New solar panels dot the roofs of Guadalupe homes

This Thursday marked another milestone in Santa Barbara solar development. Congressmember Lois Capps gathered with prominent members of the solar industry to celebrate the conclusion of a 7,200-panel, roughly 2 megawatt project directed at low-income residences.

Paul Metzner of installation company Planet Solar put those numbers in perspective, announcing they installed what amounted to “more than three acres of straight solar panels” during the undertaking. The panels are located on rooftops including the tops of carports built specifically for the purpose. Frederick Lamont and Bob Havlicek from the county’s Housing Authority, Metzner, and Dave Wallerstein from manufacturing company SolarWorld all joined Capps at the podium to speak to the success and completion of the gargantuan solar venture before heading out to one of the project’s Goleta sites — the Miller Community Center — to flick the “ceremonial power-up” switch.

As the installation process is finished at the last few of the 21 total sites, more than 1,000 families in county apartments and housing complexes will begin to receive lower energy bills thanks to the new photovoltaic panels on their roofs. The project’s $12.25 million price tag was covered through a series of rebates and grants, almost half of which were federal. Each site is also equipped with a monitoring system that displays, in real time, how much sunlight is hitting and being absorbed by each individual panel.

The most impressive part of the project was arguably the amount of inter-city and inter-company collaboration that took place. Havlicek, dubbed the “brainchild behind the operation,” explained that the project began to bud with a single stimulus grant, before blossoming to engulf three utility companies, 250 buildings and sites throughout Santa Barbara County including the cities of Lompoc, Goleta, Guadalupe, and Santa Maria.

This wasn’t only an energy cost-reduction effort, Capps reminded as she delved into her speech. “We are creating quality local jobs; we cannot ship these jobs overseas,” she commented, lauding the project. “The sun shines here!” Metzner said that the installations created 20 new positions. “We wanted to have as much impact on the local economy as possible,” he said.

In the wake of this project — the largest of its kind in the country — and other summer solar initiatives like the Solarize Santa Barbara and Comprehensive Mobile Home programs, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to claim that Santa Barbara isn’t at the forefront of residential solar energy utilization. SolarWorld’s Camarillo plant is the longest continually run plant in the Americas, according to director Wallerstein, and can produce enough panels to cover a residence in two minutes.

The company’s 2010 brochure reads, “SolarWorld manufactured more crystalline silicon solar cells in the U.S. than all other manufactures combined.” But solar-psyched organizations such as the Housing Authority and premier solar firms like the ones responsible for this project still have a long road ahead of them: solar energy still fulfills less than one percent of America’s energy needs.


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