decentralized power

Building A Future Home For Solar In The Valley

State figures show that Fresno-area homeowners are embracing solar energy. So, it shouldn't come as a great surprise to learn that one of the Valley's largest locally owned builders is making solar-energy systems a standard feature on all new houses.

McCaffrey Homes is adding the feature as part of a new whole-house green program called Earth Sense. A typical homeowner will shave 40 percent to 60 percent off energy bills with the 3 kilowatt system, said Dennis Cox, regional director of SolarCity, the installer that is teaming up with McCaffrey.

The system include a personalized Internet monitoring device that displays energy savings, production and environmental benefits, Cox said. McCaffrey principal Karen McCaffrey called the program "impactful today and long into the future" because it helps save homeowners money and protects the environment.

The program is another example of the expanding green movement in California - a movement that Gov. Jerry Brown said at a recent bill-signing event in Fowler is turning into a "revolution."

I don't know if I'll be breaking out my beret any time soon, but there is no denying a growing awareness in California, which set a landmark 33% renewable-energy mandate and where the $20 billion agriculture industry in the San Joaquin Valley is turning to solar to operate more dairy farms, packinghouses and other operations.

Homeowners in the the San Joaquin Valley, where triple-digit temperatures are common during the summer and power bills have been known to contain commas, are particularly interested in solar. Bakersfield, Fresno and Clovis are 4th, 5th and 7th respectively in the number of residential solar applications in California, just behind much larger cities of San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco, according to state statistics.

The solar-energy industry suffered a blow with the Solyandra bankruptcy, but it still appears to be moving forward in California. Walmart just announced that it will install solar on 60 more buildings- amounting to 75% of all company stores in the state. The world's largest retailer has slashed energy costs by more than $1 million through solar installations, and Google has announced it will offer financing for solar panels.

Dozens of solar projects are proposed for the San Joaquin Valley and desert regions of the state. There is even a proposal to make San Diego and Imperial counties a "mega region" for renewable energy.

Many home builders offer solar as an option, but McCaffrey is believed to be among the first in the Fresno area to make it standard. The first systems will go on houses in the Crownstone development at Barstow and DeWolf avenues in Clovis and Braden Court at Ashlan and Locan avenues, also in Clovis.

Rooftop solar and decentralized energy is considered by some to be among the most cost-effective and practical ways to boost renewable power, so any efforts in that way are good. Learn more in this report.

McCaffrey is essentially prepaying a solar lease, so the panels can be transferred to a new house if the property is sold, or the lease can be transferred to the new owner. The company also says the price of its new homes aren't increasing to accommodate the solar.

The homebuilding market is in the dumps, so builders are looking for ways to stand out. Offering solar as a standard feature without hiking the home price is a way to do that. It also is a small step in the solarization of the Valley.

3 developments accelerate clean energy evolution

When I was 17, I discovered how fast my step-father's then almost-new 1976 SR5 Celica fastback would go.

105 mph.

Urging me on was a not-so-shabby Chevelle. It passed me heading out the deserted Glenn Highway near Mirror Lake going about 90. I blew past it at what I discovered to be top speed, catching a little air on the rolling frost heaves outside Anchorage.

I'm getting that same sense of wide-open acceleration now, watching developments in clean energy. Technologies appear to be testing just how fast they can move forward.

Solar and LED lighting threaten to go mainstream with price reductions. But other technologies also show exceptional promise.

1. Passive House. A house at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History designed with no furnace -- honest -- has been completed and is already catching attention. The residence, which uses "passive house" design and technology, cuts its greenhouse gas footprint and utility costs to the quick. SmartHome Cleveland received a national write-up from Renee Schoof of McClatchy Newspapers.

"Because the house is so well insulated, it can hold heat from sunshine, body heat, lights and appliances," she wrote.

I did a piece on the house while it was under construction in January 2011, explaining how the passive house movement is gaining a foothold in Europe and possibly finding its way into this country. Super-insulated homes are hardly new, especially in the North. I worked on one at 14 in 1975 in Fairbanks. But their adoption has been slow going.

That may certainly change when people paying hundreds of dollars a month in heating bills see an option for cutting that to near nothing.

The stakes are high. Buildings account for about half of global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. And while there's a big push nationally and worldwide to address that with retrofits, upgrades and better building practices, finding the mainstream remains a challenge.

But I'm feeling positive, especially with efforts like the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED building certification system, which was designed to improve energy savings, water efficiency and CO2 emissions reduction. And more stringent building practices, now in play, would make a big dent in greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.

2. Buildings that clean the air. This boggles the mind. Alcoa Inc. has developed a proprietary process, using a titanium dioxide coating, called EcoClean, that offers, in the company's words, "the world’s first coil-coated aluminum architectural panel that helps clean itself and the air around it."

Here's the way it works, according to Alcoa's website: titanium dioxide on Alcoa's EcoClean siding interacts with sunlight to break down organic matter both on and floating around the surface of the building panels, leaving the organic matter sitting on the surface. Rain washes it away. The Pittsburg, Pa.-based company says 10,000 square feet has the cleaning power of 80 trees.

Expect other companies to jump on the bandwagon. This is a simple way for corporate America to "green" their portfolios with minimal cost, and it could be a big deal.

3. Buildings that generate more power than they use. The IEEE released a report that says solar eventually could begin to challenge fossil fuels in electricity production. "Solar PV will be a game changer," said James Prendergast, IEEE executive director, in a statement. "No other alternative source has the same potential." The professional organization that promotes technological advancement says solar has been growing 40 percent a year over the past decade.

That means homeowners who install solar today may wind up selling their surplus capacity back to their utilities. This would create an entirely new dynamic and further advance the looks-like-it's-gonna-happen theory of Al Weinrub who wrote a fascinating report about how decentralized power generation through root-top and parking lot solar could be a game changer in California.

In Texas, Weinrub's vision is playing out. Dan and Karen Cripe of Round Rock, Texas are producing more energy than they consume in their energy efficient home, according to a story by ABC affiliate WOTV. "
Our electric bills have actually dipped into the negative range," says Dan Cripe. (A friend of mine sent the link.)

Expect to see more reports in this vein. That's why I used the Celica acceleration analogy. For one, that was a great car. Quite dependable. And it didn't go too fast, just fast enough to pass the Detroit standard-bearer muscle car.

Actually, there's more to the speeding story. The Chevelle took up my challenge and blew past me going about 120 mph. The driver and passenger were grinning, loving the race. Must have been headed to Palmer. Barely anybody lived in Wasilla back then.

Photo: SmartHome Cleveland courtesy Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Study Touts Rooftop Solar Program

Rooftops are becoming valuable real estate.

In the Inland Valley of Southern California, massive warehouses are doubling as energy generators. Now, business and real estate leaders just to the west in Los Angeles say the seemingly wasted space atop apartment complexes could help meet renewable-energy goals, cut the city's carbon footprint, create jobs and save tenants and landlords money.

In a fascinating report, a group of leaders from the city of Los Angeles, banking industry, affordable housing and business suggests a comprehensive program and feed-in tariff to put solar panels on flat rooftops could create enough power to supply 8% of the city's needs, while slashing utility bills and generating up to 4,500 direct and indirect jobs.

Here is a related story in smartplanet.

"There is a tremendous capacity for multifamily housing to contribute to a broader energy program," the report states. It calls multifamily housing, "The second-most cost-effective market in the city after commercial and industrial for solar."

The program would allow businesses, property owners and non-profits to sell the power back to the local utility. Participants would receive a payment from the utility for each kilowatt hour of power fed back to the grid. The report estimates 4,000 apartment buildings with roofs large enough and flat enough to accommodate such a project.

The Los Angeles report reinforces the work of Al Weinrub, who penned an earlier study of rooftop solar and decentralized power. In it, he says businesses with large rooftops or parking lots can become small power companies that feed electricity into the grid.

One of the cool aspects of this is that the structures are already connected to the power grid and have an existing footprint, so no large-scale arrays need to occupy expanses of land and the environmental review process is minimized.

Of course, none of this comes easy, and there are barriers.

Chief among them is that local solar incentives are declining and Los Angeles does not yet have a feed-in tariff program in place. The benefit to tenants also is uncertain, although property owners who wish to join could be required to participate in energy-efficiency programs that lead to rebates or reduced utility costs for tenants.

Still, the two studies offer a tantalizing look at what could be the future of California if Gov. Brown can accomplish his green-jobs program, which calls for, among other things, more rooftop solar.

Photo of Southern California Edison's rooftop solar program by