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John Schaeffer discusses the future of solar energy

For more than 30 years, John Schaeffer has been on the cutting edge of innovations in renewable energy. He is the founder and president of Real Goods, which he has shepherded from a small start-up to one of the largest solar companies in the US. In 1995, Schaeffer created the Solar Living Institute, an educational center that hosts 200,000 visitors a year and offers demonstrations in wind and solar technology. He is also the author of the Solar Living Handbook, now in its 12th edition. Schaeffer lives with his wife, Nancy, in Mendocino County, California in a natural home built mostly from recycled materials in the middle of a permaculture oasis powered by solar and hydroelectric.

photo of a man smiling, solar panels evidient in backgroundCourtesy Solar Living Institute

Q: What first got you interested in and excited about renewable energy and solar power?

Well, going way-back-when, I left UC Berkeley and moved up to a commune in the hills of Mendocino County in 1972. At that point, everyone was running off of kerosene lamps and non-rechargeable batteries and candles and very little indoor plumbing – there was very little energy. People got all of their power from kerosene, more or less, and there weren’t really any alternatives. Around that same time there were some people experimenting with wind generators and I set up a little rotor in the backyard. Shortly after that I was traveling around, and I found a 12-volt battery, one of those big extended car batteries, and brought it home, and realized you could plug in some 12-volt lightbulbs. You could buy an old standard Edison base, put the two wires to the battery, and all of a sudden you had light. And I thought, “This is revolutionary – light in the woods.” Here we are all of these Luddites who had moved out to the woods from the Bay Area, and LA and New York, and all of a sudden we’ve got electricity with this new technology.

So I kind of kept that going for a while, and found different 12-volt appliances, and a 12-volt TV. I was kind of running up against the culture of the time, which was anti-technology. But when I put on the TV to “Saturday Night Live,” they would all forget about their prejudices and come up and watch TV. So that was kind of the beginnings of when I saw this renewable energy possibility.

Shortly after that, it was about 1978, I started the store up in Willits. And one of the first alternative energies we had was one of those little battery isolators, solenoids you can put in your car so that while you are charging your car battery you are also charging your auxiliary battery for your home. So I was commuting back and forth in Mendocino, driving 35 miles both ways, and so by the time I got home I had this fully charged battery which would run these funky lights that were basically, you know, incandescent, the most inefficient bulbs you can have. Nevertheless it was better than kerosene and candles. So that was the beginning. And then in ’79, we found the very first solar panels, which were rejects from the space program. And just began to sell these nine-watt photovoltaics that were something like $900 when we first sold them, $100/watt. But they started selling, and those were the first PVs to be sold in the country. Right around then it became very popular in the hills, not because it was the best technology, but because it was the onlytechnology if you wanted to get away from kerosene.

Q: You talk about how the culture among the off-the-grid folks was really anti-technology. How do you think we can go about reconciling some of the tensions between ecological sustainability and technology?

I think it’s a whole change in consciousness that happens when people realize that the Age of Oil is limited, from 1859 to when the last drop disappears, probably sometime toward the middle of the 21st century. When people see the evils that technology brought, the climate change and carbon dioxide concentrations that came with it, people are looking for a new technology that’s much more benign. Knowing that even if we had all that oil to last another 30 years and all that coal – if we burned it all, it would be a mixed blessing, because we would have energy but we would also choke ourselves and completely alter the climate. So I think it’s a natural evolution, people understanding that you can’t continue to go down that path of dark, evil energy. We have to learn how to use distributive generation, and more direct generation of the power that we create. Which gets into the whole re-localization movement that’s happening right now, people doing that within their own homes and within their own communities, and trying to figure out a way of being less dependent on transportation for bringing in the feedstocks and all that.

Q: I think that brings up an important point, which is that solar energy works most efficiently when it’s decentralized, but the major utilities are all founded on these models of centralized power generation and distribution. How do you overcome that? You’ve got this grid that’s set up, and the utilities like it how it is. How do you get around this system that’s already been set up?

It’s really difficult because it’s been ingrained in people for a century now, this entire grid permeating our whole society. But I think the transition is these grid inter-tie systems that have become so popular in the last five to ten years, with people using their own solar panels to feed back into the grid. We’ve seen the amount of solar go up from less than 300 megawatts in 2000 to more than 2,000 megawatts in 2006. And that’s all because of people, for the most part in Europe, using these solar panels in a decentralized situation, but feeding into the massive grid. I think that if we go ahead with this transition technology, and if we all put up solar panels on our homes to feed back into the grid, then there comes a time, 10 or 20 years hence, that if the grid goes down or if the grid becomes obsolete, or we have more rolling blackouts like we had in the East, then by this time all the homes will be set up with solar on their roofs. Then all they’ll have to do is purchase a few batteries. Or maybe by then flywheel technologies will have advanced to the point where we won’t need all these lead-acid monstrosities. Then we will have effectively gone to the decentralized model, just because the grid will have broken down, and we will have gotten set up with solar in the meantime. But I don’t think you’re going to get the point where the grid is just going to voluntarily say, ‘We’re not needed anymore, let’s put up solar on every house.’ They’re going to go out kicking and screaming. But I think it’s already happening.

Q: You were talking about the current generation capacity of solar. Twenty-five years ago – or longer than that, in the Carter administration – there was a lot of excitement about solar energy. And today there is a lot of excitement about solar energy. And yet it’s still a sliver of our overall energy portfolio. Why is that?

I think it’s primarily political. Twenty years ago I would have said it was economic, back in the Carter time, and really it was. Back then it was 50 cents, 75 cents a kilowatt/hour (kWh), and it took real money to put up solar. Whereas today, when you factor in the rebates, you’re getting down to maybe 14 cents to 15 cents/kWh over time, when you look at the 30-year horizon, which is competitive certainly with PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric] rates and getting more competitive with rates around the country. Initially it was an economic problem. But now that we’ve got New York, New Jersey, California, Colorado, more and more states coming up with incentives, it’s no longer economic; it’s becoming political. As you said, it’s a sliver of the energy that we’re doing. I think it’s less than one percent, or even half a percent nationwide.

But you look at someplace like Germany, where it’s up to something like 20 percent, it’s astoundingly ramped up over there. … You know, the worst solar in America is the equivalent of the best solar in Germany in terms of actual sunshine available. Yet you’ve got a magnitude of scale more than what we’ve got in this country. I mean, I think the US share of electricity has gone down from 56 percent to seven percent of worldwide use of solar energy. Whereas Germany has gone just about the opposite way, from about 7 percent to 60 percent of the world’s solar, with what, a sixth of the people we have in this country. That’s all because of government incentives. When you look at what the Germans and the Japanese did in the years between, say ’95 and 2003, with their incentives, it absolutely points to it being a political problem. Once the government makes a decision that they are going to incentivize renewables instead of providing subsidies for oil, huge changescan happen. I think that’s all we need in this country.

I mean, you’ve got [California Governor] Schwarzenegger jumping on the bandwagon both with global warming and with the solar program. If we had a few more of him in a few more states and at the national level, I think we could see it going up very fast.

Q: It seems that a lot of people hold off from making investments in solar because there are these steady technological changes. People keep waiting for the next big thing, because the technology is constantly evolving. Is that really a challenge?

It’s only a challenge of perception. We’ve been going through that for almost 30 years now. People have said, “Wait two more years, the price will be half of what it is. The technology will be twice as efficient. It will last forever.” And in the beginning it was more of a hard sell that that wasn’t going to happen. But just with experience you look at the solar that was out in 1979, it was about 10 percent efficient. And the solar out there now is about 18 or 19 percent, maybe 20 percent efficient. But that’s almost 30 years, and efficiency has only doubled.

page53panels_BW.jpgCourtesy Solar Living InstituteThe Solar Living Institute has trained
hundreds of people in clean energy technology.

Now it’s nanosolar, and the price is going to be down 40 percent by 2010. All of these rumors that our sales people every sales meeting are coming to me and saying, “What do we do to combat these perceptions that are out there? They don’t want to buy now. They want to wait a few years.” Well, I mean, really all you can say is that experience shows us that people are always are looking for greener pastures that never have shown up in 30 years. So to think they are going to show up in two years is pretty ludicrous.

And all the time that you wait to install that solar system you are losing money every year. If you can lock in 14 cents/kWh rates now for 30 years, that takes you to 2037. Whereas you’re going to see electric company rates go up on average of five percent a year, easily, between now and then. So every year that you neglect to put your solar in you are going to lose another five percent. So why wait for the pie in the sky? The technology is there now. The economic incentives are there now.

Q: So you’ve been working on this quite a while, 25-plus years. Where do you think we’re going to be 25 years from now?

Oh, I think it’s going to have to continue ramping up very gradually. It depends on the political climate. Like I said, if you just take a look at the German model or the Japanese model, you can see how quickly it would move if we had a leader in place that was really pushing this technology. But we really haven’t had anyone since Jimmy Carter in the White House. Al Gore was certainly a disappointment when he was in the Vice President’s office. Twenty-five years from now puts us at 2032, and the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment said we will run out of oil in 2037. But as we all know, our oil is probably peaking right now. If we don’t continue this transition and speed it up, we will be in pretty sad shape in 25 years. But I tend to be more optimistic that we will be able to see the writing on the wall and eventually elect some leaders who can provide some incentive for this. I hope we will be in much better shape by then, and the technology will continue to get better.

Q: What gives you that optimism?

[Laughs.] I guess just an attitude on life that things are going to get better and can’t get any worse, with George Bush in office and all the horrible things we’ve seen with global warming. I just read that book, Heat, by George Monbiot. He takes an optimistic position, believe it or not, given where we are. His recipe, 90 percent [reduction in greenhouse gases] by 2030, is the only thing we can do that will get us out of this mess. We’ve just done some recent calculations and come up with a “Global Warming Action Kit” that we’re selling. And we’re showing how anyone can do 90 percent by 2030 with just five simple steps: putting in three compact fluorescents; putting in a PV system; putting in a solar hot water system; putting in an instantaneous water heater; and converting to either a hybrid or a biodiesel car. By doing these measures that we’re advocating, you can cut out 90 percent over the next 30-year period through some fairly simplemeasures.

Think about what has changed in consciousness over the last, say, 12 to 18 months. Think back to when we put up the global warming display at the Solar Living Center in the ‘90s – people thought we were nuts. No one had ever heard of global warming, they didn’t know what CO2 concentration was. And in just the last 12 months with every magazine cover, every store, every ad, every celebrity – suddenly green is everywhere. If we can do that just in the background of consciousness in one year’s time, then think what we could do in five years’ time if people really put their minds to setting some goals. That’s what gives me optimism – seeing how quickly our species has the ability to turn around once it gets on the outside of denial and begins to move toward a solution. And I think we’re on the cusp of getting out of that denial right now.


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