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Solar Energy Comeback : COMPANIES HOPE TO BRING THE SUN BACK INTO HOMES

September 15, 1990|CLARK SHARON | Clark Sharon is a regular contributor to Home Design

In the course of a year, the energy needed to power every vehicle, machine and factory on earth, as well as heat every building, is equal to about 50 trillion kilowatt-hours.

Or about 40 minutes worth of sunlight.

Here in Orange County, the energy released by the sun in the form of light and heat can total five million kilowatts on the brightest days.

That is more than double the generating capacity of San Onofre's twin nuclear reactors.

Abundant, cheap and clean energy. The promise of power in perpetuity. The solar age. Welcome to the late 1970s.

More than a decade later, the remnants of that age can be seen on rooftops across Orange County. Low black boxes called solar collectors are reminders of another energy crisis and the resulting scramble for alternative fuels. Homeowners did their part for energy conservation by installing solar hot water systems, while at the same time collecting hefty tax credits awarded by a grateful nation. The tax credits ended in 1985, and the home solar industry nearly did too.

"Everybody and their brother was manufacturing or installing solar equipment," recalled Mike Gallant, owner of Generic Electric in Orange. "After tax credits ended, it was a matter of months and the entire industry had been shaken out."

Gallant is a survivor of the solar massacre of 1985. Dozens of companies failed, big marketing firms washed their hands of the solar industry, and a once enthusiastic public ran back into the welcoming arms of the Southern California Gas Co. for its home heating needs. It seemed that the great solar experiment had gone into eclipse.

But a surprising thing happened on the way to oblivion. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein stormed into tiny, oil-rich Kuwait, he may have also ridden inadvertently to the rescue of the solar home market in this country.

As the bully of Baghdad threatens to ignite the world's first energy war, the call for development of alternative energy sources and conservation of existing fuel supplies has sounded across the nation. Solar energy is suddenly fashionable again. Small wonder that a solar industry association in Florida recently indulged in some black humor when it nominated Saddam Hussein as its Solar Man of the Year.

Les Nelson, president of the California Solar Energy Industries Assn., says he believes the Middle East crisis will "probably lead to renewed interest in residential solar uses. Not that people are suddenly going to run out and put solar in their homes, but there should be some action (on solar energy) on a government level."

In other words, Uncle Sam may once again look at solar energy for the home as a viable energy alternative, and not just as a leftover from the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s.

Nelson, who is also operations manager for Revco Solar Engineering in Laguna Niguel, admits that there is little connection between in-home solar use as practiced in Orange County and the threat to American oil interests in the Persian Gulf. That is because natural gas is the overwhelming choice for home heating needs in Southern California--not fuel oil as in some other parts of the United States.

Fuel conservation may not even figure in the Southern California solar equation--for now.

Airborne pollution, specifically that caused by the release of nitrogen oxides through the burning of natural gas, is of more immediate concern to solar advocates, especially now that the South Coast Air Quality Management District is studying proposed clean air rules that would mandate solar-assisted hot water heating on all new-home construction. Only one Orange County city, Placentia, currently requires solar assistance on new homes. (One other city, La Palma, officially encourages its use by builders.) According to Nelson, the major opponents of solar mandates are home builders, the pool and spa industry, and the Southern California Gas Co.

"The builders and pool people don't want to add any more cost to their products, while the gas company is worried about solar cutting into its future sales growth," he said.

Theoretically, it would be possible to provide a large part of both the space and water heating needs for the average Orange County home through the use of solar power. Possible, but not practical, agrees Nelson. "When you say 'in-home solar' to most people, they automatically think of space heating. But very few solar space-heating systems are ever installed."

Nelson points out that upfront costs of $5,000 to $7,500 for space heating are too high to justify a savings of perhaps 50% to 60% on heating bills--savings that can only be realized about six months out of the year. Architectural passive space heating, such as thermal windows, skylights, greenhouse-like sun spaces and special construction techniques, can cut heating costs, but few Southern California homes are designed with such solar technology in mind.

It is in the area of hot water heating that solar energy has traditionally proven most popular with Orange County homeowners.

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