Various kinds of electricity-generating roofing materials (including slate, tile, and shingles) being tested by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Credit: National Institute of Standards and Technology
When Linda and Jay Mathews moved back to their native California nearly two years ago — after 20 years in New York and Washington — they found their dream home in Pasadena. It had everything they wanted, plus a few items not on their shopping list. Among the latter: solar panels on the roof that keep their electric bill to about $100 a year, less than what they paid each month when they were living in the East.
Moreover, because the power generated by their panels contributes to the region's overall electric grid, they also receive credit for energy they produce but don't use — a policy known as "net metering," which adds additional savings to their overall electric costs.
"We weren't looking for a house with solar panels, but we are very happy we have them," said Linda, a retired editor. "Our electric bills are so much lower, and I love the notion that we are not dependent on electricity from coal-fired plants, those big villains that spew out all those toxic chemicals. We also appreciate that California is very environmentally conscious, which makes it easy to afford solar energy."
All indications are that the vast majority of Americans would love to have solar energy, if they could. The industry enjoys widespread public support that cuts across geographic, economic and political demographics. For example, a Hart Research Associates poll conducted last fall for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) found that nine out of 10 Americans believe it's important for the nation to develop and use solar power.
But not everyone who wants solar energy can have it. "The challenge the solar industry faces is bridging the gap from overwhelming public support to mass public adoption," said Monique Hanis, a former spokeswoman for the SEIA. "Solar is already more accessible and affordable to Americans than ever before, but we still have work to do before we get mass adoption."
The reasons for that gap range from upfront costs to the many hurdles companies and consumers must clear in order to install residential panels — for example, permits and inspections required by many municipalities. There also are practical matters, such as whether a property receives enough sun during the day to make installing solar panels worth the investment.
Also, utility companies, required by many states to include a specific percentage of renewable energy in their portfolios, now are trying to eliminate net metering, arguing that it increases costs for their non-solar customers.
"They seemed to be comfortable with our business when it was a boutique thing, something just for the wealthy," said Will Craven, a spokesman for SolarCity, one of the nation's largest solar companies. "But now that it genuinely is competitive, they are threatened by it."
The cost of the Mathews' system was part of the price of their new home, but most homeowners are not always so lucky. It can be expensive to add a system, even though ultimately it will pay for itself, and then some. [2013 Best Solar Panel Reviews and Comparisons]
Solar companies have been trying to make this burden easier by offering the option of no-money-down solar leases, where the company owns and maintains the solar installation on the customers' roof, then sells the power to the customer at a price lower than the utility would charge.
For consumers who want to own systems, the good news is that the cost of materials and installation have been dropping rapidly recently — an estimated 70 percent in the last two years, according to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES).
The bad news, however, is that the hassles of meeting state and local requirements can raise the price consumers ultimately pay, and subject them to bureaucratic procedures that can be time-consuming and frustrating. Requirements differ among states, with some — California, New Jersey, Maryland and North Carolina, among them — being more solar friendly than others. Requirements also differ among local municipalities.
A single federal policy would simplify the process greatly.
"If you buy a new water heater or a new furnace for your house, a plumber comes and installs it, and that's it — but if you want to install solar panels, multiple agencies have to approve it," said Susan Greene, president of the ASES. "It's almost impossible for solar companies to work nationally, so they usually only focus on certain states because it's too much work and too expensive to do it in the others."
Moreover, many advocates believe that solar entrepreneurs must step up within their communities to build relationships with policymakers and the media "to show that solar is working for their community," Hanis said. "They have to aggressively market to the families and small businesses in their community to show that this is something that can be viable in their neighborhoods."
There are encouraging signs that this already is happening.
SolarCity, for example, has installed panels nationwide on more than 100 Walmart stores, and in numerous school districts. One school district near Fresno, for example, saved enough money in electricity costs to restore its music program, suspended in a cost-saving measure in 2009.
In some communities where consumers can't install their own panels, it may be possible for them to buy shares in a solar "farm" located elsewhere and receive a credit against their utility bill. "It's not wired directly into your house, but it's going into the grid," Greene said. [World's Largest Solar Plant Goes Online]
Also, new crowd-sourcing models are beginning to draw both investors and consumers. For example, Mosaic, which funds solar projects and pays its investors back with interest. "Pretty brilliant stuff," said Jeff Siegel, managing editor of Green Chip Stocks, an alternative energy research firm.
Siegel is confident there will be more of this. "As far as closing the gap, I definitely see it happening," he said. "Solar installations in the United States continue to soar. Leasing models are going gangbusters. I believe the industry is continuing to grow quite well, and is likely to do so well throughout the rest of this decade and beyond."
Read Cimons' most recent Op-Ed: The New Normal: Deluge
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.com .