Million Solar Roofs Bill Signed into Law

After a long roller-coaster ride in the California legislature, the Million Solar Roofs Bill, SB1, is now law. Governor Schwarzenegger, who campaigned on a pledge to create a major solar program, signed the bill Monday. The bill, authored by Senator Kevin Murray, went through an evolution of different versions over the past three years leading to collective moments of both euphoria and disappointment for the solar industry. This final version proved suitable enough to California lawmakers and the competing special interests with a stake in its outcome.

“Nothing gets through the legislature that’s perfect for someone without being a problem for someone else,” said JP Ross, Policy Director for Vote Solar, one of the organizations that helped push for passage of this bill. “It was not the most perfect bill that passed, but the most perfect bill that could have passed. Everyone in the solar community is breathing a sigh of relief that we got what we needed; solar got the money in January from the PUC and now this codifies that into law.” Following the larger solar policy topic in California has not only been a roller coaster ride but also a confusing ride, with policy and regulation taking on changing and divergent paths. SB1, as Ross noted, sets in stone a major victory achieved for solar back in January of this year when the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted to approve the California Solar Initiative (CSI). This provided two major items; the structure of a long-term (10-year) declining rebate plan, and the $3.2 billion dollars to fund it. While the PUC’s plan was hailed as a breakthrough victory for solar, it left some key items unaddressed; chiefly, that net-metering caps needed to be raised. The Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) region was fast approaching its cap and would have reached it by early 2007, if not before, leading to a drastic halt in solar installations in the largest solar market. According to Ross, in 2004, the PG&E territory made up 85 percent of the California solar market. SB 1 now increases the cap from 0.5% of a utility’s total load to 2.5%, enabling approximately 500,000 new solar system owners into the net-metering program. Another major item left unaddressed by the PUC’s CSI approved last January is a provision requiring the state’s municipalities to create their own solar rebate programs. The PUC regulates only publicly traded utilities (hence its name), leaving large “munies” like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and the Sacramento Municipal District (SMUD) out of the major statewide solar program. As a utility that wasn’t forced to promote solar, SMUD is largely viewed as being progressive and accepting of solar energy through the solar programs it has administered on its own. The LADWP, on the other hand, is viewed as being slack in any commitment to solar. The massive utility serving most of Los Angeles does technically have a solar rebate program but it is widely considered to be too poorly funded to be a real program. Now, presumably, the LADWP will have to shape it up and administer a genuine and effective solar rebate program. SB1 now requires all munies in California to develop their own solar rebate programs so they will be making a similar, equitable effort — as do the public utilities that are already required to provide rebates. For them to do so, a total of $800 million, coming from the larger CPUC pot approved in January, will be spread out over 10 years. SB1 also managed to find an acceptable middle ground in one of the most contentious areas in California solar policy: homebuilding solar mandates. Last summer, SB1 ground to a halt in the legislature over conflicts between a solar industry that wanted solar to be required on a small percentage of new homes and the homebuilders that would be directly involved. The homebuilders stung at the idea of any such mandates and went on to orchestrate a battle between building industry labor groups and the solar industry. By mid-summer, the lines of communication and negotiation went down just as the level of vitriol went up, and the bill died shortly thereafter. This time around, SB1 struck an acceptable balance by mandating that solar systems be offered “as an option” on new housing developments over 50 units in size. The specifics still need to be worked out but it will likely involve the builders working with the solar industry to provide prospective homeowners with information about the basics of solar projects and what additional costs they would incur in exchange for the long-term stability in their electric rates that solar projects provide. And, the price for these projects will be more palatable to the consumer since the cost will be subsidized by the larger California solar rebate plan (CSI). “Turning the vision of building a million solar roofs into state law has been a long time coming,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, Clean Energy Advocate with Environment California, the leading sponsor of the Million Solar Roofs bill. “But in the end, this law was worth the wait and the fight that it took to turn a great idea into a landmark law.”
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