It's been a few months since Travis Pike had solar panels installed on his home, in the West Adams neighborhood of L.A. But the novelty hasn't worn off. He finds himself proudly gazing at a control panel on the side of his house at least a few times a day.
For Pike, this control panel represents a victory of good over evil. And he's not talking about the fight against global warming. He's referring to his Quixotic battle against his "friendly" neighborhood homeowners association, called the Harvard Heights Neighborhood Preservation Overlay Zone.
When Pike wanted to install solar panels on his historic mansion, the board representing the zone nixed the idea, telling him it would ruin the neighborhood's historic curb appeal. Pike fought back.
In the end, a compromise was reached: He could install panels on the east side of his home, where they can't be seen from the street. But that meant Pike had to remove a chimney and a water heater, which doubled the cost of the project, not to mention the savings he'll never see from having to install the panels on the shady side of the house.
"It's not really the ideal situation for me for generating the power, but at least I'm able to do some," said Pike.
Neighborhood zones; building permits; local, state, federal requirements: These are some of the obstacles to making solar affordable for Californians. Barry Cinnamon is CEO of Akeena Solar, based in Los Gatos. If it's not a battle with a preservation zone, he says, it's reams of paperwork that take weeks to fill out.
"The utility wants copies of it, California Solar Initiative wants copies, the city wants copies--it's a mess," said Cinnamon. "Every single page of paper had a reason, but nobody sat down and said 'Is this really important?'"
Cinnamon says the amount of paperwork required for his solar installations has tripled in the last decade. For the consumer, he estimates, the cost to cut through all this red tape makes up a quarter of the price of an average solar installation.
"This is no more difficult than putting an air conditioner on my house," said Cinnamon. "And as it gets really simple, the absurdity of all the paperwork and questions is, I think, going to provide pressure to make it easier."
And that's exactly what has already happened in Japan.
Japan's Simple Solar System
A cramped office in downtown Tokyo, the headquarters for Japan's Photovoltaic Owners' Network, is the seat of a solar rebellion. Fifteen years ago, when Japan started offering subsidies for solar panels, homeowners were burdened with the same requirements as a large-scale utility: several building permits, blueprints, inspections, and lots of paperwork.
Network president Ken Tsuzuku says all this bureaucracy sparked a public outrage that led to the creation of his group. Tsuzuku said, "We appealed to the government to eliminate this cumbersome process, and after two years of fighting, they finally got rid of these requirements. That significantly reduced the amount of paperwork that was required."
And that, in turn, says Tsuzuku, brought down the installation price. Now, he says, solar is affordable for Japan's middle class. A typical five-kilowatt rooftop solar array costs up to $10,000 less in Japan than it does in California--if you have to install anything.
Ready-Made Solar Homes
A couple of hours south of Tokyo in the city of Machida, Atsuko Sugawara pours tea for her husband Jun as he flips through the family's electricity bills. The tea he's about to sip was heated with electricity generated by solar panels atop their new prefabricated home. This home is part of a new trend in Japan: manufactured homes. Now 15 percent of the country's housing stock, they're starting to come with solar panels already built in.
Next month, Japan will begin offering something called a "feed-in tariff," which will pay solar panel owners for generating more electricity than they use. Sugawara is doing the math on that.
"This means that I'll be able to pay off the price of my solar panels in just seven years," Sugawara said. "After that, I'll start making a profit."
Sugawara estimates he'll net the equivalent of about $1500 a year from the sun. He's not alone. Nearly half a million homes in Japan already have solar panels, and news of the new feed-in tariff has spurred 50,000 households to install solar panels in the past six months; that's more than the total number of homes in California that have solar panels, period.
Keeping the Heat On
The Golden State is working on increasing that number, and they've already taken some lessons from Japan on how to do so. The California Solar Initiative, the state's successful subsidy for solar, was modeled after Japan's wildly popular solar subsidy program of the 1990s.
"It was very successful," says Julie Blunden, who studied Japanese economic models to formulate California's solar program, " It took technology that was almost, in many ways, an off-grid technology, and brought it on-grid over the course of the late '90s and early part of this decade."
Blunden, who's now Vice President of SunPower, admits California still needs to work on decreasing the amount of red tape involved in installing solar panels.
Travis Pike, the homeowner in L.A. who's spent tens of thousands to appease his skeptical homeowners association, agrees. "Personally, as a homeowner, I think it is an intrusion on my rights," said Pike. "This is the modern age, the world is asking us to put in solar panels."
And the key to accomplishing that in California, says Pike, is to get out of our own way.