Million Solar Roofs Victory in California Senate

California may be home to 80 percent of the U.S. solar market but with current incentives dwindling, advocates and the industry alike were buoyed this week by legislative action to promote solar. California’s State Senate overwhelmingly passed SB 1, the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, propelling the comprehensive solar policy package to the full state Assembly with strong bi-partisan and public support.

The bill, co-authored by Senators Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles) and John Campbell (R-Orange County) and strongly endorsed by Governor Schwarzenegger, cleared this first major hurdle on Thursday by a vote of 28 to 3. SB1 would create a ten-year program of incentives for solar photovoltaic (PV) systems with the goal of installing one million solar systems throughout the state while leading to a self-sufficient solar industry. The program would result in 3000 MW of solar systems in California, producing enough renewable electricity equivalent to the output of 60 peaking power plants. Unlike last year’s plan, which failed to pass on razor-thin margins, the Governor’s new Million Solar Roofs Initiative does away with a mandatory requirement that all California builders include solar energy systems on all new homes. Instead, this year’s bill focuses on ensuring long term stability for solar through a guarantee of declining buy-down rebates for no less than 10 years. And home builders are simply required to offer solar as an option to the homeowner, and not necessarily to include a system on every home. Besides such improvements over last year’s legislation, vigorous public support is also playing an even stronger role in this bill’s steady advance. “We have a coalition of 14 groups that sent email outreach which produced of 5000 emails into the Senate and I think that’s really critical in the momentum we’re seeing now,” said David Hochschild, Director of Programs for the California-based Vote Solar Initiative. “Each successive piece of solar legislation is gathering more support.” Hochschild explained that the push for AB 58, a net-metering piece of legislation, came up in 2002, it was considered a marginal issues with little more than the solar industry, Vote Solar and a handful of others behind the bill. This year, not only is the prominent Governor behind the bill, but there’s been a relative groundswell of support from the public, grassroots organizations, a chorus of prominent organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club — even celebrities like Robert Redford and Edward Norton. “We’re hoping for a ‘perfect storm’ this summer of public outreach,” Hochschild said. “I’m very encouraged by this as it will send the bill to the Assembly with a lot more momentum.” (In full disclosure, it should be noted that was involved in the outreach and support for SB 1 through the new RE Action Network.) Funding for the incentives is unlikely to come from the state’s ailing budget but from a small fee added to ratepayer electric bills. The Public Utilities Commission would ultimately decide how to arrange the funding mechanism. Solar PV power production coincides perfectly when the power grid is most stressed by overall demand. The Million Solar Roofs Initiative focuses on lowering this peak electricity demand, and therefore solar thermal (solar hot-water) technologies are not included in SB1 as proposed. Despite occasional calls for a more comprehensive bill to include their technology, the solar thermal industry has not been particularly vocal. According to Bernadette Del Chiaro, Clean Energy Advocate with Environment California, opposition to the Million Solar Roofs bill on the Senate Floor focused on the retail price of solar power, a distributed generation technology owned by the end users, compared with conventional, wholesale central-station power plants. “Opponents to SB 1 are comparing apples to oranges,” Del Chiaro said. “The cost of solar power should always be compared with retail electric rates – what we as consumers avoid having to pay when we own a solar system – not wholesale power available to utility companies and then marked up for a profit.” A recent report (see link below) spearheaded by Americans for Solar Power (ASPv), looks at solar’s value in terms of mitigating peak demand and offering ratepayer based power. The report specifically quantifies 14 key areas where solar photovoltaic (PV) power provides added value to ratepayers, the electric grid and even to utilities, which are typically hostile to solar. For example, solar PV is worth an additional 3.24 to 9.71 cents / kWh when factoring in the avoided generation cost of natural gas — the increasingly expensive fuel that is primarily used in California’s peak demand, or “peaker”, power plants. Also, the value that PV helps utilities avoid for operations and maintenance of their traditional generation is in the range of 0.19 to 0.44 cents / kWh. In all, the ASPv study identified 14 value figures equaling a total range of additional PV value between 7.8 to 22.4 cents / kWh. With this week’s successful vote in the State Senate, the Million Solar Roofs bill advances to the California Assembly, with a hearing in Assembly Utilities Committee later in June. The bill will have to pass additional committees along with an overall floor vote and a Senate reconciliation vote.