a year earlier. Roughly 11,000 of PG&E's customers have been hooked up, and there are more than 20,000 systems in use statewide. Now, going off grid will cost you, since you won't be eligible for the rebates. Plus, solar users like to cite the public good of being plugged into the grid. "We send our excess energy back to the grid on sunny afternoons when the dirtiest plants are in operation," said Tom Lent of Berkeley, who installed a small electric system three years ago that cost him $8,500 after rebates, and added a thermal hot water system for about $6,000. Combined with energy-saving measures such as using compact fluorescent bulbs, the system covers the five kilowatt-hours his three-person household uses daily. "Instead of being one more load on the system, draining energy resources, we are now a positive part of it."

Ask homeowners who have bolted a bunch of PV panels to their roof about cost savings and they'll tell you that's beside the point. "People spend so much disposable income on luxuries and toys that break, or even their cars," Horowitz said. "If you can do this, you should."

Regardless, solar consultant Andy Black of San Jose's OnGrid Solar Energy Systems has created a payback calculator that factors in energy prices, inflation, property value, and financing. He calculates that a medium-sized four-kilowatt system meeting nearly all the power needs of a moderate energy user would take eighteen years to pay for itself. Heavy users who simply reduce their monthly bills by installing the same system would break even sooner, in about twelve years, Black calculates, since they'd be shaving off the above-baseline kilowatt-hours for which customers pay a premium. Since well-installed systems can run virtually problem-free for thirty years, the long-term savings for either customer could be significant.

But Bruce Gardiner of Berkeley's Acme Electric Solar, an independent solar contractor, never sells it that way. "You can't look at it as a moneymaker," he says. "You have to have other motivations to do it. There are so many variables, it's really hard to calculate."

Suzanne Jones, a physicist who integrated passive solar, photovoltaics, and thermal water heat into the sleek, hilltop aerie she remodeled in Moraga, said the true costs of energy usually aren't usually factored into the equation. "When you calculate the environmental costs of coal mining, oil spills, and nuclear waste, we should be paying more for energy," she said. "Solar is far cheaper on Mother Earth."


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