Renewable Energy Revolution Began 150 Years Ago Gets Boost in California

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William Armstrong’s Cragside home was pioneering in its use of renewable energy.

Part of the age we live in seems to be rediscovering that old ways of doing things were actually better. For example, the recent realization that the makeup of towns to encourage vibrancy through density and the support of multi-income levels versus single-strata communities is better – a millennia-old concept only deviated from with the advent of the car and suburban tract developments. Part of the human condition seems to be learning from (some) mistakes.

In the 1860s, William Armstrong was “green” before it was dreamt of. In addition to planting 7 million (yes, million) trees at his Cragside estate, he was big into renewable energy at the dawn of the electrical era. He said coal “was used wastefully and extravagantly in all its applications” and that Britain would run out of coal in 200 years. He was also keen to harness solar power saying that a single acre located in sunny climates would generate the power equivalent to 4,000 horses toiling for nine hours a day.

Converted from oil, the first hydroelectric powered lamps at Cragside

Armstrong’s home was, in 1868, the first home to utilize hydroelectricity. The home’s first arc lamp was in 1878 and its first incandescent in 1880. So important was the occasion that Armstrong chose the youngest servant, 10-year-old pageboy Andrew Crozier, to switch on the lamp. He was selected because Crozier would remember the event the longest. Armstrong was right, Crozier died in 1956.

Cragside was built in the 1860s in Northumberland, England, near the Scottish border. William Armstrong understood the power of water. He engineered all manner of hydraulic machinery and was also a prolific inventor of armaments.

2014 upgrade to an Archimedes’ screw to generate hydroelectric power

Armstrong harnessed the water on his property installing a dynamo to create the world’s first hydroelectric power station. Originally just 925 candlepower was produced which was enough to power 37 lights, but only nine simultaneously. A rough estimate places that at something less than 20 watts. Today the home generates 12,000 watts or about 10 percent of the estate’s current electrical needs.

Aside from the curiosity of Cragside, being an innovator often means you’re on your own. Cragside’s power generation was self-contained. In part this was due to remoteness, but also because at the time there was no electrical grid to plug into. The same can be said of all of the pioneering electrically powered homes and businesses.

Like electricity, early telephone installations were for internal calling within a building or set of connected buildings because there were no municipal, national or international telephone lines.

It seems that era of self-sufficiency may also be the future of electricity.

Texas Should Follow California

Last week, California announced that after 2020, new homes would be required to have solar panels. This growing forest of homes, capable of decoupling from the electric grid, are a seeming reversion to a Cragside model. What was expensive and rare begat cheap electricity utilizing the grid system which is now beginning to revert back to individual power generation that is ultimately cheaper than the grid.

The regulations will require either rooftop panels or a centralized panel area that supports multiple homes. Each home will be required to generate a minimum of two-to-three kilowatts of power (depending on home size). It was noted that most solar installations are two or three times that size and allow homeowners to sell excess back to the utility.

It’s expected to raise the cost of a home by $8,000 to $12,000, increasing mortgage costs by ~$40 per month in a state with already high housing costs. However, nearly all see it as a boon, halving customers’ energy costs in the process. Buyers not able to afford the outright purchase the panels will have the option of long-term, fixed-cost leasing.  This means no worry as energy costs increase over time (and they always do). A double benefit for those on fixed incomes.

Currently, California builds about 80,000 new homes per year and already 15,000 use solar power.

Of course, true solar independence requires batteries to store power for use when it’s not sunny (night, clouds, or eclipse). Tesla’s Powerwall leaps to mind, but Panasonic, Samsung, and LG Chem offer household battery systems too. Like the cost of solar panels, prices continue to drop.

Combination gas and electric light

What Happens to the Grid and Utility Companies?

You may be wondering what happens to the power grid and older homes and businesses still dependent on it. Did you know when electricity was in its infancy, buildings were built and lighting fixtures were made well into the 20th century that used both gas flame and electric light?

For the most part, homes will be made to connect to the power grid. But as usage requirements diminish in the coming decades, I think utility companies will become services operations instead of makers and transmitters of electricity.

As homes ultimately generate their own power, they will need someone to finance and service the infrastructure. This is where today’s electric companies go. Without the overhead of creating and transmitting power, profit-rich services may deliver higher margins while keeping their network of workers employed.

Decentralized power offers other benefits. Terrorist attacks on the electrical grid would not be possible. Also, large natural disasters will not blackout entire cities, or islands like Puerto Rico.

Tesla’s solar shingles offer unobtrusive power generation and lifetime warranties against hail damage.

Heck, the grid may also decentralize itself. In dense city centers, groupings of high-rises are unlikely to fulfill their electric needs with rooftop solar alone. There may be help from windmills and eventually electricity-generating coatings for larger buildings, but without access to enough direct sunlight, they will still require an electric boost.  Additionally, municipal needs like street lighting and traffic signals could be configured using a smaller, more local system. I think servicing these and other non-self-sufficient operations will look quite different than today’s all-encompassing grid architecture.

The fears of utility companies are just that. Their market is changing and they’re unsure how to make their way into the future profitably. It’s the same thing the communications industry has been grappling with since the cell phone began replacing landlines. And just as communications companies snapped up nascent cellular operations, electrical utilities, today doing more whining than looking forward, will buy up today’s maverick solar service companies and change their business model.

Armstrong said 150 years ago that coal would be dead in 200 years. Had he lived into the petroleum age, he would have likely included that as well. We haven’t run out of coal or petroleum, but we are at the beginning of the journey to discard them because of something Armstrong could not have foreseen. In 2000, the US generated five megawatts of power from solar. In 2017, it was 42,600 megawatts. By 2024 it’s estimated that 14 percent of US electricity will come from solar.  This is not a slowing train.

Were solar panels an option in a new home, would you pay $8,000 to $12,000 extra not to have an electric bill, ever? The research says “yes.” A 2015 report by U.S. Department of Energy and Lawrence Berkley National Lab found that homebuyers will pay $3-$4 extra per watt of power a home generates. The national average is 5,000 watts, meaning identical homes with solar power sell between $15,000 and $20,000 more than those without. Meaning the money you put into solar is returned to you when selling.

California is on the right track. What about Texas?


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

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Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is's condo/HOA and developer columnist, but also covers second home trends on An award-winning columnist, Jon has earned silver and bronze awards for his columns from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in both 2016, 2017 and 2018. When he isn't in Hawaii, Jon enjoys life in the sky in Dallas.

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