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PROGRESS: Solar energy is a trend that's heating up

Myriad reasons give rise to new efforts to harness sunlight

Posted: March 29, 2008 10:57 p.m.
Updated: May 30, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Sustainable progress combines stewardship of our environment today with addressing the needs of future generations.

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The following is just one feature story from The Signal's 2008 Progress special edition, published Sunday. Be sure to see the entire Progress section for more on energy sustainability in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Global warming. Respect for the environment. Smarter growth. Lower utility bills. Diminishing oil supplies.
Pick your motive. There are lots of reasons that the national mindset is shifting toward renewable resources.

The question is whether we humans can win the race to produce more renewable and sustainable sources of energy - from the sun, wind, fuel cells or elsewhere - before all the petroleum-based fuels on which we're so dependent are depleted. At current rates of consumption, most experts agree, that could happen before the end of this century.

The impetus to wean ourselves from fossil fuels goes beyond the enormous and ever-increasing cost we consumers have to pay at the pump, siphoning away disposable income and reducing spending. In a market economy such as ours, consumer spending is the driver. Right now, the driver is slumped over the wheel.

In the long term, though, the impetus to develop clean, affordable sources of electrical energy is nothing short of our survival.

And ultimately, that of the planet.

Global warming is an issue so monumental, many people still have difficulty getting their heads around it. Fortunately, forward-thinkers who understand the problem and its implications are developing possible solutions, and in the process, creating a new, billion-dollar industry dedicated to helping humans win the race.

At the forefront
The international community is leading the charge. Worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, use of renewable energy (biomass, geothermal, solar and wind) increased from 4.969 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity in 1980 to 73.427 GW in 2004, a 1,477 percent increase. (A gigawatt is one billion watts.) Europe led in 2004 with 34.2 GW, followed by North America with 22.8 GW.

On the federal level, U.S. agencies such as the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Congress and private industry are making efforts to achieve energy independence.

In 2006, the last year for which figures are available, the U.S. solar market had grown by 43 percent for installed megawatts. And as of late 2007, the market was on track to grow to 60 percent that year, a 17 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Washington D.C.-based Solar Electric Power Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association. The organizations will stage its 2008 Solar Power Conference, the solar industry's biggest trade show, Oct. 13-16 at the San Diego Convention Center.

Within the United States, California is in the vanguard. The California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission are doing even more than the feds to encourage green energy choices among consumers and businesses.

The agencies offer tax credits, rebates and other incentives to private-sector companies that research and develop alternative energy-generating technology, and to business owners and homeowners who install solar energy-generating systems, geothermal heating systems and other energy-saving measures.

In California, about 10.2 percent of the electricity we use now comes from renewable sources - biomass, geothermal, small hydroelectric, solar and wind - according to California Energy Commission figures.
In 2002, California established its Renewable Portfolio Standard Program with the goal of increasing the percentage of renewable energy in the state's electricity mix to 20 percent by 2017. The Energy Commission has since recommended accelerating the goal of 20 percent by seven years to 2010 and increasing the target of 33 percent electricity from renewable energy by 2020. The state's Energy Action Plan supported this accelerated goal.

California Solar Initiative
In January 2007, the state launched its California Solar Initiative, an offshoot of Senate Bill 1 signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in August 2006. The initiative, an ambitious partnership between the state, the California Public Utilities Commission, and energy and utility providers, is a 10-year, $3.3 billion program with a goal of achieving production of 3,000 megawatts (one megawatt equals a million watts) via renewable sources by the end of 2016.

The initiative established the Energy Commission's New Solar Homes Partnership to focus solely on promoting use of photovoltaic solar systems for new residential buildings, mainly by working directly with developers - including Lennar and The Newhall Land and Farming Co. in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Both solar initiative programs changed from the capacity-based incentives previously in place to performance-based or expected performance-based buydown/incentives that reward properly designed, installed and maintained solar systems.

Along with residential new home developers, the California Energy Commission's other jurisdictions under the California Solar Initiative are the large solar businesses and commercial agriculture.

Rebates to developers
The California Solar Initiative recognizes that working with developers of large numbers of homes will help spread the use of photovoltaic systems faster, and have a greater positive impact sooner, than working with individual homeowners. Rebates go directly to developers, making it even more attractive for developers to get with the program.

"The rebate to the builder is $2.50 per watt right now, so you're looking at roughly on your average 3-kilowatt (3,000 watts) home system another $7,500 savings for the builder," said Amy Morgan, California Energy Commission spokeswoman.

"As for the federal tax credit of up to $2,000, it's only in place through the end of 2008 unless Congress renews it," Morgan said. "A builder or consumer can take advantage of it - we're seeing it go both ways. In some cases the consumer signs the rebate over to the builder, or the builder gives it back to the consumer.

"But under the New Solar Homes Partnership, the rebate goes directly to the builder."

"Providing incentives to new-home homebuilders who provide a (standard) solar system will help to create a self-sustaining market," said Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, Energy Commission chairwoman, on unveiling the California Solar Initiative and its companion informational Web site, www.gosolarcalifornia.ca.gov/.

"As an added benefit, these new solar homes will be even more energy efficient than the state's (Title 24) standards, ensuring that the homeowner is receiving value and reducing their overall energy bills," Pfannenstiel said.

"For builders to even be part of the New Solar Home Partnership program, there's an energy efficiency requirement of 15 to 30 percent over the current Title 24 building standards," Morgan confirmed.

"One of the things we did in the New Solar Homes Partnership during 2007 was focus heavily on market research - what consumers want, what they would buy," Morgan said. "What we're finding is that consumers will not purchase solar as an option. When they're buying a new home, they're looking at carpeting, tile, countertops and cabinets, and when they see that extra price tag for solar, they will not choose it.
"That's why one of the (California Energy Commission's) goals is to have solar as a standard feature."

As of mid-March, Morgan said, "We have applications to our program for about 2,700 new homes.
"That includes not only about two dozen large developments, but also affordable housing and your smaller custom homes built by a developer one or two at a time."

New solar in SCV
In early 2008, Lennar, part owner of Valencia-based Newhall Land, introduced the Patina tract of single-family homes in the West Creek neighborhood of Valencia off Copper Hill Drive. It's the first development in Southern California to offer photovoltaic solar systems as a standard feature. (Lennar has built several other solar neighborhoods in Northern and Central California).

Partnering with photovoltaic system manufacturer SunPower, Lennar plans a total of 96 "SOLARplus" homes to be built in two phases. The first several Patina homes, ranging from 2,700 to 3,000 square feet with prices starting in the high $600,000s, have already been built and sold.

"People who purchase the Patina homes get solar as part of the 'everything included' package of the home - it's standard, not an option," said Marlee Lauffer, Newhall Land spokeswoman.

"The SOLARplus package also includes double-pane solar 'e' windows, a tankless water heater and other energy-saving things to really make the solar system work most effectively. The SOLARplus homes exceed the Title 24 standard by around 15 percent," she said, thereby making Lennar eligible to enter the Patina development into the California Solar Initiative's New Solar Homes Partnership.

"It's a newer concept for L.A. County, so we're introducing it at Patina and seeing where it goes from there," Lauffer said.

Looking ahead to the build-out of the massive Newhall Ranch development, Lauffer said there are no plans right now to offer SOLARplus homes, but that could change. "We're going to keep our options open. We won't start construction there 'til probably 2010, so we'll see what other applications might also be available then. But we certainly have been impressed with the reception of solar, and we all know it has a great deal of benefits."

Retrofitting homes
The retrofit market - solar and other energy-saving solutions for existing homes - is now under Public Utilities Commission jurisdiction. The PUC continues to provide incentives for these installations for all other residential and non-residential customers through its California Solar Initiative program administrator - Southern California Edison in our case.

"There is no energy efficiency requirement for existing homes as there is for a new solar home partner," Morgan said. "If you look at it financially, it doesn't make sense for a consumer to install solar without looking at all the energy efficiency aspects of the home. People can do a lot of things around their home to save money - insulation, windows, lighting - before looking at retrofitting their home with solar."

Local solar consumers now apply for rebates through Southern California Edison. "Even though it's the Public Utilities Commission's jurisdiction, the utilities actually administer the program's rebates for increased energy efficiency as well as rebates for solar retrofitting," Morgan said.

"The PUC rebate is under $2.50 (per watt) right now because they have steps where the rebate drops down after certain megawatts are hit," Morgan said. "Consumers can check with the PUC or SCE (Southern California Edison) for actual numbers for what your rebate would be."

The PUC and local utilities are also responsible for monitoring the meters that track how much energy each solar system generates and adds to the overall power grid. "Net metering determines what the consumer's bill will be," Morgan said. "The goal is to produce more electricity than you use. When you do, your energy bill will be net zero. All you pay is $18 per year for administrative fees."

Unfortunately, the PUC doesn't require energy providers to pay a rebate for any excess electricity your system adds to the overall power grid.

Where are we?
So where does California stand right now in the race to reach production of 3,000 megawatts via renewable sources by the end of 2016?

"The PUC puts out this really good report that's on the GoSolar Web site (www.gosolarcalifornia.ca.gov/), and the most recent was released in January," she said. "They are at 208 megawatts, and when you add our 2,700 applications under the New Solar Home Project, which is roughly three megawatts, we're at about 210-211 megawatts now."

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