Calif. builders warm up to solar power

Mass production lowers costs as rising fuel bills make it competitive

November 04, 2001|By Eric Bailey | Eric Bailey,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN DIEGO - Tom Day sees a lot to love about his family's brand new house. Perched in a high-end subdivision on this city's booming northeast fringe, the dun-hued Mediterranean boasts a castle-turret entry, a lofty master suite, a mesa-top view.

But aesthetics aren't all that attracted Day. His new home will also help pay the power bill. With photovoltaic panels on a triangle of south-facing tile roof and a solar water heater along a western ridge, the two-story house is part of a quiet revolution taking shape in these times of energy anemia.

The Day clan just moved into one of California's first solar subdivisions, a new home development that attempts on a mass-production scale to tap the sun's energy - and offset residential utility bills that have been soaring toward the ozone layer.

For the solar industry, it is another important step in an uphill slog for respectability. Energy experts say solar's future could well hinge on whether the building industry embraces it for the thousands of new homes, offices and commercial structures erected each year in California.

Several factors have conspired to make solar an option for builders.

The cost of photovoltaic panels, the thin silicon wafers that turn photons of light into electricity, has dropped drastically in the last decade. Meanwhile, newly pumped-up government subsidies and skyrocketing electric bills in California have made solar energy tantalizingly competitive with electricity produced by smokestack power plants.

A study at Princeton University concluded earlier this year that two key states - California and New York - are ripe for explosive growth in solar. Both share the right combination of high electricity prices and white-hot housing markets.

In California, about 150,000 new homes are built in a typical year. If each carried a standard 2-kilowatt photovoltaic system, it would eliminate the need for a 300-megawatt power plant.

"I really think builders are starting to come around," said V. John White, lobbyist for a solar coalition. "We need solar to be like a carpet upgrade or landscaping improvement."

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