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There's still a ray of hope

November 30, 2005

FOR THE USUAL BAD POLITICAL reasons, the Legislature dropped the ball this year on solar power. Fortunately, other public agencies are doing what they can to make up for the lawmakers' failure.

Senate Bill 1 would have added a couple of necessary spurs to the solar movement by requiring homebuilders to offer solar panels as an option in their new developments and by making it easier for solar home owners to sell their excess power to the local electric utility.

Strange to say, it wasn't pressure from developers that sank the bill. Rather, unions were able to work in requirements on things like union-scale pay for solar installation that made the bill unworkable. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a big supporter of the bill from the start, rightly vowed not to sign it with those provisions. Several key Democrats didn't mind seeing the bill stall because they wanted to avoid giving the governor a popular political win shortly before the November special election.

Happily, the state isn't waiting for the Legislature to get its act together. The California Public Utilities Commission is moving to resurrect a program that, until it ran out of money a few months ago, provided partial rebates to businesses and other institutional users that installed solar panels. The PUC proposes raising $300 million for the rebates through a small fee on utility bills. A similar rebate program for homeowners is expected to run dry in mid-2006; the PUC is looking at extending that program as well.

Earlier this month, the city of Roseville, east of Sacramento, approved a goal of building 20% of new homes with solar panels and other energy-saving devices. The details of how it will reach this goal are still being worked out, but because the city is growing rapidly, it's a perfect model for such a program.

The voters of Livermore wisely dumped another solar-development proposal on Nov. 8. Pardee Homes proposed a completely solar community, with 2,450 panel-equipped homes. The catch was that the developer wanted to build it on hundreds of acres of protected open space -- and that's no environmental gain. Still, the Pardee proposal shows that solar construction is practical and potentially profitable for builders, which have generally resisted any efforts to require solar construction.

SB 1 would have created a progressive program that enjoyed bipartisan and wide public support. With the Legislature's two-year session, the bill can return to the Assembly floor in 2006 without having to go back to square one. Democrats should avoid playing political games aimed at making the governor look bad and get on with the business of doing what's good for the state.

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