Solar power for the people

While Washington politicians bicker about the blame for record oil prices, the People's Republic of Berkeley takes care of business.

Published November 9, 2007 11:02PM (EST)

Five House Republicans held a news conference on energy prices on Friday morning, doing their best to imitate a gaggle of dinosaurs pretending not to realize that they are neck deep in a tar pit. So what if the Democrats meanly point out that the price of oil has risen fourfold since George Bush took office? The Republican response: Since the Democrats took over Congress in 2006, the price of a barrel of oil has almost doubled! So there! Nyah nyah nyah!

Seriously, the main message from this strikingly incoherent press conference was that the Republicans refuse to allow the Democrats to pass a "no-energy energy bill." By which they meant that the Democrats are not doing enough to increase the supply of energy. You want low oil prices and cheap gas? Well then, pass an energy bill that lets us drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and pump more natural gas, and provides tax breaks to encourage coal-to-liquid technology and shale oil development.

Insert your melting ice caps right here.

Maybe it's because I live in Berkeley, but I couldn't help noticing the striking failure of the assembled Republicans to mention the word "solar" even once. In Berkeley we're thinking a lot about solar this week, because on Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council approved a breakthrough financing plan aimed at encouraging local solar panel and solar water heater installations.

Green Wombat has the full story, but the basics are simple. The city foots the bill for the installation, but homeowners retain ownership and pay the city back over 20 years via an annual property assessment. And if they sell their house before the bill is completely paid off, no worries -- the liability for the remaining bill, along with the solar panels, goes to the next owner of the house. (Disclaimer: Green Wombat is not only a co-resident of Berkeley, but a fellow member of the Malcolm X Elementary PTA. I will now shamelessly steal from him: "Solar power in Berkeley: By Any Means Necessary.)

The math sure looks good to me. The annual property assessment fee adds up to about a year's worth of electricity bills. Like many homeowners, I've been daunted by the $20,000-$30,000 price tag for a solar installation. But I'm going to be lining up with my Berkeley brethren to apply for participation in the "Sustainable Energy Financing District" when it is up and running, perhaps as early as 2008.

Imagine if the federal government supported a similar program. My guess is that leadership on this issue might make buying some shares in a solar power start-up a pretty good investment. Oh, wait a minute: Solar power start-ups are already some of the hottest action on the market, without the federal government doing a damn thing. As Green Wombat also reported on Thursday, the stock price of thin-film solar module maker First Solar shot up 34 percent on Thursday, to a Googlish $224.43. The performance is all the more remarkable when considering how badly the rest of the market did this week.

Green Wombat bills itself as covering "the intersection of the environment, technology, business and policy." But if you review the last six posts as of the morning of Nov. 9, every single one concerned some aspect of solar power, with a heavy focus on California. Solar power is exploding in California, and a horde of venture-capital funded start-ups are jostling with each other to get a piece of the action. So while Democrats and Republicans trade jabs over who is responsible for the current price of a gallon of gas, and by the latest reports are fumbling a major opportunity to pass legislation that would significantly boost the production of renewable energy, here in California, something powerful is actually happening.

No doubt, there are bubblish aspects to this solar boom. If you want a sense of just how gaga the financial community is beginning to go over solar, you can't do better than this morning's posting by John Gilluly on the financial blog Seeking Alpha, pumping up the stock of the solar installation company Akeena.

Among his more hyperbolic enthusing:

  • "The U.S. residential solar market is expected to grow at a 64 percent annual rate for the next three years."

  • "Solar in 2007 is like investing in Yahoo in 1996."

  • "Solar can be more affordable, more doable, and on a parity with oil in 5 years." </ul

And his grand conclusion:

In summary, several trends are creating a virtuous circle for the adoption of solar energy in the U.S.: venture capital research and development; semiconductor companies leveraging their experience with silicon into solar ventures (to diversify their portfolio of offerings); an informed public demanding the political will for green initiatives; the sustained high cost of oil and energy which weaves its way into every part of our lives as a net tax; and demand demand demand.

All this, and the city of Berkeley's hardly gotten started!

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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