Atop the Alameda County jail, across the bay from San Francisco, workers squint behind their sunglasses as they fit and wire what ultimately will be almost two acres of shiny blue and black solar panels. Inside each tile, sunlight is silently transformed into electricity, some of which already helps light the cells of the jail's 3,000 inmates.
Once the project is complete in late September, the system will produce half a megawatt of electricity, enough to supply 20 percent of the jail's power. It will be the largest single rooftop installation in the country -- but perhaps not for long. Jolted by energy shortages, blackouts, and high bills, officials from New York to San Francisco are pushing programs to get much more of their energy from renewable sources. If all of the plans currently in the works become reality, the nation's renewable energy production will more than double by 2012 -- assuming green-power suppliers can keep pace.
Some local governments are looking to many different sources of renewables. Others are investing heavily in the one or two sources most plentiful or cost-effective in their region. While Santa Monica, Calif. buys 100 percent of its energy for city facilities from geothermal sources, Austin, Texas will buy 86 megawatts worth of wind power this year, more than eight times last year's total.
The most ambitious plan is under way, perhaps not surprisingly, in San Francisco, where supervisors are pursuing what could be the largest solar energy project in the country. If voters authorize a $100 million bond issue in November, the city would install 10 to 20 megawatts' worth of solar panels on the city's sunniest municipal buildings, parking lots, and reservoirs. The added electricity would power up to 20,000 homes. "We really will be creating a renaissance of renewable energy," says Supervisor Mark Leno, who introduced the plan.
On the same ballot, voters will decide whether to give officials the power to issue revenue bonds for renewable energy without having to get public approval for each one. That would clear the way for Supervisor Tom Ammiano's ambitious drive to contract for an additional 50 megawatts of solar power -- 100 football fields' worth of photovoltaic panels on homes and businesses that would add up to more than half of the nation's present photovoltaic capacity. Either measure would push San Francisco far ahead of Sacramento, which presently leads the nation in solar generation with eight megawatts.
"We're saying, Let's get serious. In order for solar to compete and make a difference in power generation, it needs commitments from public institutions," says Paul Fenn of the Oakland advocacy group Local Power, who has advised San Francisco officials on the plan. The city would finance its solar projects with millions from revenue bonds and available state funds, but Fenn estimates that by the end of 10 years the systems will have generated enough savings to pay for themselves.
The bottom line is also motivating Chicago, the country's third-largest city, formerly known for its smokestacks and smog problems -- and today the nation's leader in renewable energy purchases. Last year, Chicago-area municipalities banding together to buy electric power were able to strike a deal with green and traditional energy companies that's projected to save participants nearly $8 million.
But Chicago has far more ambitious plans: Mayor Richard Daley recently announced that the city and 48 other municipalities will buy 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2006 -- a total of 80 megawatts. Half of that total is expected to come from tapping and burning landfill gas, one-fourth from wind, and the balance from a combination of solar, small hydropower, and biomass projects. The project is part of Chicago's drive to become the nation's center for green technology and manufacturing, says city environment Commissioner Bill Abolt. "The strategy is not only to buy green, but get the spin-off benefits of buying green."
State governments are also investing in green energy. Some provide direct subsidies for homeowners and businesses as well as loan guarantee programs, research and development funding, and renewable energy promotion; some require state utility companies to buy a percentage of their energy from renewable sources; others mandate that a portion of state properties' energy be bought from green sources. Many do all three.
California spends $135 million per year on renewable energy incentives, not including the $39 million the state spent on research and development of green technologies last year. A bill currently moving through the legislature would require utility companies to buy 20 percent of their power from green sources. "If the legislature passes the bill -- and it has a good chance -- it would be a major victory; it would trump all other states' efforts," says Jeff Deyette of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has worked with legislators on renewable energy initiatives.
In Nevada, Gov. Kenny Guinn signed legislation in June mandating state utilities buy 15 percent of their power from renewables. Even oil-friendly Texas recently mandated that the state must have a peak output of 2880 megawatts of renewable electricity by 2009 -- more than tripling the state's current green-energy capacity.
All this new demand, however, may not find such a ready supply. While big wind turbine manufacturers are producing enough to double the nation's wind energy capacity, recent photovoltaic panel shortages have raised questions about the solar industry's ability to keep pace with customers' orders. Californians, wanting to take advantage of the state's offer to pay for half of the installation costs, are finding themselves on suppliers' and installers' waiting lists.
Matt Munitz, the energy program manager who oversees the Alameda jail project, says the company they hired to install the panels had to scramble to find hardware. "PowerLight was going around to every manufacturer they could to try and fill the contract we had with them," he says.
In response, some suppliers are rushing to expand. BP Solar, the world's leading solar manufacturer, plans to quintuple its output in the next five years. But major growth in the solar industry -- and the renewable industry as a whole -- will depend on whether manufacturers see a sustained demand over time, says Terry Peterson, a solar expert at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. Too many suppliers remember the energy crisis of the 1970s, when demand surged, then plunged once the situation subsided. "The industry was faced with a surplus of capacity," says Peterson. "There was a lot of pain."
One way to reassure suppliers would be for the federal government to get on board, something the Union of Concerned Scientists' Deyette is hopeful will happen soon. Sen. Jim Jeffords with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Vt, D-Ct., and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., are reintroducing legislation this week that would mandate that 20 percent of the power sold by utilities companies must come from renewable sources. The measure would give generators big financial incentives to build renewable power plants. And while many observers doubt that the Bush Administration will ever join the drive to boost green energy, Deyette remains optimistic. After all, he notes, it was George W. Bush who, as governor of Texas, signed the bill mandating the state's renewable energy purchases.