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Sunny times for solar power, except in L.A.

March 14, 2013|By Dan Turner
  • This 6,000-square-foot house in Chatsworth boasts one of the country's largest installations of thin-film solar panels.
This 6,000-square-foot house in Chatsworth boasts one of the country's… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Still skeptical about solar power -- and especially about the wisdom of installing panels on your own rooftop? One can hardly be blamed, given horror stories about the difficulties in getting assistance from local utilities such as the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Yet more and more Californians are doing it anyway -- because it's paying off.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which tracks solar installations statewide, on Thursday updated its ticker to show that California has now installed 1.5 gigawatts of rooftop solar, roughly equivalent to what would be generated by three medium-sized coal-fired power plants, according to clean energy expert Michelle Kinman at Environment California. Most of this is happening at commercial facilities, but quite a large amount is also being installed by homeowners who see that the price of solar has dropped by more than 25% from two years ago and are taking advantage of the state's "Million Solar Roofs" initiative, created in 2006. It's a $3.3-billion incentive program aimed at generating 3 gigawatts of solar power by 2016, and since we're already halfway there, that's seeming like a can't-miss milestone.

Of course, if you live in Los Angeles, all this activity would be easy to miss. While other parts of the state are hot for solar, the DWP is scaling back its Million Solar Roofs incentives, and officials concede that the utility won't come anywhere near its goal of installing 280 megawatts by 2016; in October, they estimated the city would manage only half that much: 140 megawatts. The explanation is that the program is running out of money; initial incentive payments were set too high and ate up too much of L.A.'s statewide rebate allocation.

Still, you can't say the DWP is trying to cast a shadow over L.A. solar; last year it announced a new feed-in tariff program that should speed installations by paying off solar customers (if only the large ones) by selling back their excess power to the utility. That should speed things along. But there's a lot more work the DWP needs to do to help solar reach its enormous potential in Los Angeles -- this is a very sunny city and could be a beacon for clean development. Moreover, the power generated here at home is cheaper that what can be produced in desert solar plants and transmitted here.

Fortunately, both mayoral candidates are in full support of growing rooftop solar development. But what's needed isn't necessarily support from City Hall, it's a tougher line against a powerful DWP union and other interests that don't see anything in it for themselves when customers are generating their own electricity. DWP management must take a tougher line, and get better results. L.A., and California, demand more emission-free power.


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