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The Solar Boom

MSNBC's All in with Chris Hayes | July 10, 2015

For decades, solar power was so expensive, few could afford it. That's now changing.

Transcript: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/57615852/ns/msnbc-all_in_with_chris_hayes/

HAYES: For decades, solar power was so expensive and unwieldy if you could afford it, and that is changing in a mind bendingly rapid pace. Over the past several years, the cost of solar energy has dramatically decreased, I mean dramatically, making it more accessible to more people.

Earlier this week it got another shot in the arm from the Obama administration after it announced a new initiative to make solar energy more affordable to low and middle income Americans. White House hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders then introduced legislation, similar goal.

Solar energy is having a moment right now. And the future we have long been promised is now finally upon us.

ELON MUSK, CHAIRMAN, SOLARCITY: We have this handy fusion reactor in the sky called the sun. You don`t have to do anything, it just works. It shows up every day and produces ridiculous amounts of power.

HAYES: Solar energy is booming. And it`s a boom a very long time in the making.

JIMMY CARTER, 39th PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Its energy will not run out. It will not pollute the air. It will not poison our waters.

HAYES: In the midst of the 1970s energy crisis, the technology and the will existed to make solar a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

TOM BROKAW, JOURNALIST; If there is not enough heat or air conditioning, you don`t blame the Middle East or the president, you blame the sun.

HAYES: In the era of eight tracks and disco, solar energy was the future.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The solar heating business is expanding so rapidly that the federal government has set up a solar information center.

HAYES: By 1979, the country appeared to be on the verge of a solar revolution. And the Carter administration set a goal: 20 percent of the country`s needs would be drawn from renewable sources by the end of the century. The president even had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These solar panels at the White House cost almost $30,000 and they heat only the water in the buildings West Wing, but they are meant to symbolize the Carter administration`s commitment to solar energy.

HAYES: But despite having a champion in the White House, it was solar`s steep price tag that proved to be its biggest obstacle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For most builders and homeowners, the saving in fuel bills is not worth the cost of the installation.

HAYES: And then came Ronald Reagan.

RONALD REAGAN, 40TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In years to come, solar energy may provide much of the answer, but for the next two or three decades, we must do such things as master the chemistry of coal.

HAYES: The Reagan administration slashed funding for solar research and development. Tax breaks were eliminated, and the White House solar panels came down.

UNIDENITIFIED FEMALE: On a practical level, the Reagan administration`s support for solar energy has ground to a halt.

HAYES: The would-be solar revolution went from boom to bust.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was no failure in the solar technologies. When the subsidies were cut, there was no way solar could compete.

HAYES: But today solar is making a comeback, big time. Solar power capacity in the U.S. has jumped 20-fold since 2008. The fastest growing source of electricity in America is the sun.

The California-based company SolarCity, which is country`s largest installer of residential solar systems, has seen its customer base doubled over just the past the four quarters. And it`s not just because technology has improved or because more people have decided to go green, it`s a matter of simple economics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The biggest trend is solar has become affordable.

HAYES: SolarCity`s CEO Lyndon Rive is confident the company can enlist a million customers by 2018.

LYNDON RIVE, CEO, SOLARCITY: The demand has always been there, it`s just the industry has to build out the infrastructure to deliver that demand.

HAYES: That kind of rapid growth is thanks mainly to cost. Solar is now cheap. China has helped drive down solar manufacturing costs by investing a lot of money in solar power production.

But solar is also booming because companies like SolarCity have figured out a way to give Americans what they crave: zero money down.

UNIDENIFIED MALE: We switched to SolarCity. No upfront costs, lowered our monthly bill, now we have the infinite power of the sun working for us 24/7.

HAYES: Instead of spending thousands up front, many customers are essentially leasing them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think once we turn on the meter we`ll definitely see the savings, get this installed today and then see the benefits tomorrow.

HAYES: Over the past few years, solar home installations have gotten faster and cheaper, something not lost on the utility companies.

The big utilities make more money selling you your power are watching more and more customers across the country install solar panels and move towards their own personal energy independence.

The solar boom we were promised is finally happening. The question now is whether utility companies will let it. 

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