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California's solar push

A bill pushing rooftop solar panels deserves lawmaker support despite opposition by a union and utilities.

May 22, 2009

Homeowners typically don't spend much time thinking about the real estate atop their roofs unless it's time to clean the gutters. But that expanse of shingles could be saving them money -- or, if a bill in the Legislature succeeds, become a way to make money while striking a blow against climate change.

Consumers who install solar panels get special meters that measure both the amount of excess electricity they send to their utility while the sun is shining and the amount they take from the utility when it isn't. Most use more power than they generate, but because they get credit for their solar contribution, they pay very low energy bills. There are a few, though -- especially people with big roofs in sunny Southern California -- who generate more power than they use. Under California law, utilities aren't required to pay them for it; at the end of the year, any credit for excess power is simply zeroed out. AB 920 would change that by ordering utilities to either pay consumers for their power or carry over their credit from year to year.

The bill, from Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), is intended to boost the Million Solar Roofs initiative. That package of rebates and other incentives aims to raise the number of solar homes in California from 25,000 in 2006 to 1 million in 2016. We've got a ways to go yet; there are now about 52,000 solar roofs in the state, according to an analysis by Environment California.

Utilities fought ferociously against Huffman's bill last year, when it stalled in the state Senate, and are doing the same now. They argue that solar installations are already heavily subsidized, ultimately by other ratepayers; if consumers were also being paid for the solar power they generate, it would cost non-solar customers even more.

That sounds terribly egalitarian, but in truth utilities are worried that wide-scale residential solar power would cut into their income, and the union that covers utility workers fears that its members would lose ground if consumers were encouraged to install power plants that wouldn't be built or maintained by the union.

What might be bad for utilities and electrical workers, though, is extremely good for consumers and the environment. Under the current system, people with solar homes have no incentive to use energy efficiently -- in fact, some waste power toward the end of the year just to spite their utility. Huffman's bill would encourage energy efficiency, relieve the grid when power demand peaks and help California reach its million-roof goal, which would heat up national efforts to encourage renewable power. The Legislature should pass it this time.

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