Sun-powered homes defy a cool housing market

Times Staff Writer

With foreclosures rising and home prices diving, there is a bright spot in California’s residential real estate market: Solar-powered homes are starting to outsell traditionally electrified new homes in several markets, and developers are stepping up their use of the technology.

Perhaps it’s only fitting for a state that so openly celebrates its sunshine. Still, the growing popularity of household solar power is an encouraging sign for the thousands of solar enthusiasts and vendors gathering in Long Beach this week.

“Those builders are seeing that they’ll get more buyers coming to their developments when they have solar. They sell like hot cakes,” said Bernadette del Chiaro, energy specialist at the advocacy group Environment California.

Julie Blumden, a vice president at SunPower Corp., a San Jose-based manufacturer of solar roof tiles, said builders using solar were selling homes faster than nonsolar competitors -- an important factor in a slow market. “The increase in sales velocity is actually paying for the solar systems,” she said.

SunPower, which sells its solar tiles to builders including Lennar Homes and Grupe Co., said it had orders to provide solar systems for 3,000 new homes in California in the coming years.


“The last time we saw interest in solar that was anything close to this was back in the 1980s, the first time there were federal tax credits for solar energy,” said Julia Judd Hamm, executive director of the Solar Electric Power Assn. and co-chair of the Solar Power 2007 conference underway at the Long Beach Convention Center. “But the numbers then aren’t even comparable to what we’re seeing now.”

Solar power is hotter than ever, helped by California’s ambitious Million Solar Roofs rebate program, federal tax credits and growing public and political support for renewable power of all kinds. The U.S. solar industry saw record growth last year, with California the largest market by far, according to a study by the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development. And 2007 is shaping up to be another big year, industry officials say.

The boom also has swelled the community of solar products and pitchmen.

Both will be on display at the solar conference and expo, which is expected to draw more than 11,000 attendees in Long Beach, up from 8,500 at last year’s event in San Jose, organizers say. Tonight, the show is free to the public from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Exhibitors will be hawking photovoltaic solar panels in all forms, with some companies showing off systems that embed the technology in carports, roofing tiles and other structures. Some will be targeting individual homeowners, while others will be angling for business with utilities that want to boost their use of renewable power.

California’s largest electric utilities, including Edison International’s Southern California Edison Co., PG&E; Corp.'s Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric Co., have signed deals to build power-plant-sized solar facilities in and around the Mojave Desert or negotiated contracts with companies putting up such plants.

“Obviously, there are a nearly unlimited number of rooftops available in California and across the country” for individual solar power production, Hamm said. “At the same time, the whole concept of utility-scale plants is really just starting to gain momentum. So it’s going to be a combination of the two.”

California’s $3.3-billion Million Solar Roofs program is based on the notion that businesses and homeowners would install solar systems faster if the cost was partially offset by rebates and incentives. The goal is to create 3,000 megawatts of new solar power in California by 2017 and to build solar power systems into half of all new homes by 2015.

“We were at 1% in 2004, and we’re probably only at about 5% of all new homes right now,” said Del Chiaro of Environment California. “It’s good growth, but we’re going to have to ramp up quite significantly to get to that 50% mark.”

The solar power industry is drawing its share of star power.

Cable television mogul Ted Turner, who will deliver one of the keynote speeches launching the show today, teamed up this year with New Jersey solar developer Dome-Tech Solar to form a venture called DT Solar. Turner, chairman of Turner Enterprises Inc., said the renamed solar company would continue its focus on designing and installing large-scale projects and was expanding into California and other U.S. markets.

“Clean alternative energy is going to be a huge market because it’s going to be done all over the world and it’s got to be done right away. We’re out of time,” Turner said.

“Solar has probably the most potential because the sun is everywhere.”

Hamm and others are encouraged by the explosion of start-up companies and new products in the solar industry, as well as by the technology’s growing popularity with the public. But she knows solar is still a small fry in the electricity world.

“I don’t think anybody in the solar industry thinks that solar is the answer and is eventually going to take over,” she said. “Right now, solar electricity is about one-tenth to two-tenths of a percent of the entire U.S. energy mix. It’s barely even a dot on the radar screen.”