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Solar power hits suburbia

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When the day came to throw the switch turning her suburban New Jersey home into a mini power plant, Gail Stocks could hardly believe her eyes.

Outside, parked up and down the quiet, leafy street were at least a dozen utility company trucks - and a gang of burly electricians were ambling toward her front door.

"There had to be 16 of them," she says. "I don't think they had ever seen a solar panel before. They just wanted to see the [electric] meter start spinning the other way after they flipped the switch."

To watch the meter running backward - in essence, selling electricity back to the utility - was a novelty in suburban New Jersey in fall 2001. Now, the concept is moving closer to being mainstream.

In one of life's little ironies, solar power is gaining a toehold in the most unlikely of places - the world of SUVs, big-screen TVs, and two-fridge families - the 'burbs. And if it can gain acceptance there, some analysts say, the technology is on the cusp of widespread acceptance.

"Even suburbia is starting to go solar," says Richard Perez, publisher of Home Power magazine, the bible of the home-renewable energy crowd. "Some new houses and subdivisions are being planned this way. It's not really common yet, but its happening."

Prodded by fears of global warming, lured by falling solar-cell prices and strong financial incentives, at least 10,000 US and 70,000 Japanese homeowners, along with tens of thousands more in Europe, installed solar energy between 2000 and 2002, say industry experts. Total global solar-generating capacity - including off-grid installations - is several gigawatts, Perez says.

But by far the fastest-growing solar group is residents who also are connected to local power grids, a segment that has gone from almost nothing in 1990 to an installed base of at least 730 megawatts in 2002 - about the size of a medium-size coal-fired power plant.

Of course, there are plenty of skeptics. Solar power has been one of the longest-running jokes in the energy industry - perpetually "just 10 years away" from becoming a significant source to a power-hungry America since the 1970s. Solar power supplies less than 1 percent of the US power needs.

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