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A Ray of Hope for Solar

How strange that solar energy remains a rarity in a state with such dependable sunshine, which beats down, wasted, on our rooftops. New legislation backed by the governor fixes gaps that plagued previous solar-construction bills and provides the first real chance for new-home solar to get off the ground.

Last year, a solar bill by state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) started out on a troubling note by requiring developers to install solar panels in a percentage of new houses, but it did nothing to make those more-expensive houses attractive to buyers. Builders predictably protested and for good reason. At this point, solar houses don’t pay for themselves through energy savings, making them a costly -- if altruistic -- choice.

Murray’s new bill requires only that builders offer solar as an option, like the more predictable granite countertops. It lures buyer interest by continuing a rebate program that had been scheduled to expire in 2006, along with a tax credit. A third financial incentive requires utilities to credit homeowners for the excess energy their solar panels generate, which the utilities can sell to other customers.

With all those pieces in place, solar homeowners over the life of the mortgage would see a slight profit on their investment of $13,000 to $15,000, as well as a house that’s worth more when it’s sold. That might be enough to persuade people, many of whom already want to do the right thing by the environment.

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The rebates and tax incentives would gradually decline and, in 10 years, expire. Expecting the price of solar-energy systems to drop sharply as they become more commonplace and the price of conventional energy to keep rising, solar advocates are gambling that the solar industry will by then be self-sufficient.

That’s a big gamble. There’s no way of knowing whether the bill’s incentives are enough to attract large numbers of home buyers to solar power.

It would be nice to see the odds improved with higher, longer-term rebates -- so far funded by a surcharge that tacks, on average, less than 20 cents onto electrical bills for California households -- and more regulatory pressure on developers to build more solar-powered houses.

The bill includes provisions for the state to study whether adopting such requirements makes sense, and builders, who generally favor the legislation, are understandably nervous about that. Utilities aren’t happy about the prospect of being required to buy more of the energy produced by solar homes, saying it costs them too much to set up metering systems.

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But legislators and the governor should resist any efforts to weaken the bill. This is the minimum needed to give solar a shot.

Surely a state this sunny can do at least this much to boost an energy source that doesn’t involve despoiling wilderness, doesn’t pollute, never runs out and is a lot more reliable than OPEC.


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