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.