Southern California environment news and trends

Southland's National Solar Tour footprint shrinks; does that mean solar itself is in trouble?

Ellen Mackey

Ellen Mackey's Sun Valley home is a National Solar Tour standard. She says they're always working to get more efficient.

Four years ago, 30 Los Angeles and Orange County homes threw out the welcome mats as part of the National Solar Tour

This year, it's the 16th year of the tour, sponsored by the American Solar Energy Society, which bills it as the world's largest grassroots solar event. The ASES says more than 160,000 participants will visit some 5,500 buildings in 3,200 communities across the U.S. And it's been steadily growing, nationally. In the DC area, they'll have 55 tours to choose from.

So how many in LA? Five, according to the website. But is that necessarily bad? 

One of the five is the Westside Solar Tour, which, according to its site will "combine guided and self-guided tours of structures, including residences and businesses including The Sidewalk Cafe, The Brig and The Electric Lodge in Venice and Oasis Healing Center in Mar Vista." That's not one site, that's a pile of them. (Silverlake gets a similar deep and rich tour.)

Another is the Sun Valley home of Ellen Mackey, with whom I spoke on Thursday afternoon. Ellen's a staff biologist with the Metropolitan Water District; she's had her home on the National Solar Tour since almost the beginning (13 years, I think!). She's also a star of the see-how-it's-done circuit, featured in news for years and years. 

Mackey has done nothing but upgrade her house since she and her family began living in it. If she were a runner, she wouldn't be a marathon runner, she'd be an ultra-miler. She and her family squeeze every drop they can out of energy efficiency, our of recycling, our of sustainability, out of conservation. Mackey said the reason she contacted me was because her home stands for the prospect that solar houses "don't have to be perfect, model-like, high-end, architecturally groovy homes to be sustainable. We need to empower more people to feel their home can be part of the solution. Not perfect - a work in progress."

Mackey worries that it's the economy that's slowing down interest in the solar tour. But at cross currents with the economy, she says, is what she hears from neighbors, which is a crying need for better solar information, especially about pricing for rooftop systems. "If you only write about one thing, five dollars a watt," she said. Mackey says even in soliciting add-on panels (she's done her home's roof already) she's seeing companies bid the job with ridiculous numbers. The flood of residential rooftop solar installers in the market, some of whom Mackey finds unscrupulous, can send the wrong message: that solar is far more expensive than other choices.

"Five dollars a watt," then, is Mackey's advice. She tells homeowners considering solar for their own rooftops that a bid higher than that is probably too high. She's a scientist; she says you need a bigger data set to evaluate the cost for yourself. That means get more bids. 

As for why we've got 5 tours and other regions have dozens...I wonder if the solar tour might be less popular in this region because we have an accelerating adoption rate. We might not be getting as many panels and systems up on roofs as solar enthusiasts would like, but Million Solar Roofs is in full swing. But you tell me. 

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