Science, Tech & Environment

Solar power booming in the United States

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Photo of solar panels (Image by WIkimedia user David Monniaux (cc:by-sa))

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Recent reports of solar companies going bankrupt and stories about alleged federal loan scandals have cast long shadows on the entire solar industry. But the sun is far from setting on photovoltaics. In fact, in 2010, solar panels that could generate 17 gigawatts of energy — that's equal to about 17 nuclear power plants — were sold worldwide.

And this year, the US industry expects to double its production, and companies are growing fast to meet the demand for roof top panels.

"We're extremely busy," says Randy Bishop, CEO of Verengo Solar Plus. "We've hired 350 people so far this year and we're hiring for 55 different positions right now. Installers, electricians, guys that are up on the roofs, call center positions, underwriting positions, marketing positions, sales positions."

There aren't many companies in the United States who hired 350 people this year. The reasons solar is different are simple: Three years ago Congress passed -- and President Bush signed -- a change that allows homeowners to get back 30 percent of the cost of a solar system from the government.

Plus, Bishop says, "solar panel prices have gone - in the last three years - from four dollars and 20 cents a watt, down to a dollar and 20 cents a watt, roughly. So it is a huge difference. It used to be more than half of the system cost when we would install one, and it is now down to less than a quarter."

Solar Plus isn't the only company benefitting from this solar boom. In San Francisco, another company, SunRun, figured out it could buy solar systems, put them on homeowners’ roofs, and sell them back the electricity.

"SunRun will actually buy the panels for you, said Lynn Jurich, the cofounder and president of SunRun. "So we're really just becoming another utility provider. So now you don't have to pay $20,000 dollars out of pocket, and then wait to get that tax credit at the end. You’re really able to get the system for $0, to a couple thousand dollars up front."

Sunrun owns the panels and the power. The homeowner pays them every month, but less than what they were paying their old power company. Typical owners will save about five or ten dollars each month once they switch over. "But the real benefit," according to Jurich, "is that these are 20 year contracts, so you get to lock that price in."

SunRun tripled its size last year, and has expanded to 9 states, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Colorado, Arizona and Hawaii. Millions of people live in places where solar now pencils out. And Jurich says it’s power that can be brought online quickly.

"If the United States is going to make a decision today to say: let's build a new nuclear plant or a coal plant, it actually takes ten to 15 years to get those up and running," she said. "At which point, solar power is going to be more affordable, and it can actually be commissioned much sooner, and built in just a year time frame."

In a vote of confidence for the business model and the company, this summer, Google put $280 million into SolarCity's installations.

After decades of hopes and predictions that the solar moment was just around the next corner, the moment has finally arrived. Economics may still shift. Congress could repeal tax credits, or the price of solar silicon could shoot back up. But there's no denying residential solar has reached a long awaited milestone: it's affordable.

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Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about "Living on Earth."