Calif. Power Crisis Gives Boost to Solar Power

As Californians brace for another summer of blackouts and price spikes, solar and photovoltaic installations are quickly becoming a popular power alternative, say designers.


As Californians brace for another summer of blackouts and price spikes, solar and photovoltaic installations are quickly becoming a popular power alternative, say designers.

"With increasing chances of power being shut off on a regular basis and electricity prices going up, there has been a surge of interest in solar energy," states Tim Tutt, assistant manager for the California Energy Commission's (CEC) renewable energy program in Sacramento.

In fact, Tutt points out that the number of applications for CEC solar-installation reimbursements jumped 500 percent from the last quarter of 2000 to the first quarter of this year.

On a national scale, solar power projects increased 36 percent from 1998 to 1999, and 42 percent from 1999 to 2000, according to Steven Strong, president of Solar Design Associates, Harvard, Mass.

"You can see the growth curve is very steep, but the key thing holding back the floodgate is the cost," says Strong.

For example, while the CEC's subsidy program reimburses the end-user $3 per watt, this may only cover 20 to 35 percent of the $12,000 to $20,000 it costs to install a small, 2-kilowatt system, according to Darr Hashempour, P.E., vice president of Syska & Hennessy's energy solutions group, Los Angeles.

"High costs of system installation, maintenance and structural reinforcements and sometimes lack of available space are a few reasons solar energy and photovoltaics have not been as popular as we anticipated," says Hashempour.

The engineer also claims that in California, end-users intially look for solutions with more immediate paybacks such as generators and uninterruptible-power supplies.

But Dr. Donald Aitken, a Berkeley, Calif.-based architect and energy-policy consultant, points out that if a proposed reimbursement of $4.50 per watt is approved, this would decrease solar power production to a competitive 12 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

"These systems cost more money up front, but then you know what your energy bills will be and you take responsibility for reliability," notes Aitken.

Outside of California, designers are also anticipating more solar design activity as a result of increased power demands coupled with a lack of electricity generation, particularly in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and the South.

"We're busier than we've ever been and it doesn't seem like it's going to let up at all," concludes Strong.

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A monthly compendium of facts and figures

The number of kilowatt hours of electricity produced by photovoltaics in 1995: 800 million

Expected size of the worldwide photovoltaic market by 2005: $1.5 billion

Percentage of U.S. solar technology sales that are exports: 80

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