Here Comes The Sun

Correspondent John Blackstone is based in San Francisco.
Under the California sun, solar energy finally seems to be catching on.

The state has a plan to put solar panels on one million roofs over the next 10 years, offering big subsidies as an incentive.

Silicon Valley sees profits in solar energy. A longtime maker of computer chips, Cypress Semiconductor, is one Silicon Valley company that has moved big time into solar, investing in both SunPower, a solar cell manufacturer and PowerLight which makes and installs solar panels. The CEO of Cypress, T.J. Rodgers has noted that as big as the computer business is, it is dwarfed by the potential of the electric utility business.

Dieter Folk believes in the future of solar energy as well. He's been in the roofing business for 28 years, started putting on shingles as a teenager working for his father. Now he's president of Old Country Roofing, one of California's largest roofing companies. He has opened a division of the company specializing in installing solar roofs. It is what many customers are now demanding, he says.

Les Lifter, a vice president of the homebuilder, Lennar, agrees that plenty of new home buyers in California are looking for solar powered homes. It is why Lennar has announced that all the new homes it builds in the San Francisco area will now have solar panels as a standard feature.

One of Lennar's solar subdivisions is in Danville, in the hills east of San Francisco. Most of the 77 homes here are still under construction. But Sandra and David White have already moved in…and are already seeing savings from the solar panels on their roof.

Even on a cloudy day the solar panels collect energy. What the Whites don't use goes back into the power grid to provide electricity to somebody else. At times like that their electric meter actually runs backwards. Their neighborhood will be a little power plant helping to fight global warming.

To qualify for the state subsidies the White's house needs more than the solar panels, it also needs to be highly energy efficient. Everything from the furnace to the windows to the light bulbs must meet California's highest standards for energy conservation.

Those standards are set by the California Energy Commission where Commissioner Art Rosenfeld may well have done more to stop Global Warming than anyone else in the state. He's an 80 year old physicist who often rides a bicycle to his office in Sacramento. When he drives, it's a Prius. In his large office, only one light is on, a desk lamp with an energy saving compact fluorescent bulb.

But Rosenfeld does much more than save energy for himself. He has spent 30 years saving energy for everyone in California. He got started in the 1970's when the OPEC oil embargo brought energy shortages to the United States. Contemplating the cars lined up at gas stations, Rosenfeld wondered how much energy it took to keep all the lights burning in the office building where he worked. It was standard practice in many buildings in those days to leave all the lights on all the time.

Rosenfeld and some colleagues came to the conclusion that "energy in the United States was dirt cheap and what's dirt cheap gets treated like dirt." So Rosenfeld started a campaign to treat energy not like dirt, but like gold.

Encouraging people to turn out lights when they weren't needed was just the beginning. Refrigerators came in for early attention. They were poorly insulated and wasted vast amounts of electricity. When California proposed standards that would require all refrigerators sold in the state to become more efficient, manufacturers complained they'd be put out of business. But in the end refrigerator makers improved their products not just in California, but everywhere.

Largely as a result of Rosenfeld's efforts, Californians now use less electricity per capita than anyone else in the country. But he says conservation is only half the answer. Renewable energy resources like solar power are the other half.

Rosenfeld just wants to make sure that as Californians get more of their energy for free from the sun they keep treating it like gold.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.