State Seeking to Boost Use of Solar Energy

Times Staff Writer

The Schwarzenegger administration is developing an ambitious plan to boost solar power in California -- subsidized with $100 million a year in financial incentives paid for by electricity consumers -- that would have 50% of all new homes producing the renewable energy within a decade.

The “Million Solar Homes Initiative,” unveiled Monday in draft form before the California Energy Commission, represents an effort by the Schwarzenegger administration to live up to the governor’s lofty campaign promises to improve the environment.

Under the draft proposal, which has not yet been formally endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California would provide home builders with financial rebates if they added solar panels to new homes, and would provide some incentives to homeowners seeking to add the energy generators to older houses.

The state would fund the incentives by placing an electricity surcharge on customers of privately owned utilities -- roughly 80% of the state’s residents. The surcharge would raise $1 billion over a decade before being phased out.


State officials estimate that such a program could add photovoltaic panels to 40% of all new homes by 2010, and 50% by 2013. To make sure the goals were met, the program would require builders to add solar panels to 5% of homes by 2010 and 50% by 2020. By 2017, state officials estimate, the program would add solar panels to nearly 1.2 million houses in the state -- 884,000 new and 313,000 older houses.

Environmentalists and solar panel makers lauded the proposal as bold policymaking that would place California at the forefront of renewable energy use and turbocharge the solar industry, lowering the price of the technology for all.

“We need a sustained commitment to solar energy, and the governor seems very interested in making that commitment here in California,” said V. John White, a Sacramento environmental lobbyist and director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. “His personal leadership could really make a difference.”

Building industry officials, who have opposed a similar proposal making its way through the Legislature, were guarded about the administration’s proposal, however. They praised the draft as an unusually thoughtful proposal that appeared to take their costs into account, but reserved judgment until they saw the final plan.


“The governor is wise to set it up as a way to attract production, development and consumption of the technology,” said Tim Coyle, vice president of the California Building Industry Assn. “I think everyone is hopeful that if solar delivers on its promise, it will become a lot more affordable to a whole lot of people.”

The proposal, he said, does not simply seek to add solar panels. It would use the energy they produce to replace power production from so-called peaker plants, heavy-polluting generators that run on hot summer days and other times when energy demand is greatest.

“It looks like the governor is in pursuit of an ambitious element of a comprehensive energy policy, which is to introduce [solar energy] as an alternative to peaker plants,” Coyle said. “But the jury is still out on whether the solar industry can produce that much power cheaply.”

Schwarzenegger has been under growing political pressure to deliver on solar power. On Monday, the group Environment California took out an ad in The Times exhorting the governor to be “the solarnator” and deliver on campaign promises to boost solar generation.

“To use the governor’s own language, is he manly man enough to stand up to the special interests and make this his own?” asked Bernadette del Chiaro of Environment California. “The governor has a chance to make a bold statement here. Hopefully, he will find a way to make this draft better, not worse.”

The Republican governor, who has labored to fashion a green-friendly image, pledged during his election campaign to add solar power to half of the state’s new homes. Schwarzenegger, however, did not endorse legislation by state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) that would have required builders to incorporate solar panels into new home construction. The building industry, one of the governor’s largest campaign donors, has opposed Murray’s bill.

Schwarzenegger administration officials stressed Monday that even though the solar proposal had been made public, it still had not been reviewed or endorsed by the governor, and could change.