PublicationNewspaper Article Solar power generating social change

June 3, 2012
Publication Type:
Newspaper Article

U.S. Navy vet­eran Elmer Rankin, 71, has a fail­ing heart, prostate can­cer and arthri­tis that keeps him in a wheel­chair. Last year, Rankin, who sur­vives on his Social Secu­rity checks, could no longer afford the mount­ing costs to heat his home and power the oxy­gen tank he uses every night. He turned down the heat and got so cold that he wound up in the hospital.

For­tu­nately, while Rankin’s health remains pre­car­i­ous, today he’s no longer scram­bling to pay for power. Thanks to rooftop solar pan­els — paid for with a Cal­i­for­nia sub­sidy — Rankin’s monthly energy bill has dropped from an aver­age of $250 to less than $22. Last month he paid just $1.09. On sunny after­noons, he likes to sit and watch his elec­tric­ity meter run back­ward.
“Solar power didn’t just save me money — it saved my life,” he says.

Like clouds tem­porar­ily block­ing the sun, the con­tin­u­ing par­ti­san debate about Solyn­dra — the Fre­mont solar power firm that went bank­rupt last year despite a $528 mil­lion fed­eral loan guar­an­tee — has obscured the more impor­tant story tak­ing place in the solar energy field: Clean, renew­able solar power is rapidly becom­ing a main­stream, afford­able U.S. energy option — and a boon to our over­all economy.

The solar indus­try world­wide has been grow­ing by 50 per­cent annu­ally. In the United States, solar power now costs less than 20 cents per kilo­watt hour — less than many Amer­i­cans pay for elec­tric­ity. Per dol­lar invested, solar energy is also the high­est job-​​producing com­po­nent of the country’s energy econ­omy. The U.S. solar indus­try has already pro­duced more than 100,000 jobs — a dou­bling since 2009 — and another 25,000 are expected over the next 12 months.

California’s gov­ern­ment has been mak­ing smart invest­ments — includ­ing the one that Rankin cred­its with sav­ing his life. The Cal­i­for­nia Solar Ini­tia­tive is devot­ing approx­i­mately $2 bil­lion in util­ity ratepayer funds by 2016 to install solar sys­tems. So far, it has helped pay for solar pan­els on more than 112,000 homes, mak­ing Cal­i­for­nia a national leader in this cost-​​effective strat­egy, which reduces peak energy costs and water demand, improves air qual­ity, and puts thou­sands of peo­ple back to work.

What’s par­tic­u­larly inspir­ing is how many of California’s new megawatts have been qui­etly improv­ing the lives of peo­ple, like Rankin, who until recently have been left on the side­lines of the global race for green energy. Low-​​income fam­i­lies spend more of their earn­ings on elec­tric­ity than do the well-​​to-​​do but lack the cap­i­tal to cut those costs with effi­ciency upgrades, such as solar panels.

Since 2007, Cal­i­for­nia has been mak­ing solar more afford­able to peo­ple like Rankin with rebates, inno­v­a­tive financ­ing pro­grams and “net-​​metering” options that allow sys­tem own­ers to sell power back to the grid. In a first-​​of-​​its-​​kind solar pro­gram, California’s Single-​​family Afford­able Solar Homes project pro­vides incen­tives for low-​​income home­own­ers to go solar, while also devel­op­ing liveli­hoods for peo­ple like Eduardo Huerta, a father of five, who got work installing solar pan­els after los­ing his job as a stucco plas­terer dur­ing the reces­sion. “I’m proud to have work again, and even more that it’s work that helps my com­mu­nity,” says Huerta.

The solar homes project is admin­is­tered by an Oak­land non­profit, GRID Alter­na­tives, which installs solar elec­tric sys­tems exclu­sively for low-​​income fam­i­lies, mak­ing green energy easy by design­ing the sys­tems, obtain­ing build­ing per­mits, and sub­mit­ting rebate paper­work. GRID Alter­na­tives has helped save res­i­dents approx­i­mately $50 mil­lion on their elec­tric­ity bills, reduc­ing green­house gases by 171,000 tons over the next 30 years, and trained more than 9,000 peo­ple in solar instal­la­tion.
These days, some in Con­gress are still try­ing to make the case that gov­ern­ment sup­port for solar power is a los­ing propo­si­tion. Yet there’s plenty of evi­dence that it’s now time for the rest of the coun­try to fol­low California’s lead. Smart invest­ments and mod­els like GRID Alter­na­tives can bol­ster America’s com­pet­i­tive­ness world­wide and brighten the futures of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans like Elmer Rankin and Eduardo Huerta.

Daniel M. Kam­men is the dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of energy at UC Berke­ley in the Energy and Resources Group and in the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy. From 2010 to 2011, he was the chief tech­ni­cal spe­cial­ist for renew­able energy and energy effi­ciency at the World Bank.

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