Low-Income Rooftop Solar Program Helping Hundreds of California Families

In June 2012, the Sunrise Powerlink, a 117-mile, 500-kilovolt transmission line, was completed after years of review, permitting processes and controversies. San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) developed the line to facilitate the development and generation of renewable energy in the Imperial Valley, California’s southwest desert, and to bring power to the San Diego region.

Despite its controversies, the Sunrise Powerlink currently carries 872 megawatts of electricity “100 percent generated by renewable energy such as solar and wind physically located in California,” said James Avery, Senior Vice President of Power Supply for SDG&E.

While the transmission line carries megawatts of clean energy, many are unaware that it also plays a key role in a solar rooftop program for low-income families. 

In 2009, SDG&E and Citizens Sunrise Transmission LLC, a subsidiary of Citizens Energy, reached a development and coordination agreement (DCA) on a joint participation in the Sunrise Powerlink project. Under the agreement, Citizens would lease 50 percent of the capability of the Sunrise Powerlink from the Imperial Valley substation to the Imperial County/San Diego Country link (known as the Boarder-East Transmission line) for a term of 30 years. 

The deal was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The California Independent System Operator Corporation (ISO) also approved for Citizens become an ISO participating transmission owner. Citizens prepaid a lease amount of $85 million to SDG&E to supply the capital to develop the transmission line. 

As part of the deal, Citizens would develop programs to serve low-income families by reinvesting at least 50 percent of its after-tax profits from the transmission revenue over the Sunrise Powerlink into the Imperial Valley community where the unemployment rate is among the highest in the country. 

Citizens Energy conducted a survey at the community, which revealed that there was a need of an energy assisting program to alleviate the heavy burden created by high electricity bills to run air-conditioners where temperatures can climb as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “Some low-income families cannot afford air conditioning,” said Brian O’Connor, Communications Director for Citizens Energy.

To help struggling homeowners in the Valley, Citizens Energy provides “free” solar systems that would reduce homeowners’ electricity costs by 40 to 50 percent. The organization purchases, installs and maintains each solar photovoltaic system with no cost to homeowners. In other words, it provides a free 20-year solar lease with a parts and maintenance warranty. Furthermore, Citizens Energy hopes to use local labor for installation as much as possible.

The program is currently available to homeowners in Imperial County where the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) provides electric power. IID is the third largest public power utility in California, serving over 145,000 customers. All solar systems provided by Citizens Energy will be inspected and interconnected to the grid provided by IID.

The Citizens' program has the potential to become quite sizable. With the proceeds from the Sunrise Powerlink, Citizens Energy plans to provide more than 100 solar systems a year in the Imperial Valley. Established in 2013, it will be available until the end of 2042 or for 30 years, the length that the agreement over the transmission line with SDG&E lasts.

Lead image: Solar system provided at the Imperial Valley. Credit: Citizens Energy.

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Junko Movellan is a Solar Industry expert who writes and analyzes the US and Japan PV downstream markets. She has more than 15 years of experience in the PV industry, analyzing industry trends and developing business strategies for global companies. She previously worked as a Senior Analyst at Solarbuzz and as a Market Development Analyst at Kyocera. She is based in California, USA. Check out her blog at junkomovellan@blogspot.com.

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