Bright Spots on the Grid

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Greg Hanssen parked a sleek electric car in his driveway for three years and nobody ever asked him about it.

But it was a different story last month when he installed solar electric panels on the sloping front roof of his house: His curious Irvine neighbors came out of the woodwork.

"Everybody wants to talk to me about it," said Hanssen, part of a rapidly growing group of Californians intent on generating their own power with photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight into electricity.

Once the most expensive form of renewable energy, solar panels are now more economical, thanks to a combination of skyrocketing utility rates and a California Energy Commission rebate that pays for up to half the cost of setting up a system--the big expense with solar power. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power also offers its customers an attractive rebate. And more could be on the horizon--President Bush's energy plan calls for a 15% tax credit for homes that use solar power, up to $2,000.

The threat of rolling blackouts seems to have sparked an independent streak in average consumers. The result: Solar, or PV (photovoltaic) power, is no longer the province of eccentrics and the wealthy.

"It's only about 10 grand (after system and battery rebates). I know a hundred people who would pay that much if they could get the supplies. What's 10 grand to be able to thumb your nose at ... this whole manufactured energy crisis?" said Doug Korthof of Seal Beach, who with his wife, Lisa Rosen, is installing solar panels with backup batteries.

Such sentiments are prompting more inquiries about solar power. The California Solar Energy Industries Assn. gets so many calls these days that its answering machine simply says the volume of calls cannot be returned and refers those looking for reputable providers to its Web site, http://www.calseia.org .

Most PV providers are swamped, said Don Loweburg of Offline Independent Energy Systems in North Fork, north of Fresno. The ranks of the 30 or so established companies in the state have swelled recently with about 150 newcomers, he said. (The Energy Commission offers a list of suppliers and other information at http://www.energy.ca.gov/greengrid .)

Manufacturers are doubling their efforts but short-term demand exceeds supply, causing installation delays of at least two months in parts of the state. Ironically, the rebates--designed to reduce upfront costs--may have created so much demand that product prices could rise 5% to 10% by the end of the year, said David Catz, Northern California-based director of distribution for Schott Applied Power. Catz said the Washington state firm's California business is up 80% over last year.

The energy commission rebate is the main reason.

"A $30,000 system becomes a $15,000 system. A $16,000 system becomes an $8,000 system. It makes a tremendous difference," Loweburg said.

Rebate applications shot up from 50 a month last fall to about 300 a month currently, according to Marwan Masri, manager of the Energy Commission's renewable energy program. To date, 2,236 rebate applications for renewable systems (more than 90% are solar) have been filed. That adds up to a savings of 13.5 megawatts, enough to power 25,000 homes, Masri said.

The DWP, which offers rebates up to $5 per solar watt installed, hopes to have 100,000 rooftop systems in Los Angeles by 2010.

And solar panels are showing up in new tract housing in San Diego and are being proposed in Lincoln, north of Sacramento. Shea Homes San Diego included small 1.2-kilowatt solar systems as standard features in 100 of 306 homes priced at $450,000 to $650,000 in the Scripps Ranch area. Another 50 homeowners given the option of paying $6,000 for the system ($10,000 to double the size) are expected to take it, said Shea spokeswoman Teri Shusterman. The "high performance" homes offer solar water heating, radiant roof barriers, tightly sealed air ducts and energy-efficient glass windows.

Now in its fourth phase, the development is selling well in an area where residents are paying 10 times more for electricity and more than twice as much for natural gas as they did last year.

U.S. Home Corp. of Houston intends to offer solar panels as options on thousands of homes to be built in Lincoln over a five-to six-year period, according to Masri.

Stand-alone solar units have been an important source of power in developing nations and remote residences in the United States where it's too expensive to connect transmission lines to the grid linking power plants to customers.

But the real growth now is in grid-connected programs, which allow solar users to remain tied to the traditional electrical system and trade some sun power generated during the day for utility power at night.

A process called "net metering" makes staying on the grid more economically attractive than having a stand-alone solar system. First, though, a PV primer:

Sunlight strikes a photovoltaic solar cell made of silicon or other conductive material. A chemical reaction between sunlight and the material releases electrons, which are collected to form direct current--like the current from a car battery. Cells are wired together to make modules, which are linked together to form a free-standing or rooftop system. An inverter changes the DC electricity to alternating current (AC) to run electrical devices and be compatible with the grid.

Net metering measures the electricity a solar-powered home generates during the day when the sun is shining, the amount it draws from the grid on cloudy days when solar output is down, and at night, when no solar power is produced. Solar energy is first used to meet the home's demand; any excess power is fed into the grid. The difference between consumption and production is credited (or billed if use exceeds output) to the consumer. The household electric meter spins forward when grid power is being used and backward when solar energy is being used.

"I can go outside in the daylight and see my meter running backward," said solar user Rodney Eten. "I could have a couple of lights on, the TV, stereo, computer, refrigerator and fish tank going [and] I'm running at 100% solar power," said Eten, a San Diego resident who plans to enlarge his 1.6-kilowatt array to a 2.8-kilowatt system.

"Once you start to pay 20 and 25 cents a kilowatt [hour in utility rates], these things start to pay themselves off sooner," he said.

Eten expects to pay off his system in seven to 10 years, including the rebate. Bids on his project ranged from $7,000 to $20,000. He spent $11,000 and plans to spend another $3,000 to enlarge it, for a total cost of about $6,000 to $7,000 after the rebate.

Eten and others hope the excess power they generate in the summer and "bank" during a 12-month period using net metering will lower winter bills when solar systems produce less energy.

Most solar systems supply a little more than half a home's needs. A 2-kilowatt system, which would generate about 10 kilowatt hours a day, is what most people install, according to Loweburg, who pegs system costs at about $8,000 a kilowatt.

Solar technology has changed--roof tiles that contain PV cells are expected to be the next big step--but the most popular panels sold today are not much different from those produced 20 years ago. PV requires sunlight. Then, said Eten, "every watt you generate is free."

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Lynn O'Dell is an Orange County-based freelance writer.

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