With Help From Nature, a Town Aims to Be a Solar Capital
LANCASTER, Calif. — There are at least two things to know about this high desert city. One, the sun just keeps on shining. Two, the city’s mayor, a class-action lawyer named R. Rex Parris, just keeps on competing.
Two years ago, the mayor, a Republican, decided to leverage the incessant Antelope Valley sun so that Lancaster could become the solar capital “of the world,” he said. Then he reconsidered. “Of the universe,” he said, the brio in his tone indicating that it would be parsimonious to confine his ambition to any one planet.
“We want to be the first city that produces more electricity from solar energy than we consume on a daily basis,” he said. This means Lancaster’s rooftops, alfalfa fields and parking lots must be covered with solar panels to generate a total of 126 megawatts of solar power above the 39 megawatts already being generated and the 50 megawatts under construction.
To that end, Lancaster just did what former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger failed to do in 2006: require that almost all new homes either come equipped with solar panels or be in subdivisions that produce one kilowatt of solar energy per house. He also was able to recruit the home building giant KB Home to implement his vision, despite the industry’s overall resistance to solar power.
“Lancaster is breaking new ground,” said Michelle Kinman, a clean energy advocate at Environment California, a research and lobbying group. Ms. Kinman, who tracks the growth of solar energy in the state, calculates that the city tripled the number of residential installations in the past 18 months.
The city’s pursuit of solar self-sufficiency may exceed that of other municipalities, but California has long outpaced the country in its embrace of that technology. Cities like San Diego, near the Mexican border, and counties like Sonoma, in Northern California’s wine country, have been aggressive in converting sunshine into electricity.
The lifetime costs of a large solar facility are expected to be about 15 percent more than electricity bought from the state’s grid. Those projected costs are now roughly half of what they were five years ago, state figures show.
Around the country, photovoltaic energy is increasingly being embraced as panel prices fall. Nationally, photovoltaic generating capacity rose 76 percent in 2012, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association; more than 40 percent of the country’s solar capacity of 7,700 megawatts came on line last year.
While the desert sunshine in California and Arizona helped put those states atop the national solar energy rankings, towns in cloudier regions are also adopting it. Napoleon, Ohio, for instance, benefits from 14 megawatts of local solar power.
But energy politics in Ohio and other Republican-run states are not solar friendly. Earlier this year Ohio’s Republican-dominated public utilities board blocked construction of a 50-megawatt solar facility on strip-mined land. In Republican-controlled Florida, state law prohibits third parties from installing the rooftop solar panels and then selling power to the homeowner, relieving the homeowner of large upfront costs.
Of course, it makes sense to see a city leader championing solar energy in a place like Lancaster, with some of the best solar resources in the world. But the city’s long-term population has many former military families, who are largely conservative. Many newer residents are migrants from the black and Hispanic precincts of Los Angeles.
But embracing solar power is not just a matter of energy costs or reliability. It’s also about jobs. Like many exurban areas in California, Lancaster was hit hard by the housing bust and the recession. The unemployment rate here is 15.5 percent. Municipal revenues declined, as did school budgets. As Mayor Parris saw it, solar power could mean lower public expenditures and more private jobs.
So solar self-sufficiency became his quest. It does not hurt that Mr. Parris is a showman. He brought a makeup artist to a photo session; he notes the legal awards he has won (slightly under $1 billion) in ads on city buses.
And while his competitive streak is seldom masked — he said his home has the biggest residential solar array in town and his new law office received LEED gold certification, a seal of approval for green buildings — the mayor couches his vision in terms of the science of complexity. “You need to be at the center” to take advantage of the forces spinning around you, he said.
“We want to make Lancaster the center” of renewable technology, he added. Entrepreneurs should know “that if they come and have an idea to create energy without a carbon footprint,” the local government “will move mountains for them.” Getting a permit for a solar installation, he said, takes 15 minutes.
Mr. Parris is aggressively pro-business. He has been hatching plans to create and store more energy locally with SolarCity, a major installer and financier of home systems, and BYD, the Chinese panel, battery and electric vehicle maker.
His solar push began about three years ago; City Hall, the performing arts center and the stadium together now generate 1.5 megawatts. Solar arrays on churches, a big medical office, a developer’s office and a Toyota dealership provide 4 more.
The biggest power payoff came with the school system. After the Lancaster school board rejected an offer from SolarCity, saying it was unaffordable, the city created a municipal utility. It bought 32,094 panels, had them installed on 25 schools, generated 7.5 megawatts of power and sold the enterprise to the school district for 35 percent less than it was paying for electricity at the time. Another 8 megawatts now come from systems operating at the local high school and Antelope Valley College.
Not surprisingly, the private companies in Lancaster’s collection of public-private partnerships praise him. “It’s so business friendly here, it’s not even funny,” said Jim Cahill, a regional vice president at SolarCity.
“A lot of what we’re doing appears to be public relations,” the mayor conceded. “It has that taint to it. But what we’re doing is scalable and portable.” Lancaster is already marketing its power to other municipalities.
Global warming, the mayor said, will eventually persuade others to realize that locally generated renewable energy may provide a safety net as the cost of cooling desert homes goes up.
Is global warming indeed a threat? Absolutely, he said. “I may be a Republican. I’m not an idiot.”