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One Roof at a Time

With no help from the Bush administration -- but plenty from Europe, Japan, New York, and California -- solar power is edging into the mainstream.

The subsidy for renewable energy doesn't come close to matching the billions in government support for fossil fuels, which includes everything from the oil-depletion allowance to the endless federal largesse for "clean coal" research. Still, the government help, almost all of it from states instead of the federal government, is crucial. "Absent that, I couldn't have done it," says Grieco, who took advantage of New York's law to cut his costs in half. "I didn't have $31,000, but I did have $15,000." At that rate, he'll have a 20-year payback on his investment, and the panels should last another 20 years after that.

Dori Wolfe's company, Global Resource Options, installs systems across the Northeast. They did $1.3 million in sales last year. This year, thanks to the rebate laws, they were closing in on $3 million by September. Some states, like Vermont, consistently max out the government funding pool -- "as soon as a customer commits," says Wolfe, "I get the paperwork to the state capitol so they don't miss out."

In a perfect world, people would buy clean power even without subsidies, simply because they wanted to help clean the atmosphere. But, as Udall points out, much as Thomas Jefferson mystifyingly managed to overlook the fact that he owned slaves, we now collectively overlook our production of 45,000 pounds of greenhouse gases per family per year -- enough to fill two Goodyear blimps. Surely our descendants will wonder why we didn't notice, why we did nothing.

But instead of waiting for people to give up their slaves, the program Udall runs in Aspen will buy them back. Launched in 1994, it's one of the most innovative and successful solar-subsidy operations in the country: When some movie exec builds a 10,000-square-foot palace in Aspen, he must either pay to install a large solar system on his roof, or write a check for $10,000 to the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, which uses it to underwrite zero-interest loans for other homeowners going solar. There are now solar mobile-home parks in the Mojave Desert and solar public schools in Massachusetts; the University of California at Berkeley has 312 panels atop the student union.

You'd kind of expect solar panels in Berkeley. But maybe not in Placer County, on the California-Nevada border, where a developer named U.S. Homes is planning a new 917-unit solar housing development. A smaller builder, Clarum Homes, has been building "zero-energy" houses in places like Watsonville, in California's Central Valley. "Our goal is to bring green energy to entry-level home buyers," Clarum cofounder John Suppes said earlier this year.

Not all of those panels are in places we think of as sunny. "If you look at a solar map of the United States," says Wolfe, "down in Florida they get four hours of sun on an average day. In Vermont, it's three. But of course, they need more electricity because everyone has air conditioning. It all evens out." In fact, the map of installed solar capacity in the United States follows much more closely the map of rebates and tax credits -- and the map of high electricity prices.

To really understand the math, consider Japan. It gets half the sunshine of California, but it has three times the installed photovoltaic capacity of the United States. "Electricity in Japan costs 20 cents a kilowatt-hour," roughly four times the U.S. average, notes Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute. "They don't have their own cheap fuel -- they have nuclear plants, they have imported liquefied natural gas." So they were open to the idea of solar panels, and in the early '90s the Japanese government started offering subsidies for installations. After the country hosted the Kyoto conference on global warming in 1997, efforts increased: a "70,000 Roofs" program drew massive national publicity, and as of last year, the actual number of PV installations had reached more than twice that goal. That's created enough momentum to drop the price of solar installations by as much as 80 percent since 1993 -- and move most of the world's panel factories to Japan. The result: Rooftop power now costs the Japanese, on average, between 11 and 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, well below the price of conventional juice. As Worldwatch researcher Janet Sawin detailed in a report last May, things have gone so well that government subsidies are now being phased out and it's not making a difference: The market is expected to grow 20 percent a year even without the extra support.

Much the same has happened in Germany, where a 1991 law forced utilities to buy any renewable power that anyone generated, and at a generous price. Since then, the country's solar capacity has been growing almost 50 percent annually. Germany has topped its "100,000 Rooftops" goal and is now aiming for a million; it already produces more energy from the sun than any nation except Japan. "It's amazing to see," says Sawin, who recently returned from an international conference on renewables in Germany. "You go up into the hills, into the Black Forest, and you can see where one house or one barn put up solar panels, and then it just swept through the community. You have whole swaths where all the south-facing roofs have panels." You also have 10,000 people working in the solar industry.

Yet with the exception of BP, which is the world's largest maker of solar panels, big energy still doesn't take the new renewables seriously, says Sawin -- after all, wind and sun still represent less than 1 percent of the world's electric generation. "It mirrors the attitude of IBM toward Microsoft in the early 1980s," she says. But the growth rates for solar power -- 22 percent annually for a decade -- are like those for personal computers or cell phones in their early years, fast enough, Sawin says, to "rapidly vault a new industry from insignificance to market dominance."

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