California is the first state to require all new homes have solar power starting in 2020. That could lead the way for other states to follow suit. And who doesn’t love the idea of free, clean energy from the sun? But it’s not quite that simple. It turns out free can be costly and clean can be dirty. Today’s cover story is: solar opposites.
California leads the nation in use of sun-driven power - with projects like the historic Los Angeles YMCA. Built in 1928, it has a new system of solar panels and solar hot water— saving money on energy.
Solar power has come a long way since the first sun-powered telephone call using a Solar Battery in Georgia in 1955.
Documentary: “Notice that a man’s shadow falling across the sails, blocking out the sun, is enough to stop the train."
California architect Vitus Matare shows why California is perfectly situated to soak up the sun.
Vitus Matare: This is Carbon Canyon. And you're looking at another street up here called Cole Canyon Road.
Yet despite the Golden State’s optimal positioning, climate and solar innovations— energy prices are still among highest in the nation. On average, Californians pay 60 percent more than the rest of us. The new solar panel rule aims to change that.
Sharyl: In simple terms, can you tell us what this new regulation about solar panels on houses says and does?
Thomas Elias: If you want to build new houses in California, you must put solar panels on them and you must put enough to power the house most of the time.
Thomas Elias is a syndicated columnist who’s covered energy issues in California for 50 years. He says mandatory solar panels will add about 10-thousand dollars onto the price of a new home — but save costs in the long run.
Sharyl: What would you say are the good points?
Elias: Well, the first thing is that the average buyer of one of a new home in California will make money off of this, because while that approximately $10,000 would add about 40 bucks a month to the average mortgage, it will also save you about $80 a month in electric bills. So you'll make $40 a month as long as you own the house.
Over 30 years, an average homeowner will save an estimated $19,000 in energy costs, eventually more than making up for the added cost of solar panels.
Woman: I personally think it's a good idea. I come from a city where it's very sunny all year round. It's a 100 plus degrees right now and it would help with the energy consumption.
Woman: I’m torn because it’s just going to add the price, add more price to the new homes that are already expensive, but in the long run it will save them money on energy and make a cleaner environment for California.
Man: Obviously HOA shouldn't prevent you from using solar power, but to mandate it, I think that's going to extreme.
Sharyl: So technically this is a perfect place for a house with solar panels?
Matare: Absolutely. Yes. And the orientation of this roof is primed to run them, you know, facing forward all the way down this route.
Matare’s modern home designs on the sunny cliffs overlooking Malibu lend themselves ideally to solar panels. But he says there are big flaws with California’s upcoming solar panel rule.
Sharyl: What is the problem or the challenge?
Matare: Picking a panel that will have longevity and that is not a particularly wasteful process that's involved in making the panels.
Sharyl: But to be clear, you are a solar power advocate.
Matare: Yes. I just don't like the quality of the panels that we're getting and the fact that no one bothers to differentiate between crummy panels and not quite so crummy panels.
Some call it the “dirty little secret” of this “clean” energy source: from start to finish, solar panels leave a trail of hazardous waste. An Associated Press investigation found that over five years, 17 of 41 solar panel manufacturers in California produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water. 1.4 million pounds of waste was transported to nine other states.
Sharyl: So this is your house?
Matare: It is, we’ve been here for about 10 years.
Sharyl: And did you try the solar panel thing?
Matare: We sure did.
Adding to the waste issue— Matare says many of today’s solar panels don’t last very long. He showed us where he removed solar panels from his own house after less than three years.
Sharyl: You mean this spot?
Matare: This spot right here, yes. And this has happened not just here, but on a few other houses that I designed, and the owners installed panels that did not last.
Sharyl: Used solar panels are already a global environmental threat, according to the pro-nuclear power group Environmental Progress. It found that solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. Households with solar roofs produce up to 60 percent more electronic waste than non-solar households.
Matare: I think they will find that many of these panels that are installed, they're going to go straight to landfill, and it will be a groundwater issue. There'll be an issue with disposing of these materials and ultimately reclaiming them. It's like the everything from cell phones to computers, it's nasty, nasty stuff.
A partial solution, he says, could be neighborhood solar farms — more easily maintained with less waste. In fact, California’s new rule allows new homes to use rooftop panels, or a shared solar grid that serves multiple homes
In the end, California’s experience matters to people living in other states.
Sharyl: Do you think California's solar mandate will likewise somehow resonate across the country, impact other areas too?
Elias: Give it a couple of years and other states that are suited to solar like Arizona, southern New Mexico,
Sharyl: Florida, maybe?
Elias: A lot of Texas, a lot of the Gulf coast and in Florida, yeah, all the way across the southeast. These kinds of places can use the solar mandate and it would work.
Sharyl: Do you think in a general sense there's a trend here that as California goes, so will go the rest of the nation— or at least the sunny states?
Matare: Clearly that is the way that this is going to go, and it's not necessarily a good thing because I think California is moving prematurely on this technology.
The new law applies to California homes built after January 1, 2020. Right now, it’s estimated a bit less than 20% of homes in the golden state have solar panels.