Solar Energy Plan Lights Up Southern California City

A Southern California city is offering homeowners what its mayor calls "a landmark opportunity" to get affordable solar energy. Is this a tipping point for the implementation of solar power?

This week the Lancaster City Council unanimously passed a plan to partner with a solar energy company in offering residents a program to lease solar panels -- with the guarantee that homeowners will save on their monthly electric bills. The company, SolarCity, is a Northern California-based enterprise that's already worked with Beaverton, Ore., and Phoenix on similar plans. What's unique about the Lancaster program SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass told HousingWatch, is the scope of the project.

Aside from a conversion of city-owned buildings (which is expected to save the city money over the long term), Bass says that Lancaster's renewable energy program will include businesses, nonprofits and average homeowners. (Pictured is a recent SolarCity installation at a Lancaster assisted-living complex.) In this high desert community in northeastern Los Angeles County, where heating and cooling needs can be as lofty as the elevation, the average homeowner can be confronted with triple-digit electric bills.

Although the solar panels are available for purchase to anyone, Lancaster residents must own their own homes and have credit ratings above 700 to qualify for the program's solar-lease option. After evaluating the viability of installing a system on the roof of a Lancaster home, Bass says, the company will handle all the permitting and other processing necessary and guarantee that customers will save on the cost of their electric power -- even with the additional cost of the solar lease -- or SolarCity will make up the difference.

For a three- or four-bedroom home with an average of $200 a month in electric bills, Bass said, the savings could be hundreds a year. Although the cost of the lease for a home of that size is not cheap at $110 a month, the monthly electric bill is expected to be only around $60. And Bass says that the efficiency of SolarCity's units is averaging about 10 percent more than the company projected.

"The nice thing about this program is that it requires no public funds," says Bass, aside from what the city is spending to install solar systems on its facilities.

Helping keep the cost down, however, are tax credits and rebates for renewable energy systems. For instance, there's a 30 percent federal tax credit for a solar installation, says Bass. A homeowner or a business can earn those by buying a system outright. In a lease arrangement, however, those credits go to the installer.

Lancaster's solar-conversion partnership is also designed to bolster the local economy by providing jobs and training in what's hoped to be a growth industry in the city of nearly 146,000, which is about a 70-mile drive from downtown L.A., in the Antelope Valley. Training could include classes at local high schools and colleges, Bass said, in a curriculum that SolarCity would assist in planning, and with the idea that graduates will have the opportunity to work at the company. (Bass said that SolarCity doesn't outsource.)

Aside from Tuesday's council vote in Lancaster, it was also the day that the city trumpeted the debut of a energy-efficient model house built there by KB Home. Aside from solar panels, energy storage batteries, LED lighting and an electric vehicle outlet, it has what USA Today called a "smog-eating roof" -- its "tiles have an embedded catalyst that when exposed to sunlight, speeds up oxidation and reduces the nitrogen oxide pollution that creates smog."

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said in a statement that "we will all benefit from this program, which will help reduce our carbon footprint while creating a number of new jobs in our community."

There's no question that this kind of renewal, along with renewable energy, is needed in Lancaster and other of L.A.'s air-conditioned exurbs. Those were founded on the practicality of long freeway commutes, and those are where the Southern California version of the housing crash arguably hit hardest.

Of course, the larger conundrum is whether such local renewable energy programs are sustainable in other regions of the country, as well.

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