Solar power angling for a cool image [Legislation - SB1 - Sacramento
Yamamura Sacramento Bee 2005.4.21
Would you like solar panels to go along with those granite countertops
and hardwood floors?
That's an option Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and two state lawmakers
want future buyers of new homes to have under their "Million
Solar Roofs Initiative."
Even in sunny California -- and even after blackouts in 2000 and
2001 spurred interest in alternative energy -- solar power generated
only 0.3 percent of the state's electricity in 2003, according to
the California Energy Commission. High startup costs remain a barrier
for homeowners, as does a limited supply of state rebates that often
make waiting lists necessary.
But state officials hope more rebates and the incorporation of
solar into new homes will make the technology more mainstream.
"The Toyota Prius (hybrid) has become a very cool car,"
said Sen. John Campbell, R-Irvine, co-author of Schwarzenegger's
solar power bill, SB 1, and a companion tax-credit measure,
SB 1017. "We're hoping that solar will become the same thing.
You'll save a lot of money, and it's an advanced technology that's
working. And that it'll get a 'cool factor.' "
The Republican governor's measure would require home builders to
offer solar panels in any new development that includes at least
50 homes, starting in 2010. The bill also would extend solar rebates
for homes and businesses through 2016, though rebate amounts would
decrease each year under an assumption that the industry's growth
would lead to cheaper solar costs. Those rebates would apply to
investor-owned utilities, but the bill also would require municipal
utilities such as SMUD to offer a solar program.
Sen. Kevin Murray, D-Culver City, a co-author of SB 1, said he
believes the benefits of solar are not limited to lower electricity
bills for homeowners. He said all Californians can benefit from
cleaner air and a more stable power grid, an issue raised during
the blackouts in 2001.
"Energy, until a few years ago, was a sleeping giant,"
Murray said. "The average person didn't think about it. They
flipped a switch and all of their things started working."
His solar bill last year failed because of opposition from home
builders, who objected to a more stringent plan to require that
a percentage of new homes include solar panels. This year the legislation
would ask home builders only to offer solar panels.
One of solar's biggest hurdles is its initial cost, which can range
from $12,000 to $20,000 before rebates for a typical home system.
Even solar's proponents in the Capitol concede that the technology
relies on public subsidies that enable customers to recoup installation
costs over the life of the panels.
That means homeowners often run through a series of calculations
before deciding to install solar panels. They want to know whether
the rebates plus savings in electrical bills will offset the costs.
Lydia Lee and her husband, Joshua, decided that to be the case
for their four-bedroom, three-bath home in Davis. The 42-year-old
mother of two recently waited inside her darkened home as installers
from Sacramento-based Team Solar began setting up her new system.
She said her interest was piqued when she
toured solar homes several years ago. When the Lees heard last
summer that state-funded rebates were in short supply, they sought
a system before the money ran out.
"We usually try to conserve energy and we only turn on our
heat or air conditioning during the coldest or hottest months,"
said Lydia Lee. "We think energy prices might keep going up."
The cornerstone of the Schwarzenegger plan is a requirement that
home builders offer solar panels on all new homes in larger developments.
Solar proponents believe that building the technology -- and costs
-- into new homes is easier than retrofitting older homes.
"From a homeowner's perspective, installing solar when you're
building changes the economics dramatically," said Bernadette
del Chiaro of Environment
California. "You basically roll your costs into a mortgage."
Rebates for solar programs come from small renewable-energy surcharges
paid by all customers. Like rates in general, those surcharges increase
based on use.
The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group, opposes
SB 1 because it fears the measure will result in higher surcharges
for all power customers. TURN staff attorney Matt Freedman said
he is particularly concerned that customers who use the least amount
of energy -- apartment dwellers and the poor -- will subsidize the
program despite the likelihood they will never purchase solar panels.
"The bill is valid on its merits, but it's also the camel's
nose under the tent and the first major effort to undo the ratepayer
protections enacted in 2001," Freedman said.
For the same reasons, PG&E is offering support only if the
bill is amended in several ways, including a $100 million cap on
its annual spending on solar rebates. PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno
said the utility is concerned that unlimited rebates would force
excessive rate increases.
One local builder already has incorporated solar into two projects
in Roseville and Sacramento. Premier,
a small, Roseville-based builder, opened a 95-home development in
2004 off Bradshaw Road that includes energy-efficient appliances,
extra insulation and other conservation features.
In that project, Premier relied on relatively generous rebates
offered by the Sacramento
Municipal Utility District to incorporate solar into each house.
The homes are more expensive to account for solar costs, but their
efficiency features result in dramatically reduced energy bills,
said John Ralston, Premier's vice president for sales and marketing.
SMUD has nearly 900 residential customers with solar panels, said
Jon Bertolino, the utility's superintendent of renewable generation
assets. Bertolino said customers in energy efficient homes similar
to the Premier model can save up to 70 percent on their electricity
bills. On a standard 2-kilowatt system, SMUD offers a $7,000 rebate.
Del Chiaro said California is leading the way in the United States
for solar but lags behind countries such as Germany and Japan, which
have more aggressive rebate programs.
"We've been growing steadily, but only by a small, small fraction
of what other countries have invested," she said. "The
tiny, not-so-sunny country of Japan is doing it, and yet we have
some of the best solar opportunities in the world."