The Sun King

It’s a cloudless lunch hour last October, with a brisk, chill wind whipping across the back terrace of the State House. A dozen or so protestors — some young, some gray-haired, some in suits, others in jeans — carry bright, neatly lettered signs that read “Solar Power To The People” and “Bring Back Solar.” A placard anchored in the grass says, “It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. (Ansel Adams).” A few drivers honk and offer thumbs-up as they brake to cross the big speed bump on Smith Street. Workers out for some midday air pause to see what it’s about.

“More than twenty-nine years ago, I started a solar-installation company in Rhode Island,” Bob Chew tells the crowd, his typed notes in one hand, a microphone in the other. “And in my wildest dreams, I would never have believed that today we would need a save-solar rally to get the Carcieri Administration to include solar energy as part of an overall energy strategy.”

Chew, owner of the energy company SolarWrights, is not someone you’d expect to see leading a protest rally on the State House steps. He’s an affable, hard-working, fifty-something guy who grew up in Barrington. In 2006, SolarWrights was named the fastest-growing private company in Rhode Island from 2003 to 2005 by Providence Business News. Chew lives in a comfortable, solar-powered,100-year-old house in Bristol with his wife, Beth, drives a Prius, and goes to work every day believing that he’s helping to build a better world. He should be satisfied and content. But today, he’s frustrated, and he’s angry, and he’s out on the street with a microphone.

“Staging this rally wasn’t the first thing I tried to get the administration to see the value of solar energy,” he tells the crowd. He also met repeatedly with staff from economic development, from the governor’s office, and the state energy office. “Only after exhausting all of these avenues, did I bring this problem to the public to ask for their help in saving the solar industry,” he says.

Chew is upset because changes in state policy have hurt his company. But he also believes the changes are bad for Rhode Island’s future, and will thwart efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and build an alternative-energy system that works.

On sultry summer days, when energy demands peak — those are the days when the wind’s not blowing. Solar panels could be pouring power into the grid when it needs it most.

Back in 2005, when things were booming, SolarWrights installed about fifty photovoltaic projects for homes and businesses across Rhode Island. Using state-of-the-art solar panels, the systems generate electricity for twenty-five years or more, virtually maintenance-free. Each system plugs directly into the state’s power grid, so on long, sunny summer days when the panels generate more energy than the homeowner needs, the meter runs backward, and the owner gets a credit. This is known as net metering and means no batteries are needed to store the excess power. When the sun shines, the solar panels contribute extra energy to the power grid. When it’s dark or cloudy, electricity is drawn from the power lines, and the household hums along without interruption.

Chew has seen plenty of ups and downs during his decades in the business. There was a boom back in the Carter years, then a slump during the Reagan regime, when most solar companies folded. Chew is one of the few who weathered it all. The latest boom was fueled by a surge in energy prices and a growing awareness that our “addiction to oil,” as President Bush called it, is a bad thing not just for the environment, but also for global politics and the U.S. economy. Add growing concerns about global warming, and lots of people were eager to escape their oil dependence.

Efficient new technology and the net-metering system helped to make home solar systems easy to use. State and federal tax credits and subsidies from the Rhode Island Renewable Energy Fund made them affordable. The fund would contribute as much as $25,000 for a typical five-kilowatt system, bringing the price down to a seven- to ten-year payback for most homeowners.

Chew, who was by far the state’s most experienced solar installer, was well-situated to satisfy the demand. He impressed customers not only with his decades of experience and his technological expertise, but also with his sincere commitment to a clean-energy vision. He sought out graduates of environmental-science programs to staff his work crews, true believers with a passion for their work. Customers were proud of their systems, showed them off to friends, and word of mouth brought more work to SolarWrights.

But early in 2006, the boom came to an abrupt halt. Governor Carcieri announced a new five-point energy plan and said he would appoint the state’s first Chief Energy Adviser to the Governor, who would oversee the state energy office and develop and implement state energy policy. The governor named Andrew Dzykewicz, who had dealt with energy issues as a senior project manager at the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, to fill the post. One of the governor’s five points was a mandate to increase the use of renewable energy. He expressed a goal for 15 percent of the state’s energy needs to be met by new wind-turbine projects. Solar power was not on the agenda.

Dzykewicz went to work to enact the governor’s strategy, based in a small office deep within the Department of Administration building, off Smith Street. He hung a picture on the wall of the electric scooter he drives to work on warm days. He says he’s putting the entire state government on an “energy diet.” Multiple alternative-energy projects are now underway, he says, from a study to determine the best sites for wind farms, to the restoration of several small hydropower sites, to a plan to produce biodiesel from leftover restaurant grease.

“The biggest story here is wind,” he says. Dzykewicz supported the construction of a wind turbine at Portsmouth Abbey, which was subsidized by a $450,000 state grant. That project demonstrated what’s possible in the state, and is building good will and support for future wind turbines. “But we can’t do that anymore,” he says. “We need to prioritize for payback.” The state needs to invest in larger-scale projects, he says, that produce a lot of energy — at megawatt scale, not kilowatts — at costs that are competitive with other sources in the marketplace.

Small-scale, five-kilowatt solar installations don’t meet those criteria, he says. “Solar is expensive. It’s inefficient. I’ve heard all the arguments, but it just doesn’t produce enough power. It amounts to….” He shrugs. Nothing much, in the big picture. New energy legislation passed by the General Assembly has made it harder for his office to subsidize alternative-energy projects. Low-interest loans are preferred, Dzykewicz says, to keep replenishing the funding for new projects. In Dzykewicz’s view, offering state rebates for small-scale solar installations isn’t going to get the state where it needs to go.

When Bob Chew drives along Rhode Island roads, as he’s been doing all his life, he views the landscape differently than most of us do. “I see all these big flat, empty roofs on industrial buildings, and I’m thinking, why aren’t we putting solar panels there?” he says. He watches oversize McMansions being built, and sees monuments to inefficiency. “There should be an energy tax on every one of those homes, and on every SUV, and that money could go toward building a clean-energy infrastructure,” he says. He drives past new subdivisions where the potential of solar power is ignored. “Every builder in Rhode Island should have to own a compass, and know where south is,” he says. If every house had 100 square feet of south-facing roof, the owners would at least have a solar option.

All of this could be happening right now, today, yesterday, last year, says Chew. “Last summer, on August 2, the energy grid in the Northeast almost crashed,” Chew says. “By 2008, the way demand is going up, we’re going to have brown-outs in the summer.” And here’s the thing — on sultry summer days, when energy demands peak and the system is most stressed — those are the days when the wind’s not blowing. The rivers that drive hydropower plants are at their lowest, weakest stage. But solar panels could be cranking like crazy, pouring power into the grid just when it needs it most. Since peak power demand is what drives the need for new infrastructure and power plants, that makes a huge difference. “The peak-period generation is key,” Chew says. “And those wind farms will take years. We could be installing solar systems right now.”

Instead, Chew says, a year has gone by, and nothing has happened. “It’s the most frustrating year I’ve ever had. The one thing that could make a dent, Andy killed it,” he says. When the state incentives evaporated, so did Chew’s Rhode Island customers. His fast-growing company whiplashed. He had to regroup, and fast. He turned to Connecticut, where solar demand was growing, thanks to high electricity prices and generous state subsidies. By early this year, he had rented a larger office space in Stonington, Connecticut, and was hiring two new workers a month, and expanding into Massachusetts and New York.

It’s been a rough year, he says, but the future now looks promising. “We’re coming out of all this as a stronger, better company. I think in another year or two, we’re going to be Rhode Island’s fastest-growing company again,” says Chew. But he’d still rather be putting solar panels on roofs in Rhode Island, instead of everyplace else. He’s convinced that leaving solar out of the state’s energy future is a mistake. “Either Andy knows something they don’t know in Massachusetts and Connecticut, or he’s wrong,” says Chew. “It’s got to be one or the other.”

Solar electricity can’t compete with other options when compared on a direct cost-per-kilowatt basis. But that method of comparison is inadequate, says Chew. To get from today’s energy structure to one that will work for the long run, solar needs to be part of the picture, and with today’s economics, incentives are needed to keep it going. “I hate wasting energy. And I’ve wasted a lot trying to convince Andy that solar makes sense,” Chew says. So he took his argument to the street with the Save-Solar rally, and to the pages of Providence Business News, and to meetings of various boards and committees, and to anyone who would listen.

The sky is gray on a drizzly Saturday afternoon in January, and a half dozen people wearing parkas and sharing umbrellas head out past the pond and the chicken coop, toward the wet winter woods that border the yard at Charlie and Tonya Morgan’s place in North Stonington. Carl the dog greets everyone, tail wagging; the Rhode Island Reds squawk and strut. These friends and neighbors have heard about the Morgans’ brand-new solar installation, and they’re here to check it out. Shiny black solar panels are stacked six across and four high, strapped to tall metal poles and tilted to best catch the rays of the winter sun. Today, even with total cloud cover and sporadic rain, the meter is turning. Photons are hitting the panels and they’re churning out electricity.

Building the system has made the family more aware of their energy use, Charlie says. They bought efficient new appliances and replaced all their light bulbs. Computers and televisions now plug into power strips, to stop the constant drain of power even in off mode. They unplug the coffee pot, and hang clothes outside in the summer. And they do it, mainly, because it makes them feel good.

“We wanted to do it because we wanted to be part of the solution,” says Tonya. “It’s better for the environment. That was our biggest motivator. We’re very aware of how much oil affects everything. Big changes are going to have to be made, and we wanted to do our part. It’s just the smart thing to do.” But it also had to be affordable for them, and it wouldn’t have been without the incentives offered by the state of Connecticut. They’re not sure how long it will take to break even, maybe ten, twelve, even fifteen years, depending on what happens to the price of electricity, and other variables. But they expect the panels to keep working, maintenance-free, for twenty-five years or more, so it will pay off in the end. “I only wish we’d done this fifteen years ago,” says Tonya.

Chew is here, along with two of his staffers, answering questions about the system and handing out business cards. Most of his new work is generated by these personal contacts, Chew says. Just a few weeks before, he attended a similar event in a backyard in Westerly, but that party had a sad edge to it. It was the last “Turn on the Switch” party in Rhode Island, and no more were on the calendar.

Erich Stephens, the Rhode Island project director for New Jersey-based Bluewater Wind, is excited about the prospects for a large-scale wind energy project in the state. An offshore wind farm could produce more than 500 megawatts of clean energy, he says, supplying about 15 percent of the state’s electricity needs, and the technology is proven and ready to go. Bluewater Wind has been working on projects in New Jersey, Delaware and New York, and he’s ready to get to work in Rhode Island as soon as the state releases its study on possible sites, probably six miles offshore, out of sight.

It would take only about two years to get a wind farm up and running, he says. Bluewater Wind is new to Rhode Island, but Stephens has long been an advocate for alternative energy here. Until last fall, he was executive director of People’s Power and Light, a nonprofit group promoting clean and affordable energy options.

“Solar energy is clean, and works best at times of peak power demand, when we’re using the dirtiest energy sources,” he says. “That’s important, but our market doesn’t recognize those values. That needs to change. We also need a lot more buyers, to get the prices down.” The tiny Rhode Island market is not enough to make a difference in that equation, he says. And it would take an awful lot of little five-kilowatt systems to add to up to a wind farm capable of adding 500 megawatts to the grid.

Solar belongs in the picture, he says. But when it comes to investing limited funds, he thinks wind makes sense. “It’s a strategic decision,” he says.

Chris Wilhite, a spokesman for the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club, thinks solar needs to be a part of our energy strategy. “It’s an excellent solution to global warming in general, and some of our energy problems,” he says. “We support the effort to secure more funding for solar installations, both residential and commercial.”

The Sierra Club is concerned that the state energy office has cut back on solar incentives, he says. “Look at how many rooftops there are in Rhode Island — they’re all potential solar power plants. The more we don’t take advantage of that, the more we have to depend on other sources of energy.” And those other sources come at a price, too.

The state energy office hasn’t completely abandoned the solar industry. Buyers can still qualify for a write-off on their state taxes. Last fall, the energy office asked for proposals to use $200,000 in subsidies for commercial projects, though it was stipulated that no one company could apply for more than half of those funds. In January, Julie Capobianco, renewables program manager in the state energy office, was contacting seventeen homeowners on a waiting list for solar systems, to see if they still want to move forward. “Then we’ll look at our budget and see what we can do,” she says. “Solar is not dead, despite what you may have heard,” Capobianco adds. “We’re still supporting it.” In his State of the State speech in January, Governor Carcieri set a goal to provide 20 percent of the state’s electricity from wind, water and solar power by 2011. But for Bob Chew, it’s not enough. “My dream is for Rhode Island to be energy independent,” he says.
“That’s not going to happen under the current plan.”

At the save-solar rally, at the State House, Chew wraps up his argument. “I am making no bones about it,” he says. “I’m a businessman and my company’s goal is to sell as many solar systems as possible, for economic reasons. But even more importantly, we want to continue because we’ve been making a difference with every system that we install. And since we’re the only full-time solar-energy company in Rhode Island, who else will fight for solar energy?”

He concludes his speech and offers the microphone to anyone in the crowd. A few step up to lend support to the cause. The white signs are still held high, the passing drivers beep. An onlooker wraps his coat tighter against the brisk wind, and heads back to a warm office. And the bright midday sun shines down, all those energy-rich photons bouncing off of empty rooftops across the state, with nowhere to go.