rooftop solar

Statewide LG EE Best Practices: Weekly Update

California's Solar Mandate for New Homes

The California Energy Commission adopted building standards that require solar photovoltaic systems on new home construction starting in 2020. Click here to find more information from the Califonia Energy Commission.

In the headlines...

1.  We shouldn't require solar on new residential construction, utility-scale renewables is a better alternative
2.  We should wait, more research/discussion is needed
3.  The timing is right and California will be a model for the rest of the country


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The wEEkly update for Local Governments and their partners.

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Contains Solar!

Photovoltaic systems, more commonly known as solar panels, are a great way to hedge against future increases in fuel costs that ultimately drive up utility rates.  They’ve also been known to both increase the life of roofs, as well as property value.  In fact, the State of California wants all new homes to be net-zero energy (i.e. they generate as much energy as they consume) by 2020.  But what happens when all those solar arrays come online and start winding meters backwards?
The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) has actually thought about this question, and provided a chart with how they expect the future to look:


As you can see from the chart, beginning at 8am the net load (actual minus distributed generation like rooftop solar) drops.  While everyone is at work, our solar panels are beginning to generate electricity.  Since most of us aren’t at home, this energy goes straight to where it’s being used and you get a credit on your bill.  The “duck belly” indicates just that, and it only gets bigger as solar becomes increasingly commonplace.  This is fantastic, because when solar distributed generation supplies an abundant amount of electricity, more polluting power plants can be shut down or ramped down.  However, as the workday comes to an end and we all drive home, the sun goes down, we kick on our heaters and air conditioners, resulting in a big load that solar panels can’t support.  That sudden jump in demand around 6pm requires an orchestrated effort on CAISO’s side to ramp up massive plants to meet the state’s need.  But ideally, the demand curve should be flat, making the need to purchase energy very stable and thus reliable and cheaper. 

There’s been a lot of interesting ideas floating around on how to store the energy generated during the day, which would either smooth out or flatten the “duck’s head”.  Smoothing or flattening out the demand curve would presumably make purchasing energy a lot easier and thus cheaper, because electricity has to be consumed (or stored) when generated—if you purchase too much, then you must consume or store it; if you purchase too little, you have rolling blackouts.  Currently PG&E has a reservoir plant that pumps water from a lower reservoir to one higher when energy is in low demand (thus low costs) and feeds it through turbines when prices and demand are higher.  Other ideas include sending excess power to electric water heaters (storing in the sense that you won’t have to heat water as much when hot water is in demand), storing the energy in concrete in the form of heat, forming huge ice blocks that cool large buildings, and of course large-scale batteries.  With battery technology becoming more popular due to hybrid-electric, plug-in electric and all-electric vehicles, we could very well have our grid supported solely by renewables and stored energy technologies in the coming years. 

Who? How? When? Is Solar ever going to be really affordable?

Recently I checked out how much it would cost me to put solar on my house. To my surprise, it was much more than I wanted to spend, especially since I’m not convinced that I really want to stay there for more than five more years. The economics of it just didn't add up. I had question like: Who would pay for the remaining balance if I decided to sell the house before the solar units were paid for?  Would the house actually meet an appraisal value that would include the cost of solar in the sales price? 

Unfortunately, the financing options for me weren't exactly attractive and leasing didn't appeal to me either.  Lucky for me and you, the Department of Energy (DOE) has just launched a new competition that could solve my problem.

The DOE has developed the SunShot Initiative, a collaborative national initiative to make solar energy cost competitive with other forms of energy by the end of the decade.  The first step in this aggressive endeavor focuses on removing municipal barriers such as permitting and structural engineering cost (which SJVCEO is a named partner with Optony, Inc.under The Solar Roadmap). 
Now, the DOE is going one step further by launching the SunShot prize competition, a very unique competition. This competition is working to install solar energy systems at a fraction of today’s price. The SunShot Initiative is reducing the installed cost of solar energy systems by about 75% and will drive widespread, large-scale adoption of this renewable energy technology while restoring U.S. leadership in the global clean energy race.


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Money Monday: Top 5 Reasons to Go Solar!

It's a Money Monday guest post because Dee is on the trail of some money for the SJVCEO in form of an EPA grant!  Graciously our colleague, Shalon Anderson has put together a post on the Top 5 reasons for going solar on your home. Some of you may know Shalon, at least by name, through the US Green Building Council Central California Chapter.  In addition to her work for USGBC CC, Shalon works in support of many of our clients in the non-sustainability fields at PESC.  Shalon was interested in trying her hand at blog writing and we're fortunate to be the only blog business in the office!   How is this a Money Monday post?  Well,  that's answered in reason #1!

Thinking about solar for your home?
By Shalon Anderson

There are many myths out there about solar panels. “They’re too expensive, They don’t last long, It’s a waste of time.”

Well- the truth is, there are many reasons why installing solar panels on your roof can save you money and reduce your energy dependence! Solar is one of the very few household purchases that will actually pay for itself. There is no better way to save money AND increase the value of your home at the same time.

Don’t just take my word for it, let’s review the top 5 reasons why installing solar panels on your home makes financial sense.

1. GO GREEN! Installing solar panels offers a “greener” alternative than energy obtained through utility companies. Once your solar panels are installed, (roughly 3-5 days depending on the size of your home) you will immediately begin to save $$$$ on electrical costs. These savings will rack up for years to come!

2. AFFORDABLE! Most solar dealers offer little to no money down for initial  costs. Financing is available for homeowners and it’s always a good idea to check out the local incentives and rebates in your area. They’re out there! What happens if you move or sell your home? No need to fret! Nearly all solar contracts can be transferred over to new owners at no cost. See your local solar dealer for full details.

3. RELIABLE! Solar panels are built to withstand years of direct heat. On sunny days, the solar panel’s battery is charged giving you hours of efficient power after sundown.  According to, photovoltaic (PV) panels should last 20-25 years or longer. Maintenance is quick and easy, with nothing but a spray of the good ol’ garden hose needed once every few years.

4. NO FUSS! There is no interruption of solar power in the dim light or on overcast days. Solar panels are built to work with your general utility grid in times of harsh weather. You can connect to the grid when needed, so no loss of power will be experienced. You can continue with your normal activities without a sweat. In times of blackouts, solar panels will automatically turn off to prevent interference with utility company repairs. 

5. WHY NOT? There’s no reason not to consider solar panels! They can be installed in a timely manner with no modifications needed inside or outside of your home. Your roof will never  be subject to damage because solar panels actually protect the part of the roof they cover. It’s a good idea to have your roof inspected for any necessary repairs that may be needed prior to installation. Once installation is complete, all appliances will go back to “business as usual”. There is no need to purchase new appliances or acquire any special electrical outlets.

Your green home is just a phone call away! Be sure to make a list of questions and concerns for your sales person. Contact your local solar panel dealer for more insight and tips on how you can start saving money today! You can also visit the California Energy Commission for the latest in energy news and activities. 

Photo Credits: Toyota UK and Wayne National Forest

Solarthon, winery visit highlight Solar power in Valley

Solar energy is showing up in more places in the San Joaquin Valley, where homeowners and farming operations are harvesting the power of the sun in earnest.

 On Saturday, April 21, solar panels were affixed to homes owned by nine low-income families in the Parksdale neighborhood of Madera, courtesy of GRID Alternatives. The nonprofit's third "Solarthon" resulted in those nine families - 14 panels were installed on each house - saving a projected $263,000 over the lifetime of those solar systems, and the elimination of 888 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

Sunpower, Yingli Solar, Wells Fargo, Pacific Gas and Electric, Schneider Electric, Proteus and Modesto Junior College helped sponsor the solar block party. GRID Alternatives, which focuses on delivering solar power and career training to the low income, has installed solar on 310 houses in the San Joaquin Valley since 2009.

"With the help of our generous supporters, GRID Alternatives continues to provide a triple bottom line: much needed cleaner air; energy-cost savings; and hands-on job training opportunities in the Central Valley," said Tom Esqueda, regional director.

GRID Alternative's presence is one why Fresno ranks fourth in the state in solar capacity. More on that ranking here.

"Really, rooftop solar is an ideal energy source in the Valley," added Courtney Kalashian, associate director of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, a nonprofit that promotes the use of solar power. "Think about it: our incomes are relatively low, our power bills are ridiculously high, and, as you can see, we have more days of sun. . . So why shouldn't we make use of our most abundant natural resource?"

And Fresno, as most people know, is the center of the farming universe. It is the No. 1 farm county in the nation, and agriculture is energy intensive. It takes a lot of juice to run packinghouses, wells, irrigation equipment and trucks. By some estimates, energy is among the top three most costly components of a farming enterprise.

But not for Joey Milla of Milla Vineyards in Fresno, who is reaping the rewards of installing a 66-panel solar system in 2005. "We went from a $7,000-$8,000 power bill per year to zero," Milla said one day before the Madera Solarthon.

The Milla family refinanced their house to pay for the $58,000 system. Solar energy powers the winery, domestic well and residence - everything but the ag well. Energy savings alone will pay off that initial investment in one more year.

It's all gravy after that.

The Milla family bought the system because power purchase programs that eliminate the up-front cost were not available in 2005. Despite that, it turned out to be a wise investment. "It definitely works for us," he said.

The installation is mounted on the ground, which makes maintenance pretty simple. The panels are simply hosed off in a daily 30-minute procedure, which keeps up their efficiency. It gets dusty at the winery at McKinley and Grantland avenues, and dust reduces the efficiency of the panels. So, cleaning them is crucial.

The system has been relatively trouble free. The solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years, although the inverters have sometimes had problems. Small price to pay, Milla says, for energy independence. "The panels are so sensitive that when we bought them and put them on-line you could put your hand over a panel and watch the numbers (on the meter) change."

Solar panel efficiency starts to lessen after 25 years, but Milla isn't too worried. Technological advances are so rapid that replacement panels will likely be more efficient and cheaper.

Photo of Madera Solarthon 2012 by GRID Alternatives

California breaks free from from fossil fuels, gradually

California is breaking free of its fossil-fuel addiction.

That's according to Next 10's "2012 California Green Innovation Index." The phrasing was "gradually transitioning."

The report, which looks at the previous year's data, says the Sunshine State surpassed 1,000 megawatts of solar energy capacity, attracted $3.5 billion in cleantech investment in 2011 and accrued 910 green technology patents for a first-in-the-nation performance.

Findings in the 75-page report sound positively radiant, especially in light of news that subsidies like those provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are disappearing, economic and international pressures continue and many renewable energy companies are struggling to survive.

California is unique

But F. Noel Perry, Next 10 founder, offers no apologies. In his prelude, he says, "California’s ability to foster and develop new ideas, markets and technology is unique." He says the purpose of the Index "is to document the impacts of California’s efforts to transition to a low carbon economy in order to understand what works and what doesn’t in driving innovation."

Fair enough.

However, the pace of change has been sluggish and unable to transform much of the economic landscape in what is arguably the best region for solar and biofuel in the state -- the San Joaquin Valley. More than two years ago, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, a nonprofit that employs myself and three others, launched into a program to help cities and counties in the Valley administer highly restrictive and complex stimulus grants.

Striding forward, slowly

The goal of federally funded energy efficiency nearly has been attained but not without huge investment of time and energy. Many dubbed the ARRA grants the most difficult they had encountered. Our partnership with the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District has spent more than half of a combined total of more than $4 million in grants and expects to save about 5.4 million kilowatt hours of energy. At 12.7 cents per kWh, that's a reduction of $685,800 on the region's utility bills.

Acrocc the state, people were put to work. Energy efficient lights, pumps and air conditioning units were installed.

Yet, energy efficiency is but one component of the clean energy push. Granted, it's necessary before installing renewable energy systems like solar. Still, those of us in the Valley haven't seen much of the effects from what we know is a big behind-the-scenes effort to get more solar capacity into the region. Should that break loose, jobs would follow.

Dashboard indicators
The Index says "dashboard indicators" point to growth. It lists declines in total emissions and per capita emissions and a rise in energy productivity as the result of energy efficiency measures. It says venture capital investment in clean technology remains strong despite the global financial crisis and that new value continues to be created.

Most of that investment has gone to Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. The patents look promising. There's an increase in battery technology, hybrid and electric systems technology and solar technology.

New solar in California amounted to more than 300,000 kilowatts capacity in 2011, and employment in the sector is approaching 35,000 for the state. "Despite the Solyndra bankruptcy, California’s solar industry is a hotbed within the state’s renewable energy sector," the report says.

Big deals in the works

Deals highlighted include that between Rabobank and SolarCity. The pair have teamed up to finance more than 30 commercial solar projects in California worth $42.5 million. Warren Buffett also got a mention. In December, he purchased Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County. When completed, the 550-megawatt solar farm will be one of the world's largest, generating enough energy for 160,000 homes.

SolarCity was lauded for three additional projects. The San Mateo company is working with Google in a $280 million partnership to build more residential solar projects across the country. It's working with Wal-Mart to bring solar energy to 75 percent of Wal-Mart’s California locations. And it's got a five-year, $1 billion plan to put rooftop solar on up to 120,000 U.S. military housing units.

Big hurdles remain

Sounds good. But many of us are looking for a serious break in the status quo. While renewables are nearing parity with fossil fuels, they have serious issues to work through. For homeowners, the up-front price remains difficult to stomach, and power-purchase agreements, in which somebody else retains ownership of the system, only shave a few percentage points off the average bill.

On a commercial scale, utilities have to work renewable start-stop energy into the grid by upgrading back-up systems and integrating new energy-regulating technologies. It's not a simple marriage.

Change is coming. Hughson Nut, a leading processor of almonds and nut products, just added solar and energy efficiency measures and says it's great. Expect more to follow.

In the meantime, I'm holding out for that gradual transition becoming a little more obvious.

Grid parity and the rooftop solar revolution

The costs of solar power are decreasing so fast that grid parity - where the cost of solar energy without subsidies equals the residential retail electricity rate - could be only a few years away for several cities in California and the United States.

San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego are among 21 cities that could reach parity by 2018, according to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, which this month released a study entitled, "Rooftop Revolution: Changing Everything with Cost-Effective Local Solar."

The study claims the nation is on the cusp of expanded decentralized electrical generation, but also asks rhetorically if we are prepared. "The nearness of solar grid parity brings urgency to the discussion of electricity policy, from incentives to grid design," the authors state. "Well before any new fossil fuel power plants have passed their infancy, electricity from solar will be cheaper. . . It means that citizens and their elected leaders will have to carefully consider the policies that guide investment in the electricity system."

The push for decentralized energy isn't new. As noted in this blog from last year, decentralized energy means that rooftops of houses and other structures connected to the grid essentially become mini power producers. Localized power can come from other places too: such as the 90,000 square miles of right of way next to roads, the 600,000 acres of commercial parking lots or under the nation's 155,000 miles of transmission lines.

Those doesn't include solar projects that are placed near existing buildings or the solar land rush in California's deserts and marginal or unproductive former farm land in the San Joaquin Valley, where our nonprofit is based. (In a related story, PG&E plans to power up the sun in the next several years.)

How much residential rooftop solar power is created remains to be seen. Even though solar still
generates less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the nation’s electricity, the prospect of cost-competitive and widespread solar energy offers an unprecedented opportunity.

Giving things a push

The installed cost of solar has fallen 10% per year since 2006 and grid electricity price hikes have averaged 2% annually in the last decade. To capitalize, the authors recommend:

1/ phasing out rather than outright eliminating solar subsidies;
2/ easing permitting fees(which account for up to 20% of installed costs);
3/ creating feed-in tariffs (such as one just approved in Palo Alto);
4/ Revise upward the restriction that limit solar to 15% of the distribution grid to to 30%.

A friend, who like me is in her mid-50s, recently wondered aloud why solar and other sustainability programs didn't take off in the 1970s, when we were in our teens. "We (understood) it," she said. "But what happened?"

Maybe it was price. In 1974, solar electricity cost more than 100 times the residential retail electricity rate. Today, the differential in many communities is 2 times or less. "Grid connected solar is on the verge of becoming competitive – without incentives – with
conventional electricity," the report proclaims.

An explosion of localized solar would generate jobs, stimulate the economy and add value to the properties and to the grid. Each megawatt of power generates eight jobs and $240,000 in economic activity, the study projects. With a potential of 30,000 megawatts of new residential solar over six years comes a projected 250,000 jobs and $18 billion in economic stimulus.

The study is not the first on this subject - the report has links to others - and likely won't be the last. It claims to be conservative - basing its information on the assumption that solar panels last 25 years even though evidence shows they continue to produce power after that point.

Who knows what will happen, but solar power makes sense in California where the sun shines brightly for much of the year.

Video from U.S. Department of Energy

Solar-friendly designs could aid renewable energy efforts

A new report contends that designing solar-friendly homes would help spur the installation of alternative-energy systems.

The study entitled, "Solar Ready: An Overview Of Implementation Practices," by the respected National Renewable Energy Laboratory, argues that solar-ready design features, if they are implemented early in the design process, are typically "low or no cost," thus making it easier and cheaper to install solar-energy systems later on.

Authors Andrea Watson, Linda Giudice, Lars Lisell, Liz Doris and Sarah Busche estimate that some 7.8 million privately owned houses were finished in 2010. "These homes, if not compatible with solar technology, represent a large barrier to widespread solar deployment," they write. "Once a structure is built, structural and other solar access issues can prevent a solar project from being cost effective, and, in some cases, can make it entirely unfeasible."

In particular, the authors note that rooftop integrity and obstructions (such as vents), along with improper placement of shade trees, can restrict opportunities for adding solar power later. The researchers say solar-ready design is crucial if photovoltaic (PV) or solar hot water (SHW) technologies are to be installed during the building’s lifespan.

"Solar ready also allows owners to take advantage of a changing energy market," they write. "The economics for installing solar on a new building are not always compelling, but, in the future, that picture could change with rising electricity prices and/or falling solar technology costs. . . Building a home or commercial building that is not solar ready exposes owners to the risk of not being able to take full advantage of future economic scenarios for solar electricity and hot water. "

Rooftops should be strong enough to accommodate solar panels, the authors suggest, and vents and other obstructions should be grouped in one spot. In addition, architects and builders should consider landscaping that won't reduce the effectiveness of solar.

Positioning is key in solar installations, so preparing beforehand is important. This is from the report: "A 10-kilowatt (kW) PV array in Golden, Colorado, facing south and tilted 25° can be expected to produce 14,304 kW hours (AC) per year with an annual energy value of $1,201.00. . . A west-facing system will produce 10,999 kW hours (AC) per year with an annual energy value of $923.92. This represents a 16% to 23% reduction in PV production and cost savings when oriented 90° away from south."

Likewise, designing for solar water heating saves money later. The study calculates that mounting pipes, vents and panels to accommodate solar water heating during construction is 66 percent cheaper than installing them afterward.

So, how do local governments encourage solar-ready development? The authors analyze three methods: legislation, certification programs and stakeholder education. Let's look at them individually:

1/ Legislation

Several local jurisdictions have policies in place, but their effectiveness is hard to gauge. Policies can include mandating builders offer solar to their customers, adding it to green building codes, offering roof warranties that allow for new solar systems, and providing incentives to developers.

2/ Certification

Certifications could be incorporated into green-building programs or offered individually. Certification guarantees a certain level of quality, helps the property stand out from the competition and is a measurable metric. However, it doesn't guarantee installation of the solar system, and could end up rewarding property owners anyway.

3/ Stakeholder education

Education programs must reach a diversity of people, and the authors say a combo of solar-ready legislation and an educational campaign could be effective. They cite a Boston program as evidence. The city offers developers an integrated design and solar training in conjunction with a solar-ready requirement.

Whichever approach is used, the authors write that they hope it promotes more solar development in the United States. “With millions of new buildings constructed each year in the United States, solar ready can remove installation barriers and increase the potential for widespread solar adoption."

On The Road To Solar Valley

Officials at UC Merced sometimes refer to the San Joaquin Valley as "Solar Valley" to distinguish the emerging clean- energy potential of the 250-mile region from Stockton to the base of the Grapevine.

We are closer to achieving that designation after five solar applications were approved or recommended for approval this week. They include four proposals in Kings County and one just south of Fresno in Fresno County. Together, they total 663 acres.

The proposal south of Fresno is one of about 30 solar plants pitched for various places in Fresno County. However, the emergence of a solar industry in one of the largest agricultural regions in the United States - the San Joaquin Valley is often referred to as the nation's salad bowl - is not without controversy. Applications are carefully scrutinized because farmers worry about solar displacing prime agriculture land.

A lawsuit has been filed, and guidelines are being prepared. The above-referenced Hanford Sentinel story by Seth Nidever notes that solar developers on prime farm land in Kings County must set aside other property for agriculture. In one creative approach, a solar developer is allowing farming between rows of solar panels.

The Fresno Bee, in this editorial, suggests that a balance be struck: "There is much room for compromise on this issue and the board, the solar industry and farming interests must be willing to find it. Solar and other renewable energy technologies are in their infancy. Fresno County cannot ignore their potential," the editorial states.

It remains to be seen how large the solar industry becomes in the Valley, but Gov. Jerry Brown is a big supporter of solar generally. One milestone has already been reached; Rooftop solar power in California has reached 1 gigawatt, or 1,000 megawatts, That's enough to power 750,000 houses, according to this San Jose Mercury News article. In an interesting side note, Facebook is installing a rooftop solar system that provides hot water as well. Here's more on that.

The San Joaquin Valley, which its ample sun resources and midstate location, could be a major player in the solar industry.

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.

Federal Government Calls For More Rooftop Solar

The San Joaquin Valley, with ample sun and land resources and mid-state location, is ideally positioned to help California reach its new 33% renewable energy mandate. As a result, dozens of solar-energy development proposals are waiting in the wings that could, if they get approved, help create what UC Merced envisions as "Solar Valley."

To us, Solar Valley would be more than large-scale solar farms that provide electricity to thousands of homes. It would also include smaller-scale localized developments that power dairy farms, water-treatment plants, warehouses, packinghouses, universities and schools, office buildings and apartment complexes.

One way to do that is through rooftop solar, where panels are affixed to tops of parking structures and buildings. The systems are close to the power source, and can help reduce power bills.

We've written about the concept previously, but now the federal government is attempting to boost it by challenging cities and counties to cut red tape, update codes or otherwise make rooftop solar easier and cheaper to install.

Fresno and Tulare counties are home to dozens of warehouses and distribution centers that could accommodate rooftop solar. The region is growing rapidly, and presents robust future opportunity for developers and businesses to become power generators through innovative rooftop solar programs.

Al Weinrub, a leader in the rooftop solar movement, has more in this study. Solar Valley may not be so far away after all.

SCE rooftop solar project photo by

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

Rooftop solar & decentralized generation can save California

Rooftops may not be the final frontier, but they do provide ample fields for cultivating solar panels.

So says Al Weinrub, who has penned "Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California." Weinrub is a member of the Sierra Club California Energy-Climate Committee and serves on the Steering Committee of the Bay Area’s Local Clean Energy Alliance. He said he relied extensively on work from both.

"Decentralized generation means that local residences, businesses, and communities become electric power producers," he writes. "Businesses with large rooftops or parking lots can become small power companies that feed electricity into the grid."

The beauty is that these buildings are already connected to the electrical grid and have an existing footprint, benefits that a remote solar installation doesn't always have. Industrial solar on empty land requires extensive permitting, studies and review of environmental impact, especially if its federal. Those panels definitely can change a picturesque landscape.

Buildings offer many acres of alternative energy opportunity. Just check out John Majoris' work at for a King Kong view of some pretty amazing projects.

Rooftop power

Sandy Nax and I came to a similar conclusion over the the past year or so. Actually our former governor said the same thing and we agreed: The otherwise unused rooftops of the acres of warehouses in Fresno/San Joaquin Valley provide a great place for easy-to-permit solar and a cheap additional crop to be farmed on those rather ugly asphalt-topped fields.

I apologize in advance to any owners of said structures who have added white "cool roofs," that drastically lower cooling costs by reflecting sunlight.

Some companies in California already are moving ahead with industrial solar on commercial warehouses. IKEA, for example, plans to install 7,980 panels on its Tejon distribution center just off Interstate 5 at the foot of the Grapevine south of Bakersfield. The installation will generate 2.8 million kilowatt hours annually, enough to power 251 houses. The retailer also plans solar systems at stores in Burbank, Costa Mesa, Covina, East Palo Alto, Emeryville, West Sacramento and San Diego.

Solar for cities

At an Atwater City Council meeting, the concept was raised of using solar panels to defray the intensive costs of pumping water to meet summertime demands. All small jurisdictions in the San Joaquin Valley, like many across the nation, are hard-hit due to reduced revenues from dramatic declines in real estate values.

For instance my house in Clovis is now worth $120,000 on a good day. I bought it in 2005 for $269,000. Such dives in value cut revenues from property-tax dependent cities and counties in half and result in tough challenges come budget time.

Solar isn't perfect. But it does offer an avenue to electrical generation far cleaner than fossil fuels. Our mission would be to spell out costs, find the best sites and interpret the volume of data out there, making it easier on over-worked municipal staffers.

Change isn't simple

Weinrub doesn't say it will be easy. Quite the opposite. "Achieving this vision will require overcoming obstacles from the energy and utility industries, public agencies, and other interests vested in the century-old investor-owned utility model," he says. The potential is a 2010 commercial rooftop capacity of 19,323 megawatts, he says.

The solution? Weinrub suggests new policies and programs. One is community choice energy, "which allows a city or county to aggregate the electricity demand of all customers," and the other a more controversial concept called a feed-in tariff, which is used in Germany and elsewhere to bring the cost of alternatives in line with conventional energy on the grid.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also likes the idea of using already occupied space. It is soliciting applications from communities and other governmental bodies that want to evaluate the potential development of renewable energy on potentially or formerly contaminated properties.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory will make the call, figuring what works best where. The plan is to create jobs and increase renewable energy.

Maximizing alternative energy opportunities while minimizing impact. Sounds like a great idea.

Photo courtesy John Majoris at

Huge IKEA Warehouse To Get Rooftop Solar

Every six months or so, my family heads south from Fresno on Interstate 5. We summit the Grapevine and drop down into the massiveness that is Southern California as we make our way to my sister-in-law's home in Fontana.

Each trip takes us past the 1.8 million-square-foot IKEA warehouse at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley. That's usually where, if it's summer, I turn off the air conditioner to avoid overheating as we slog up the hill.

It gets hot in the Valley, and the sun bears down relentlessly in the summer. IKEA plans to harness some of that sun power by installing rooftop solar on that huge warehouse - and seven stores in California.

When finished, the 7,980 panels on the Tejon distribution center will generate 2.8 million kilowatt hours annually, enough to power 251 houses. It also is equivalent to eliminating 2,278 tons of carbon dioxide or removing 395 cars from the road, IKEA said in this press release.

The retailer also plans to install solar energy systems at stores in Burbank, Costa Mesa, Covina, East Palo Alto, Emeryville, West Sacramento and San Diego.

Collectively, the eight buildings comprise nearly 90% of the IKEA presence in California, and will total 4.5 megawatts of solar-generating capacity, nearly 20,000 panels, and an annual output of 6.65 million kilowatt hours of electricity. That equates to reducing 5,268 tons of carbon dioxide in California – equaling the emissions of 914 cars or providing 580 homes electricity yearly.

Rooftop solar is a key part of the green-jobs initiative of incoming governor Jerry Brown, but it also makes sense in other ways. Warehouses cover vast amounts of the Inland Empire portion of Southern California - and more of those rooftops are doing double duty as solar generators.

The San Joaquin Valley has some rooftop systems, but the opportunity exists for much more. Fresno and Tulare counties, because they are in the middle of the state, are a magnet for companies looking to site a central distribution center.

Gap Inc. installed a solar-energy system on its warehouse in Fresno in 2008, but there are many other large distribution centers that could follow its lead and help make the Valley a leader in rooftop solar.

Photo of IKEA warehouse by