Should the Government Help You Buy a Solar Panel?

To pioneering astronomer Aden Meinel, the message was loud and clear decades ago. The flow of oil from the Middle East to the United States had slowed to a trickle, bringing this country to its knees and sounding what should have been a rousing wake up call.

President Jimmy Carter had chosen Meinel to lead a group of fellow scientists on an important investigation. Carter wanted the answer to a basic question: Could solar energy help free the nation from its growing and alarming dependence on foreign oil?

Meinel had all the right credentials to answer that question. He and his wife, Marjorie, also an astronomer, had developed telescopic instruments that are still in use to this day, and as the founder of the Kitt Peak National Observatories in Arizona, he helped bring his science to the masses. So in a report to the president, and later in a book, the Meinel's argued that the country could not afford to lose any time in developing a broad-based national solar energy program.

But somewhere along the way the oil spigots were turned on again, and the long lines at the gas stations disappeared, and the report from Meinel's committee began collecting dust. The husband and wife team, who hold many of the top prizes in astronomy and optics, campaigned across the country to try to get their message across, but fewer and fewer people seemed to be listening.

Now, they are both elderly and in poor health. Meinel is so distressed over a recent surgery on his wife that he could not even talk on the telephone.

But the torch has been picked up by a woman who grew up "eating science for dinner." Their daughter, one of seven children Marjorie raised while working alongside her husband, has made solar energy her own passion. And she has come up with an intriguing concept.

Home Ownership Model

The idea came to Elaine Supkis while advising someone on how to get a home loan through the Federal Housing Administration, which made home ownership possible for millions of Americans.

"I thought, I'm a dummy," Supkis says. "We could do this for solar energy, too."

Supkis had powered her own home for years with solar cells on the roof, so she knew first hand that the technology works. Even in upstate New York, there was enough sunlight to meet her needs throughout the year. In the nation's sun belt, including places like Arizona, where she played on the summit of Kitt Peak as a child, gigawatts of potential electricity were going unused.

As with any new technology, the roadblocks to solar energy are primarily economic. Solar cells, which convert sunlight to electricity through photovoltaics, are more expensive than cheap oil. So there is little incentive for a homeowner to spend thousands on a solar system when a power line runs just outside the door.

"Right now, energy is cheap," Supkis says. "But it's not going to be cheap in the future. That we can absolutely guarantee. So we have to prepare today for the time when it will not be cheap."

But there's that old problem again. Expensive systems can't compete with cheap systems, at least not in the marketplace.

So Supkis's solution is to make solar systems pay for themselves.

"In the Great Depression, Roosevelt started home loans for people because you couldn't buy a house unless you had a lot of cash to put down," Supkis says. FHA loans closed much of the gap between the rich and the poor, making it possible for most Americans to own their own homes.

Supkis is campaigning for the federal government to create a solar energy program based on the FHA format. The program would initially be funded by the government, with perhaps about $100 billion in "seed" money. That money would be loaned to people who want to install solar cells on their homes or businesses, and it would be paid back, with interest, on a schedule based on the income of the applicant.

The payments would be "recycled" as loans to new applicants, thus producing a self-sustaining system.

"It needs to be self perpetuating," she adds.

Good Idea, But...

One way to make it palatable would be to make the payments the same as the applicant pays for electricity through the local utility. And if the system produces more electricity than the home owner needs, the excess could be sold to the utility.

Eventually, when the loan is paid off, the system will provide "free" electricity to the home, and the sale of excess energy could provide a little cash, thus stimulating the need to exercise restraint in energy usage.

Supkis says she picked the figure of $100 billion "out of my hat," but she notes it's about what the United States plans to spend in the effort to rebuild Iraq.

Unfortunately, like so many timely ideas these days, this one probably won't go anywhere either. As long as energy remains relatively cheap, it's easy to put this aside, ignoring a problem that isn't going to go away.

But photovoltaic systems have vastly improved over the past few years, and more and more public utility companies and government agencies are launching efforts to tap into a resource that won't run dry. Imagine how far that technology would advance if there was a viable marketplace filled with home owners eager to buy the latest system, with just a little help from Uncle Sam.

Nothing stimulates progress like money.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.