Dark Cloud Over Solar

Appeared in San Fernando Valley Sierra Club newsletter in September, 2008.

Bureaucratic Red Tape Casts Dark Cloud Over California’s Solar Initiative
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D

Bureaucratic red tape seriously hampered the California Solar Initiative. Illustration by Willis Simms.

Bureaucratic red tape seriously hampered the California Solar Initiative. Illustration by Willis Simms.

California’s Solar Initiative (CSI) went into effect in January 2007, promising to boost solar electric-panel installations on both residential and commercial roofs. Instead, the law has seriously backfired because of bureaucratic red tape.

CSI aimed to put CA at the forefront of solar-generated electricity by offering customers rebates subsidized via the imposition of a surcharge on electricity bills. The plan was that increased demand would drive down costs over time and eventually make the program self-sustaining. However, two fatal flaws in the law have literally boomeranged its stated intent.

One problem had to do with a clause that required rebate applicants to sign up for Time-of-Use (TOU) billing wherein higher rates apply to electricity use during daytime peak-demand hours. Most Californians pay the same rate for electricity, day or night. Under TOU, someone with a smaller solar system (or someone living in a desert region where heavy daytime electricity use is indispensable) could see little or no savings on electricity bills. Fortunately, legislators corrected this glaring disincentive in June so that TOU billing is now optional

No solution is on the horizon, however, for a more serious flaw that has greatly stalled new installations. “A massive increase in paperwork has been dumped on installers who have to provide local utility companies information that is often uncertain, unavailable or subject to interpretation,” according to Doug Korthof whose family-owned business Energy Efficiencyhas been installing solar electric panels in Southern California since 1989. The paperwork has been inflated from 5 to more than 60 pages, and installers are now accountable for measuring such productivity factors as geographic location, the angle and inclination of every panel and the potential shade from nearby trees. Verification by inspectors from the utility companies is also required. The approval process has become unreasonably burdensome, especially to smaller companies that fear they cannot survive the new bureaucratic obstacles.

It seems as though CSI is pitting the installers against the local utility companies that administer the program and created the application forms. “It’s as though the utilities think the installers and their customers are trying to cheat the utilities by inflating productivity estimates, when in fact it is the customers that hold the installer to the highest standards since they want the greatest possible output from their solar system,” claims Doug Korthof. Maybe the fact that utility companies have plenty to lose if solar power really takes off – revenue from customers and control over power generation – has something to do with the bureaucratic quagmire?

The fanfare that once surrounded the launch of CSI was undoubtedly the spark for a new companion bill, AB 1470 (Huffman), that means to capitalize further on the state’s abundant sunshine: it would subsidize solar water-heating installations through a modest surcharge on gas bills. AB 1470 was approved in the Assembly in early June with an uncertain future in the Senate, in part because of strong opposition from gas companies that, without doubt, see solar water-heaters eating into their profits.

Though it’s still early in the game for CSI, a speedy repair is desperately needed lest both business and public sectors go sour on solar in general. If one stab at solar energy leaves either sector with a bad taste, they are not likely to embrace another with any enthusiasm.

Most Californians enjoy an image as pacesetters for the rest of the nation. It is up to us to demand that the California Public Utilities Commission and our local utility companies work together to both fix the blunder that is stalled CSI and get the solar water-heater bill right the first time.

3 Responses to Dark Cloud Over Solar

  1. David Cupples says:

    Dear Boogie Green Lady Steve,
    how has the situation changed under the Obama Administration?

  2. Matt says:

    Here in Maryland we are experiencing terrific tax incentives to go solar.

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