Solar Leasing: Power for Pennies
[ASSURAS] We take the solar industry's temperature after the Solyndra collapse and survey solutions around the country. From the Cincinnati Zoo... [ Monkeys howling ] turning to solar without investing a nickel and getting off the grid...
[MARK FISHER] When you're looking at those goose eggs on your energy bill, it's like, wow, it's really, actually working.
[ASSURAS] ...to visionaries helping ignite the push to solar.
[STEVE MELINK] So we're generating an excess of power.
[PATTY KIM] This is the future!
[MELINK] This is the future!
[ASSURAS] Plus, our interview with Energy Secretary Steven Chu on the challenges facing renewables.
[CHU] I think that the market for solar energy, for renewable energies of all kind, and for the energy market in general, is so vast that we have to hang in there and prevail.
[ASSURAS] This is "energyNOW!"
Hello, everyone. I'm Thalia Assuras. Welcome to "energyNOW!", a weekly look at America's energy challenges and what we're doing about them. The solar industry's challenges are getting a lot of attention with the recent collapse of Solyndra, the California solar panel maker backed by the Obama administration and touted as a potential game changer. It went bankrupt this month, leaving taxpayers holding the bag for potentially half a billion dollars in loans. "energyNOW!" Chief Correspondent Tyler Suiters has more on the fallout from the Solyndra collapse.
[SUITERS] This isn't how the Solyndra story was supposed to end. Despite a $535 million federal loan guarantee, the solar company went bankrupt. The government was stuck with the bill, leaving many unanswered questions and a federal investigation.
[MAN] You are now under oath.
[SUITERS] And the $39 billion clean energy loan program became a high-profile target on Capitol Hill.
[REP. FRED UPTON, CHAIRMAN, HOUSE ENERGY COMMITTEE] I want to know what the Solyndra failure means for the loan guarantee program. Was Solyndra just one bad bet, or is it the tip of the iceberg?
[SUITERS] On Friday, Solyndra executives were called to testify, but they refused to answer lawmakers' questions.
[BRIAN HARRISON, CEO, SOLYNDRA] On the advice of my counsel, I invoke the privilege afforded to me by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, and I respectfully decline to answer any questions.
[SUITERS] Why so much scrutiny? In part, because Solyndra was a clean energy favorite of the Obama administration.
[OBAMA] Shovel ready, right?
[SUITERS] There are about 5,000 solar companies in the U.S. right now. Standard Solar, just outside of Washington, D.C., is one of them. And the industry says right now, about 100,000 Americans work in this energy sector, doubling the amount of solar jobs over just the last two years.
[DAN SHUGAR, CEO, SOLARIA] Solyndra manufactured about 5% of the solar products in North America last year. But the industry, on whole, is continuing to grow very dramatically.
[SUITERS] Solyndra cited competition from China for its downfall. Two other bankrupt solar companies, Evergreen and SpectraWatt, also pointed toward China's growing solar industry.
[REP. JOE BARTON, (R) Texas] I could see why some private-based U.S. companies would feel the Chinese are unfairly undercutting them.
[SUITERS] But the Chinese are also buyers. The solar industry says last year, the U.S. exported more than $240 million of solar products to China.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] To learn more about government and energy companies, go to energyNOW.com.
[SUITERS] But jeopardizing that success, renewable energy subsidies are now under the Congressional microscope.
[UPTON] In this time of record debt, I question whether the government is qualified to act as a venture capitalist.
[ASSURAS] Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the Obama administration will continue its support for solar energy, adding that there's fierce competition right now between U.S. and Chinese solar companies.
Now, with all the legal and political fallout from the Solyndra bankruptcy, it's important to note that there are solar success stories across the U.S. So this week we'll show you some of the unexpected places where solar energy is breaking through those dark clouds. We start in the Midwest with "energyNOW!"'s Patty Kim, looking at ways the technology is benefiting humans -- and animals, too -- in this "energyNOW!" Spotlight.
[KIM] These days, one of the star attractions of the Cincinnati Zoo is not what you might expect. It's a sea of solar panels -- over 6,000 of them -- spanning an area the size of nearly four football fields, installed over the zoo's parking lot. It's one of the largest public displays of solar in the country, making the Cincinnati Zoo one of America's greenest.
Ooh, that's a wet tongue there. With over a million visitors coming to the zoo every year and maybe a few more these days, thanks to a new baby giraffe -- this here is daddy, by the way, this is Kimba -- folks here at the Cincinnati Zoo are hoping that the new solar panel display will create a bit of "monkey see, monkey do."
[MARK FISHER, SENIOR DIRECTOR, CINCINNATI ZOO] The idea of having 1.3 million people a year park under this array, and then when they come up on this bridge, come in the zoo, they're like, "Wow! What is that?" We can say, "Hey, we did it," and if you can do it in Cincinnati, Ohio, don't tell me you can't do it wherever you're at.
[KIM] The panels are designed to produce 1.5 megawatts of electricity. That's about 20% of the zoo's total energy needs, and when you've got a yearly electric bill of more than half a million dollars, every sunny day adds up.
[FISHER] The good news is, everybody's getting some. So, the manatee filtration system. The polar bears to gorillas and elephant houses. I mean, on a day like today, right now, every single building in our zoo is off the grid.
[KIM] That means a sun-drenched day like today is good for the bottom line, when the zoo's not drawing any power from the utility company -- not a single kilowatt.
[FISHER] When I got my first energy bill, I started reading down and it was zero. I was like, wow, it's really, actually working, this is real.
[KIM] To build this $11 million project, the zoo didn't invest a nickel. Instead, the zoo simply pays a locked-in rate of about 10 cents per kilowatt hour to the solar panel owners, roughly the same price it would have paid the power company. The advantage comes over time. As utility prices go up, the zoo could save millions of dollars.
The project's financing was a complex web, weaving an assortment of federal tax credits, along with Ohio's own alternative energy incentives. But perhaps, most importantly, it took the vision of one local businessman.
[STEVE MELINK] So we're generating an excess of power, which explains why we're in the green mode here.
[KIM] This is the future.
[MELINK] This is the future.
[KIM] Steve Melink is head of Melink Corporation, the Ohio firm that designed, owns, and operates the zoo's solar array.
[MELINK] We've had the Industrial Age, we've had the Space Age, Internet Age. But it's very possible that we will not lead the coming Energy Age. It's going to be led by China or Germany or Japan.
[KIM] Melink wasn't always on energy's cutting edge. He originally built his success in the home heating and ventilation business.
But one trip to a green building conference in Cleveland changed everything.
[MELINK] I cannot imagine us going back to where we were. I think that renewable energy will continue to grow.
[KIM] And more companies are hearing the call. In New Jersey, a Toys R Us is laying claim to one of the largest rooftop solar arrays on a single rooftop, outdoing a Macy's warehouse in Arizona. And in Maryland, Perdue Chicken is powering up with solar, joining Whole Foods and Staples.
[ Bell clangs ] Now the Sun's rays are reaching beyond big business. Out west, one woman is leading the charge.
Any fantasy building that you'd love to actually see solar panels on one day? The Taj Mahal?
[LYNN JURICH] The Taj Mahal, that would be a good one.
[KIM] Lynn Jurich is the cofounder of SunRun, a company that leases solar panels to homeowners. It's like leasing a car. You pay little to nothing up front, and the company takes care of the rest, installing, maintaining, and selling you electricity at a locked-in rate for 20 years.
[JURICH] We know for consumers to adopt solar in the mainstream, it can't be hard and it can't be more expensive. Making renewables affordable and mass-produced is what our generation needs to accomplish.
[KIM] And so far for SunRun, so good. It's now one of the largest providers of residential solar power in the nation and has already reached 11,000 homeowners. They hope to double that next year.
[EXECUTIVES] Solar power service! Whoo!
[KIM] But the success hasn't come without huge risk. Jurich had to convince investors to inject millions into an uncharted solar universe. No small feat, given solar is still in fewer than 1% of homes in all of America.
[JURICH] I think we wouldn't be human if that didn't make us a little nervous. I mean, we're inventing this new industry. You know, it is a little bit of a Wild West out there. But that's entrepreneurship.
[KIM] No, no, don't be a gentleman, Ted. I climb ladders like this all the time.
[TED LIESER, LAUGHING] I'm sorry!
[KIM] One homeowner who "sees the light" is Ted Lieser of Mill Valley, California. He paneled his roof as a hedge against rising power rates, a choice, Ted says, in the long run, that could help him save thousands of dollars. But money isn't the only factor.
[LIESER] How could I say no? It's a minimal amount of cash out of pocket. Panels are on my roof. I'm cutting my emissions down. I'm being a good global citizen, a good role model for my kids. It was like, how could you not do this?
[TEXT ON SCREEN] To learn more about solar leasing, go to energynow.com.
[KIM] Change, it seems, is on the horizon.
[FISHER] We can say that this project, literally this project, has a direct relationship to motivating other folks, and that would be pretty cool.
[KIM] In Cincinnati, Ohio, Patty Kim, "energyNOW!"
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