Mining Gold From the Sun: Local Energy for Local Economies

Beyond initiating California’s statehood, along with its distinct entrepreneurial culture and independent character, the 1849 Gold Rush was one of the most influential events in American history. Much like in 1849 though, the high-tech sector in 2018 is continuing to accumulate the majority of wealth into only a handful of areas. The City of San Francisco, for example, has an annual median income of $87,000, which is over twice that of my hometown of South Lake Tahoe’s $42,000. This latter median-income is comparable to other towns in the Sierra (including: Placerville, Jackson, and Plymouth), all of which are well below the US median income of $59,000. With this disparity, Californian ranks 4th in the country for income inequality.

Tahoe SolarOnly very recently promoted in terms of local economic development, solar energy is not only the most viable opportunity for energy independence, but can also help structurally rebuild community wealth in rural California.

Solar has long been pigeonholed as an environmentally friendly alternative to other energy sources, but with a skyrocketing market and plummeting costs it has also now become one of the most affordable and versatile energy sources in the country. Rather than being dependent on a utility company that uses foreign oil in corporate facilities hundreds of miles away, a rooftop or community solar system keeps energy production local and reliable.

These local solar systems don’t only produce energy in the community, but also offset utility costs, which in turn stimulate investment back into the local economy. To show how impactful these savings can have on a local economy, let’s calculate the savings for a town of 20,000 homeowners who have all decided to install rooftop systems. In California the 20-year saving for an average household using rooftop solar is about $29,000; in total the homeowners of this community could accumulate $145 million in the first five years alone. 

Not only can solar produce significant savings on utility costs, it can also dramatically increase property value. Installing a 5kW rooftop solar system (a typical size for medium sized house) can add an average $29,000 to the home’s retail price. One study even found that homes with solar sold 20% faster, for 17% more than equivalent non-solar homes.

Benefitting individual households through cost savings and increased property value, solar systems also build community wealth through job creation and industrial development. The solar industry employed 173,000 workers in 2008, 250,000 in 2010, and is projecting 764,000 by 2025, making solar installers the fastest growing occupation in the country. Although the workforce will continue to grow dramatically, the average number of jobs per MegaWatt will be halved by 2025, thus continuing to decrease the overall installation and purchase costs.

Simply put, the case for solar goes far beyond being environmentally friendly. Unlike gold, oil, and gas, California sunshine is plentiful for those seeking to harness its wealth. It only takes one claim to begin a gold rush and there’s no more appropriate place for that than in the Sierra.

If you are a small business owner or are affiliated with a public agency and want to learn more about your solar potential, the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Fund is currently reviewing applications for no-cost on-site assessments. With SBC’s local support, the SEED Fund aims to help agencies explore their solar potential and make affordable solar-system purchases throughout the Sierra.

With the support of the Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, we will be holding a community forum to share more about this initiative in South Lake Tahoe on Tuesday, June 26th at 5:30pm. Click here to RSVP and learn more.