California Paves the Road for Solar Growth

California leads the growth of the solar industry in the U.S. From developing the first pieces of legislation designed to encourage industry growth to adopting ambitious state renewable energy targets, California has provided the road map for states across the country to increase their solar capacity. In 2016, California was home to nearly half of the solar generating capacity in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA); its success due in part to a solid legislative foundation more than four decades in the making.   

Starting in 1978, Californian policy makers enacted legislation to stop homeowners’ associations from barring solar systems. Since then, the California legislature has passed dozens of bills supporting solar from feed-in tariffs (FiT) to the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), which supports growth of renewable energy in the state by providing rebates for customer-side power installations. But the state is best known for three landmark programs—its net energy metering (NEM) law, Million Solar Roofs initiative, and aggressive renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requirements.

The state’s NEM law, which was initially passed in 1996 and has undergone several iterations since, has successfully brought more solar online, expanded the market, and made California a solar leader. By providing credit to customers with solar PV systems for the full retail value of the electricity their system generates, NEM demonstrated the importance of developing programs that optimize a customer’s investment, and the role these incentive programs can play in encouraging more solar installations. The law has undergone several changes since it was initially passed, and the most recent version (“Net Metering 2.0”) was passed in 2015. Successful lobbying efforts on behalf of the solar industry and its advocates preserved the retail-rate payment for customers.

The Million Solar Roofs legislation, or California Solar Initiative (CSI), has further encouraged the growth of solar in the state. The CSI aims to install photovoltaic systems on one million rooftops of homes or businesses by 2018, which is roughly the equivalent to a 3-GW power plant. By providing customer incentives, primarily through rebates through investor-owned utilities, the CSI helped aggressively expand the number of rooftop installations and has been looked to nationwide as a solar success story.

California’s aggressive RPS policy furthers the state’s position as a legislative leader. The most recent version, California SB 350, passed in 2015, requires utilities purchase 50 percent renewable energy generation by 2030, and expanded on the state’s historic 33 percent by 2020 RPS requirement, passed in 2008. California is only one of two states in the country with such an aggressive goal. These bills and programs have served as models for other states.

With the appropriate legislative framework in place, installations in the golden state have skyrocketed. California’s installed solar capacity is currently more than four times greater than any other state. In 2016, California installed more than 18 GW of solar power, enough to power nearly 5 million homes, according to the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA). In terms of cumulative electric capacity installed through 2016, that’s six times the total installed amount of the next top solar state, North Carolina, which has installed 3 GW.  

The impact of these installations is not solely gigawatt-level solar power generation. The high installation density has also led to a massive growth in jobs. According to The Solar Foundation, the U.S. solar industry added more than 51,000 jobs in 2016. Nearly half of those jobs — 24,452 — were in California, bringing the state’s total solar jobs to over 100,000. These jobs contributed $26.6 billion to the state’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Much of California’s success as a solar state can be attributed to the strength of industry organizations and its vocal policy advocates. The CALSEIA has worked side by side with state regulators and legislators to advocate for policies that support solar growth. In its 40 years, the organization has put into place solar policies and programs that have helped make the state one of the largest solar markets in the world. Recent accomplishments include petitioning the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) to increase rebate levels for storage systems as well as solar water heating systems and securing 20-year grandfathering protections for all net metering 1.0 consumers. CALSEIA’s aggressive policy programs have provided other states with a blueprint to enact more solar friendly legislation.

Notably, CALSEIA’s policy focus extends beyond solar to include advocating for related technologies and industries. These include initiatives that push for a smarter grid through stakeholder working groups associated with smart inverters and distribution system planning, and efforts to bring more energy storage technologies online, a necessity as solar capacity continues to grow. This all-encompassing advocacy for the solar industry has allowed the organization to claim success that not only is impactful in the near term, but is also important for the long-term viability of the solar industry in the state.

Part of CALSEIA’s success is due to its innovative approach in building support for solar within the state house and solar community at large. The organization has demonstrated how policy development, advocacy, educational programs, grassroots organizing, networking and business services can be combined to encourage the expansion of the solar industry at the state level. And it has drawn on its robust membership base to demonstrate economic and political power of the solar industry.

CALSEIA members have rallied at the California State Capitol in a sea of yellow shirts. They routinely attend and testify at CPUC meetings, and showed up in force when the state’s net metering program was under threat in 2015. The organization has also worked to cultivate a broad network of solar allies, including faith organizations, farmers, affordable housing groups and environmental justice groups. The support of such organizations is critical to demonstrating the wide impact the solar industry has in the state, and beyond.

It takes financial resources to make all of this happen and CALSEIA raises these funds all on its own. CALSEIA’s approach involves a variety of annual sponsored events, industry partnerships and revenue generators from workshops to webinars on top of annual membership dues. Its annual fundraiser, Solar Summerfest at Intersolar North America in San Francisco each July, routinely attracts thousands of industry professionals from across the U.S., and provides a platform to celebrate the organization’s accomplishments while creating an opportunity for companies at all stages of development and across the solar value chain to connect.  

According to Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of CALSEIA, the Intersolar partnership alone generated more than $350,000 in 2016, and more than $1 million in funds for the organization since 2012.  Del Chiaro hopes for even more resource generation from this partnership in 2017, as this year’s event relocates to AT&T Park, and celebrates 40 years of CALSEIA and 10 years of Intersolar North America.

But it’s not just about fundraising. In 2015, given the opportunity by Intersolar, CALSEIA volunteers collected thousands of signatures at Solar Summerfest and Intersolar North America in San Francisco in support of a petition calling on Congress extending the investment tax credit (and it did, through 2021).

For four decades, CALSEIA and California have demonstrated the path to a successful, viable solar industry is achieved through cultivating support among a variety of stakeholders, and demonstrating the wide-reaching benefits solar offers. With this support, CALSEIA has helped California often gain a first mover advantage in the solar industry, and the trajectory shows that it will continue to do so in the future.


  • Florian Wessendorf is the Managing Director of Intersolar and ees global conferences and exhibitions in North America, South America and India. He has deep expertise in the solar industry, and formerly served as Managing Director of Photovoltaic Equipment at VDMA, where he was responsible for strategic development, advocacy, exhibitions, and marketing.

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Florian Wessendorf is the Managing Director of Intersolar and ees global conferences and exhibitions in North America, South America and India. He has deep expertise in the solar industry, and formerly served as Managing Director of Photovoltaic Equipment at VDMA, where he was responsible for strategic development, advocacy, exhibitions, and marketing.

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