Here Comes the Sun

Date: 18 Nov 1997 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Here Comes the Sun

by David Morris

November 18, 1997 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

When President Clinton announced his Million Solar Roofs Initiative on June 26th, the farsighted people at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District(SMUD) probably wondered what had taken him so long.

Back in 1993, SMUD announced its own solar roof initiative. In most ways it was and is much bolder than Clinton’s. SMUD’s initiative responded to the desire of its citizen-owners not only to be environmentally responsible but to make themselves more energy self-reliant.

Environmentally, no solar technology is more attractive than solar cells, those wafer thin electric devices first used to power space satellites. One ton of sand can make silicon solar cells that produce as much electricity as burning 500,000 tons of coal.

But, it may be the political implications of these solar electric devices that garners the most popular support. An energy efficient home could generate sufficient electricity from its own roof to satisfy its own energy needs with enough left over to power the family electric car. In this age of deregulation, wouldn’t it be nice to have some leverage over your increasingly distant power supplier?

Recognizing the popular support for this technology, in 1993 SMUD launched its Photovoltaic(PV) Pioneer Program. The pioneering homeowner or organization pays about half the cost of the solar electric system. SMUD pays the rest. Over 400 homes and two dozen businesses and churches have already gone through the program. “It delights us to have our church roof put to work for the common good”, says one parishioner.

Sufficient space exists just on non-residential rooftops and parking lots in Sacramento County to generate electricity for over 100,000 homes. SMUD is busily trying to capture that potential. Three large PV arrays installed over parking lots serve a dual purpose; shading the cars from Sacramento’s fierce summer sun while generating electricity.

To the pioneers go not only the glory but the gravy. SMUD is using its internal market to become a world center of solar R&D and manufacturing. This past summer, it made the world’s largest single purchase of solar cells ever. As a condition of the contracts, SMUD required companies to establish manufacturing facilities in Sacramento. Over 200 jobs will be created initially, but the potential could well be in the tens of thousands.

The world market for solar cells is small but growing rapidly. This year sales surpassed $1 billion. Nine new PV manufacturing plants have been built in the U.S. alone in the last 2 years. Another six will open in 1998. At least 10 states now are home to at least one solar electric production plant.

By 2005, the annual U.S. market for solar cells on buildings could reach $2.5 billion, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association(SEIA).

The market potential overseas may be even greater. Scott Sklar, Executive Director of SEIA points out that some 2 million villages near the sunny equator have no electricity and it may already be cheaper to install solar electric devices on-site rather than build costly transmission lines from remote power plants.

The Administration’s solar roofs initiative, to be perfectly honest, is pitifully modest. Clinton plans to spend only about $200 million on the effort, none of it new money. Nevertheless, the initiative promises to put the spotlight on a wildly popular technology with profound implications. The Administration is currently seeking partners for its effort and apparently is having no trouble finding them.

SMUD has committed itself to installing PVs on 25,000 roofs. Reportedly, Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power, now headed up by S. David Freeman, the father of SMUD’s program, has committed to 100,000 homes. By the end of the year Clinton may have in-hand commitments for all 1 million homes. If so, that groundswell of popular interest might spur him and both political parties, to provide the resources to up the ante and make this a truly bold initiative.

The initiative will highlight and hopefully remove the non-technological obstacles to our becoming power producers. Twenty states already have changed their utility regulations to allow people who install a rooftop power plant to spin their electric meters backward, in theory, receiving a check from the utility at the end of the month. According to Sklar, 40 percent of homeowner associations west of the Mississippi have covenants that restrict the use of solar roof arrays. They’re concerned about aesthetics. No problem. SMUD has just issued a contract for a “solar subdivision”. The contractor will install solar electric systems on 50 roofs. The solar cells will be part of the roof shingles.

SMUD got the ball rolling. Clinton’s initiative will recruit many more players. And just maybe, as a result, future historians will record that the solar rooftop initiative of the 1990s changed the rules of the energy game.

Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.