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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.

Of course, buying a new cell phone means...buying a new cell phone. It's new. Installing solar means turning your back on the electric connection that's working perfectly well, and pretty cheaply. Inertia is hard to overcome. Still, the curve of installed solar capacity is growing not just steadily, but exponentially, with growth rates rising from around 18 percent in 1997 to 30 percent in 2003; the momentum is clearly increasing.

Some of the same momentum can be seen in U.S. states with aggressive subsidies, but the total numbers are much smaller. Our particular subsidy programs have been piecemeal, expensive, and not always very well designed; prices have fallen more slowly here than analysts had expected, partly because the state support has removed much incentive for manufacturers to lower them. Instead of simply giving cash payments or tax rebates and hoping that the increased volume will eventually bring prices down, David Morris, an energy expert at the sustainability think tank Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says governments should be purchasing panels directly from manufacturers, pledging increasing sales in return for decreasing prices. For the moment, though, that seems unlikely. The Bush administration's energy policy has made token nods in the direction of renewables while preparing for a future that belongs to the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear industries. "The United States is widely seen as being on the sidelines," says Flavin. "A bunch of us were at this conference on renewable energy [in Germany], and it was clear that it was designed to get around the obstructionism of the United States on topics like the Kyoto accords. It was really a kind of coalition of the willing."

In certain ways, a solar panel on the roof is very much like a hybrid car in the garage -- it works its environmental magic without asking any change in lifestyle. Because the hybrid switches back and forth between gas and battery, just like the grid tie-in switches back and forth between your roof and the power line, you never need to think about running out of anything. The old-fashioned, off-the-grid PV systems are like old-fashioned electric cars -- the batteries will drain unless you're careful. You need to start thinking: Do I need this appliance? How much TV am I going to watch this evening? Can I combine all my trips in one this week?

Remarkably, though, while the new systems don't force you to conserve energy, they end up having the same effect -- in much the way that hybrid drivers, who could get 47 miles to the gallon driving any old way, suddenly find themselves feathering the pedal to bring their average up to 54. "I remember a guy recently [who] put in a 2-kilowatt system," says Wolfe. "He just wasn't interested in conserving at all. Didn't even want to talk about it. But after he watched the meter spin backward the first time, he said, 'You mean I could make this spin backward faster?' Now he's putting in new lightbulbs, a new refrigerator, you name it."

It's weird, says Chris Andersen, a solar homeowner in Albany. Even though you've now got a new supply of free power, "the incentive of the meter spinning backward makes you take the time to hang out the laundry. I mean, I've got an efficient dryer, but now I use the clothesline all the time. It gives you the desire to walk the extra 10 feet to turn off the lights." Grieco has retro-fitted his house with power strips on all the appliances, so he can make sure he doesn't waste even a smidgen of electricity keeping the television in standby mode. "Why do I want to be wasting electrons?" he asks.

Every month, when the utility bill comes, it's as if you're being graded on your success. "I get grouchy -- 'You mean we haven't reduced more?'" says Wolfe. "Our goal is always to net meter to zero -- to try and live within our photovoltaic means." Once, she says, she was outside watching her meter spin backward when all of a sudden she heard a sound from inside -- "A zzzzzz, like someone had turned on the coffee grinder. And the meter started spinning forward. I mean, my shoulders just stiffened."

In the end, it's not about money. It's that this power is somehow your power. If you grow a tomato in your garden, you're going to pay more attention once it's in your salad than if it came from the supermarket. Suddenly, once you've got your panels up, electricity goes from being an abstraction to being a creation, a product. Very few of us make anything very tangible anymore; to produce solar power is to churn butter or milk a cow or card some wool, but in a modern way. Atavistic urge, newfangled result.

And what's more, it's power in a delightful form. We're used to thinking about energy as fuel -- concentrated by nature over eons into a lump of coal or a barrel of oil. As Udall points out, though, solar and wind are energy flows. "Everyone gets some sun; it's the most democratically distributed of fuels. And it's so sweet. Those rays have come 93 million miles in eight minutes, absolutely hauling ass." Every day 10,000 times more energy strikes the earth than we humans use. If the sun's out, it's hitting your roof right now, and bouncing back unused into the atmosphere—a wink unnoticed, a flirtation ignored, a gift refused.

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