Energy and the environment

California blazing a trail for the US in using solar power

Solar panels on the top of a house in California. Nearly 4.9 million homes are powered by solar energy in the American state.
Solar panels on the top of a house in California. Nearly 4.9 million homes are powered by solar energy in the American state.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES • Ms Jacquie Barnbrook had grown tired of the high electricity bills and her petrol-guzzling luxury car when she finally decided to take the plunge last year.

The 52-year-old Los Angeles resident joined an ever-growing number of Californians who are switching to solar power for their energy needs in a bid to not only save money but to also do their part for the environment in a state setting the pace for the rest of the country in the solar power sector.

"At this time of year, my power and water bills usually were around US$400 (S$550) a month," Ms Barnbrook said. "Right now, it's US$150 a month."

As for her vehicle, Ms Barnbrook said she ditched it in favour of a hybrid one that she now plugs in and charges at her house. "I was previously spending US$80 dollars on petrol every three or four days and now I haven't put petrol in my new car since the beginning of March."

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Nearly 4.9 million homes are powered by solar energy in California - the nation's green trailblazer and the most populous state - and that number is expected to continue to grow, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a non-profit trade association.

Although solar installations have slowed this year partly because of a record number of people rushing to sign up last year for fear of losing a tax incentive, the market is expected to continue to grow, especially in places which have many sunny days like California .

Driving this expansion is the plummeting cost of solar panels - which were traditionally limited to relatively affluent home owners - and improving technology on batteries to store energy, experts said.

Professor Rajit Gadh, director of the Smart Grid Energy Research Centre at the University of California, Los Angeles, said apart from cost, another reason consumers have gingerly adopted solar power in recent years was the dizzying number of regulatory hoops they had to go through to get approval from utility firms and a lot of complicated information to process.

Moreover, as demand for the product has surged in the last decade, so have the number of companies - both serious and shady - jostling for a piece of the pie.

"Solar power is confusing and for a long time it really didn't make a lot of economic sense," said Mr Ryan Willemsen, chief executive and founder of San Diego-based start-up Solar to the People.

"In California, solar is really getting a snake-oil reputation because of some of the unscrupulous folks involved who are pushing solar super hard," he added. "In San Diego alone, for example, there are over 200 solar operations."

Mr Ara Petrosyan, chief executive and founder of consulting firm LA Solar Group, said he believes that once the dust settles and shady companies inevitably go out of business, consumers will be able to make more informed and affordable choices.

A clear sign of where the industry is going, he said, is the number of installations - which cost between US$15,000 and US$20,000 for an average-sized house - that his company is handling.

Solar power is also growing fast in other states, including New York, which look to California as an example. "The overall industry trend is that the cost of solar panels and other components is going down," said Mr Willemsen.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2017, with the headline 'California blazing a trail for the US in using solar power'. Print Edition | Subscribe