Is basic solar technology the key to an energy revolution?

Plain old photovoltaic panels and innovations in energy storage and distributed generation could remake our electricity system.

  • A solar field in Lancaster, California, one of many that help generate nearly a quarter of the city's peak energy. It's shooting for a "net zero" status, wherein it produces more clean energy than it consumes.

    David McNew
  • Lancaster, California, Mayor R. Rex Parris poses with the solar panels that sit atop City Hall. Parris wants to ban dirty energy, and is battling neighboring Palmdale over its proposed hybrid gas/solar plant.

    David McNew
  • A SolarCity solar panel-covered parking structure at the JetHawk stadium, above, which generated 70 percent of the energy it used last year.

    David McNew
  • Heather Swan works for the tiny Lancaster Power Authority, which may someday produce enough energy to break free from Southern California Edison.

    David McNew
  • Residential solar in Lancaster, California, where a law mandates new housing developments average 1 kilowatt of solar per home.

    David McNew
  • A Borrego Springs resident checks real-time energy use with a monitor hooked to the town microgrid. The microgrid program allows 60 residences and small businesses to see when the grid has a heavy load, a sign for them to conserve energy.

    San Diego Gas & Electric
  • The SolarCity website updates energy production and consumption every 15 minutes, as well as historically.

    SolarCity
 

On a November afternoon just outside Lancaster, Calif., Mayor R. Rex Parris stands beaming through his foresty beard, expounding on the grave dangers of climate change. No one seems overly concerned – possibly because most of the audience speaks Mandarin as a first, and in some cases only, language. Instead, they're as cheery as Parris, flustered by neither the language barrier nor the 40-mph wind gusts that ruffle the mayor's brilliant white hair. "I used to say we were changing the world," he intones. "Now I say we're saving the world."

It sounds like hyperbole, but it might be true. Behind Parris, in a once-vacant lot, rise the beginnings of a 16-acre solar farm, developed in collaboration with U.S. Topco Energy, a Taiwan-based firm with offices just over the mountains in the San Gabriel Valley. The arrays will supply electricity to just a few hundred homes, but to hear Parris tell it, they're the first green shoots of an energy revolution – one that begins in local communities and spreads out to the planet.

Lancaster is a city of 150,000 in a region of the West Mojave Desert named the Antelope Valley for the pronghorn that roamed here before agriculture and industry left behind a strafed and empty landscape, dotted with sickly Joshua trees and rows of stucco bungalows. In the '80s, Lancaster and its twin to the west, Palmdale, offered refuge to middle-class families fleeing Los Angeles' crime and housing prices, but urban ills soon metastasized here: In 2007, Lancaster's violent crime rate was twice the national average.

Parris, a Lancaster native, was elected in 2008 to address that situation. His authoritarian methods, which included aerial surveillance of public places and harassing Section 8 renters, have drawn lawsuits and ridicule, but he's been re-elected twice. If the city is now in the throes of an unlikely renewal, it's in part because Parris launched an all-out war on the city's decades-long decay. Among the weapons in his arsenal: The polycrystalline silicon cell that turns sunlight into electricity via photovoltaic process.

Since 2010, 52 megawatts of PV solar panels have gone up on Lancaster's rooftops, schools, carports and warehouses, as well as on five city facilities, including City Hall and the baseball stadium, home to Lancaster's minor-league JetHawks. And it's been done with surprisingly little controversy: Last spring, when the city council mandated that new housing developments average one kilowatt of solar per structure, even KB Homes, the region's major housing developer, got behind it.

Parris, 61, is a big man – not simply tall, not overweight, but big. A millionaire personal injury lawyer with offices just down the street from City Hall, he is a Republican who rejects neither climate science nor government's role in people's lives. Just as he's tried to ban pit bulls from Lancaster, he'd like to erase dirty electricity from the planet (including  neighboring Palmdale, where plans to build a 570-megawatt hybrid gas and solar plant have him apoplectic). "I was elected for public safety," he says. "What could be more dangerous than the greatest catastrophe man has ever faced?" Lancaster satifies nearly a quarter of its peak energy demand with solar, but Parris wants it to be more – much more. Eventually, he'd like the city to become "net zero," producing more clean energy than it consumes.

"Of course," he says, "they could kick me out before we get there."

Parris might talk as if he's acting only out of concern for the planet. But there's more to it than that. If distributed solar is on the rise in cities like Lancaster, it's also because putting photovoltaic panels on rooftops – something that once required a hefty investment with uncertain payoff – has suddenly become a way to generate civic revenue. The technology has already saved Lancaster tens of thousands of dollars in utility costs, and a partnership with the solar-leasing company SolarCity to put panels on the city's school buildings has brought in close to $400,000 in just two years.