Starting last month, Los Angeles residents began finding a small ray of sunshine in their utility bills. The Department of Water and Power, hoping to make rooftop solar panels as ubiquitous as low-flow toilets, has launched a yearlong program of rebates and tax credits to encourage homeowners to tap into the sun. An insert in every DWP bill describes the program that puts some serious money behind this plan.
Solar power still generates only 1% of California's electricity, but solar's cheerleaders, long considered granola-eating idealists, have kept the faith. Southern California's many days of sunshine and moderate climate, they believe, make this region ideal for residential solar power systems. But to get the free energy from the sun you have to install a mighty expensive photovoltaic grid. A two-kilowatt system, enough to generate 60% to 80% of the electricity for an average home, still costs $16,000.
With electricity costs skyrocketing over the last year and terrorism raising new concerns about the security of foreign energy supplies, solar looks a little less unrealistic. Advances in panel manufacturing have lowered costs and greatly improved reliability.
Many earlier solar systems were stand-alone units, unconnected to the energy grid. Current home and business systems are grid-connected. That means solar energy is used to meet a home's demand first, then any excess power is fed to the grid. If more solar power is generated than used, consumers receive a credit--and can see their electric meter actually spin backward. At night and when there isn't strong sunshine, homeowners draw electricity from the grid.
As S. David Freeman, the plain-speaking former DWP chief, says, it's "just kind of dumb to get the rays free of charge but not figure out how to use them in large quantities." Utility officials think residents and businesses just need a push to do that.
So now through December the DWP is sweetening its Solar Incentive Program by offering cash incentives covering up to half the cost of the photovoltaic equipment: A $16,000 system will cost the homeowner $8,000, and a more basic system, retailing at $9,000, will go for $4,500. In addition, the DWP will help connect customers with makers of solar systems and qualified installers.
The DWP says 1,300 households have gone solar just since last July; the goal is to encourage installation of 100,000 solar power systems by 2010, generating 100 megawatts. That's not just an enviro-hobby anymore.
To Take Action: For information about the DWP's Solar Incentive Program call (800) GreenLA or log on to www.greenla.com.