Bittersweet Victory for Million Solar Roofs Bill

The Million Solar Roofs bill, SB 1, was passed by the Assembly Appropriations Committee with some bittersweet amendment changes aimed at appeasing various interest groups. While this vote officially clears the solar bill to move on for a full vote in the California’s Assembly sometime before September 9, it includes some union provisions that have splintered its support and could ultimately doom the bill.

A union demand that only the highest grade of licensed electricians could install the systems has been weakened. This is marginally good news for the solar industry, particularly the thousands of installers and small businesses that typically do not have, or need, the highest level of electrical licensing, which goes by the designation “C-10.” The vast majority of these workers could have been excluded from doing work under the initiative. Typical solar installers in California’s solar industry have the lower-level “C-46” licensure. Under the provisions, all current C-46 installers would be grandfathered into being able to install under SB 1 but all future installers would have to secure the C-10 license. According to Adam Browning of the solar advocacy group, the Vote Solar Initiative, while the requirement for C-10 was dropped for current installers, a separate provision was added that defines electrical work as “anything that connects an electrical device of 100 volt/amps.” In the solar context, under this provision people putting simple snap connects on solar panels would have to be electricians. He added, however, that the current grandfathered C-46 installers not necessarily be subject to this provision. Browning called the provision a deal stopper because it would hinder typical solar installations and, perhaps more importantly from a political perspective, is a “stick in the eye” to the carpenter’s union whose workers often do some low-level electrical work. What is also a major issue with the bill is the so-called prevailing wage amendment. Prevailing wage levels are set by the state to ensure that laws requiring contracts to go to the lowest bidder don’t result in depressed pay rates. The bill passed on Thursday was allowed to include a union-backed provision requiring contractors to pay prevailing wages to workers on nonresidential development. Solar industry sources argue that the higher union wages could effectively extinguish any cost savings in the bill for solar energy, which is SB 1’s primary objective. “When we ran our model using these prevailing wage rates the costs to the state for the Million Solar Roofs Initiative were increased by $750 million,” said Barry Cinnamon, president of Akeena Solar, a solar systems installation company. The union-backed amendment splintered support for the bill in Thursday’s session. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Sen. John Campbell, R-Irvine, who had been a co-author of the bill, issued an angry statement on Thursday calling the amendment a “hostile union takeover” of the bill that would increase its costs by 30 percent. “The whole point of this bill was to create incentives for a technology that is currently too expensive so that over time it will become cost-competitive,” Campbell said in a prepared statement. “Now, the unions will be artificially increasing the cost of the already too expensive technology in order to line their own pockets.” Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean energy advocate for Environment California, said that Thursday’s committee vote was completely along party lines with all the Democrats voting unanimously for the bill and all Republicans voting against it. And in a further symbolic and ominous gesture, Senator Campbell removed his authorship of the bill at Thursday’s hearing. This Republican dissension was almost exclusively a result of the prevailing wage issue and could ultimately doom the bill from receiving a signature from the Governor, a major proponent of comprehensive solar legislation for the state. “The amendments were substantive and catastrophic,” Browning of Vote Solar said. “The question is whether they’re (the unions) trying to send an ineffective bill that the Governor will have to veto or whether this is the next shot in a negotiating ploy. I feel like we are getting played and that the bill is set up for failure.”
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