The economic downturn has not slowed the spread of solar energy in California.
In 2008, Californians installed 158 megawatts of solar power, twice as many as the year before, according to a report from the California Public Utilities Commission.
This puts the cumulative total of solar power in California at 441 megawatts, the highest level of solar installations in the country. CPUC officials said they expect the rate of installations to remain strong in 2009 due to a large number of new applications filed in late 2008.
Experts say a variety of factors are combining to make solar energy more popular.
“Rising energy prices and the rising environmental cost of burning fossil fuels are all contributing to this trend,” said UC Davis professor Adam Moule, who studies polymer solar cells.
Moule said solar installations require a lot of money up front – anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 – but they pay for themselves after eight to 15 years.
Although it is expensive to set up solar panels, the state government provides a 30 percent tax credit for new systems. There is only a $5 to $10 utilities charge per month, and the costs of connecting to the power grid are included in the general system construction costs.
“There are also multifamily solar projects for low income residential housing,“ said Chris Chow of the California Utilities Commission. “There‘s a lump sum of tax incentives for watt of usage based on federal tax liability. The less money you make, the more of an incentive you receive for your solar panel tax rebate.“
Even without rebates and tax incentives, the spread of solar paneling means prices are falling.
Until recently the demand for rooftop systems outstripped supply and kept prices high, but global production has ramped up leading to cheaper prices. Prices have fallen 8 to 10 percent since October and are expected to drop another 15 to 20 percent this year.
“We‘ve seen a 44 percent increase in sales from 2007 to 2008,“ said Ellen Coleman, owner of Wholesale Solar. With more people looking to build on cheaper, undeveloped land, the demand for solar energy has risen, she said.
Some say the trendy nature of solar energy has contributed to its rise as well.
“Solar is sexy,“ said Chas Ehrlich, president of the Ehrlich Natural Resources Group, an energy efficiency consulting group in Davis. “Do you put your Jaguar in the garage or the driveway? Solar panels are just that. They look really good, and they perform fairly well.“
Ehrlich pointed out that solar energy does not come without its own problems.
One Davis development with photovoltaic energy, Muir Commons, had to replace roof shingles under the solar panels, adding several thousand dollars to the cost of the solar project, he said.
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Though solar energy is often touted as a solution to California’s energy problems, some experts warn that energy efficiency is far more important.
“Energy efficiency needs to come before solar, as one of the biggest energy losers is from leaky ducts,” said local energy consultant Chas Ehrlich. “Thirty percent of leakage goes into the atmosphere instead of the home. A change in lifestyle that focuses on an integrated solution is needed.“
Ben Finkelor of the Davis Energy Efficiency Center agrees with Ehrlich about efficiency’s cost effectiveness.
“Davis had some of the first energy efficiency codes,” said Finkelor, referring to requirements the city has for developers building new homes. “It is still a common misconception even here that solar energy should come before efficiency.“
Yolo County used 1.7 million kWh of electricity in 2007, according to the California Energy Consumption Data Management System. This is a slight increase from 2006, with a usage of 1.6 million kWh.
On a broader level, however, California‘s per capita energy consumption is low compared to other states (67, 992 kWh according to the Energy Information Administration‘s site), in part due to energy consumption programs, good rebate programs, and the mild weather that reduces energy demands.