This article was originally published in the May/June 1998 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online May/June 1998


Why Solar Roofs?

Executive editor Alan Meier's appreciation for solar gets dampened by El Nino.
One element of President Clinton's climate change program is installing one million solar collectors on the roofs of American homes. Both photovoltaic (PV) and water-heating units are included in the plan, although pool heaters are excluded. It's easy to criticize the program (and we will in a moment), but several aspects deserve commendation.

First, encouraging the use of renewable-energy technologies should be part of any attempt to mitigate climate change. The technologies to wean us from fossil fuels need to be stimulated both by increasing the price of fossil fuels and reducing the cost of the solar alternatives. The administration's policies are consistent with that long-range strategy.

Moreover, the administration plans to invest a lot of effort (and presumably money) in builder education programs, creating standard specifications for solar units, tax credits, and government procurement of units for applications where they are most economical. These actions will help establish a market and the expertise to service it. With luck, those carefully trained contractors will avoid converting perfectly good roofs into leaky solar roofs.

Unfortunately, the economics of photovoltaic systems are currently dismal. The Department of Energy admits that PV-generated electricity now costs about 24¢/kWh but hopes that these programs will cut that cost. There is probably some truth to this expectation, but the government is wisely hedging its bets by installing solar where electricity is expensive. The National Park Service, for example, installs PV only if they would otherwise need to build costly utility lines to remote locations. The administration has different plans for individual consumers. Clinton plans to subsidize residential PV installations even if simple economics do not recommend them.

It is foolish to generate very expensive electricity in order to power inefficient appliances. If the administration wants to pay a premium to develop new solar generating capacity, it also needs to ensure that energy is used as efficiently as possible. This means further improvements in everything from lights to refrigerators. Clinton has proposed an increase in the conservation budget, but no programs comparable to the solar roofs. For example, rapid deployment of heat pump water heaters to all-electric homes with high hot-water demand and expensive electricity would save far more electricity per installation than PV units, at a fraction of the cost.

We're glad the administration has mapped out a solar strategy. But energy efficiency can achieve more CO2 savings at less cost. Too bad high-efficiency windows and basement heat pumps don't have the catchy slogan, or the visibility, of a million solar roofs.

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