Solar City paid for shade structures to protect cars from the desert sun. Its solar panels sit on top, and generate power for the city.
Solar City paid for shade structures to protect cars from the desert sun. Its solar panels sit on top, and generate power for the city. - 

Adriene Hill: New reports suggest renewable energy isn't the job engine that some hoped. But many struggling towns are paving the way for whatever green jobs they can get.

From the Marketplace sustainability desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: Shoppers in the desert town of Lancaster, Calif., drive right past empty parking spaces near the front of a building. Here, a good spot means:

Man: Shade.

Troeh: What happens if you don't find a spot in the shade?

Man: You're gonna burn.

Woman: It's like walking into an inferno.

Rex Parris: It's brutally painful.

That last voice is Lancaster mayor Rex Parris, at city hall. Even he had to park in the sun when he took office in 2008.

Parris: None of these were covered. You see, that's quite an expense.

Now, a private company -- Solar City -- has paid for roofs on public parking. It put solar panels on top, and sells the power to the city. It's one of many partnerships that's made Lancaster's city buildings 90 percent solar-powered.

Parris: And we sealed the cost at 13 cents a kilowatt.

Cheaper than the local utility. But Lancaster's got issues beyond hot cars and power bills, like high unemployment, rampant foreclosures. The last time the town really shone was the 1950s.

Newsreel: The Air Force rocket plane X-15 chalks up another record at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

From then until the '80s, research around the air base filled Lancaster with pilots and engineers. The mayor thinks solar start-ups can restore tech culture. He's offered tax breaks and fast-track permits.

Parris: If they come here, they can get on the grid faster, is really what it comes down to.

The city's cut paperwork for residential solar, too. That helped KB Home build its new all-solar subdivision: Arroyo. Vice president Tom DiPrima says it's selling.

Tom DiPrima: Thirty homes in about three months.

Families can get a solar system that covers almost all their energy.

DiPrima: The air's running, the lights are on in this house, but hen you look at the meter, it's barely turning.

But UCLA economist Jerry Nickelsburg says right now, solar power jobs are mostly short-term -- in construction.

Jerry Nickelsburg: Renewable energy, once it's in place, typically does not take many employees to keep it going.

For real growth, Lancaster needs whole companies, and factories. A sunny reputation is just a start.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

Follow Eve Troeh at @evetroeh