Solar suburbs: The future is now
Imagine a truly green suburb, one in which energy-efficient homes are powered by rooftop solar panels and electric cars glide quietly down the streets. Businesses, energy experts and scholars say low-carbon suburban living is not only possible, but on its way.
Some glimpses of the future:
In Palm Springs, California, rooftop solar panels are standard in a new community of 42 energy-efficient homes built by Far West Industries of Santa Ana. The homes sold quickly, at prices ranging from $600,000 to $700,000. Scott Lissoy, president of Far West, said: “If we’re building in the Coachella Valley, which is one of the hottest areas in California, we’re building with solar panels. It’s the right thing to do.”
In Colorado, residents of Adams, Boulder and Denver counties are taking advantage of a group buying program called Solar Benefits Colorado that offers discounts on solar panels from a company called Sunrun and on an electric car, the Leaf, from a local Nissan dealer. It’s one of a series of group procurement projects organized by Vote Solar, an advocacy group.
In Vermont, Green Mountain Power, the local utility, wants to sell its customers less electricity. Instead, it is selling them energy-saving heat pumps, weatherization, batteries and solar panels that give them more control over their energy consumption. “Really, what we’re in the business of doing is trying to accelerate a consumer revolution that’s already happening, to transform the energy space,” said Mary Powell, the utility’s CEO.
These examples point to the potential of what some are calling “solar suburbs.” The concept is a sweeping one —solar panels cover roofs, electric vehicles sit in garages, energy-efficient homes are outfitted with batteries to store electricity and a smart two-way electricity system enables people to drive to work and discharge power from their electric cars at times of peak energy demand.
The government of Australia has embraced this idea for a new military housing development being built near Darwin, where each home will come equipped with a 4.5 kW rooftop solar system, charging points for electric cars and smartphone apps enabling owners to track their energy use and carbon saved.
This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls and vast parking lots. But advocates say that if all goes well, advances in technology, combined with smart policy, could lower the costs of solar power, electric cars and batteries and drive a clean energy revolution in the suburbs.
One evangelist for this revolution is David Crane, chief executive of New Jersey-based NRG Energy, which aims to provide a complete clean-energy solution for homeowners, including electric-car charging and batteries. “Our home solar business is going to be about so much more about than just solar panels on the roof,” Crane said on a 2014 earnings call.
Analysts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, led by Amory Lovins, also see an energy revolution coming. “The technical solutions are there,” said Titiaan Palazzi, a mechanical engineer at the institute who formerly worked for smart-thermostat company Nest. “You could eventually get to suburbs or communities that are net-zero energy.”