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State corrects flaw in solar law

Times Staff Writer

California’s ambition to have solar-electric generating panels on the rooftops of 1 million homes got a hoped-for boost Thursday.

Fixing a glitch in a 6-month-old rebate program that made solar power too expensive in parts of the state, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state energy regulators moved swiftly to enact changes to make the program more financially attractive.

The governor signed into law a bill sped to him by legislators after solar industry installers complained that homeowners were spurning the state’s solar incentives.

The new law takes effect immediately.

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Schwarzenegger, who vowed to boost solar power in his 2003 election campaign, praised lawmakers for acting “so quickly to strengthen this important program that will greatly expand solar energy in California.”

Sales of new solar systems plummeted during the first three months of this year when would-be purchasers discovered that because of an oversight in last year’s law the potential savings on their power bills could be far less than anticipated -- and in some cases the potential savings would have evaporated altogether.

The fast action by the Legislature, governor and the state Public Utilities Commission is intended to eliminate the embarrassing oversight. It also is expected to spark a boom for the solar-system installation industry.

“Anybody who had any hesitation shouldn’t have any hesitation now,” said Forest J. Tierce, a sales representative with HelioPower Inc. in Culver City.

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Putting expensive solar panels on houses has to make economic sense, he said, and now “it’s a no-brainer to go solar.”

The solar fix comes “just in the nick of time as we head into the hot summer months,” said Bernadette DelChiaro, an advocate with Environment California who spent the last three years lobbying to gain passage of Schwarzenegger’s $3-billion solar-power initiative.

The unintended solar snafu developed from vague wording in a 2006 bill that was compounded in December when the utilities commission rushed to put the governor’s proposal into action.

Regulators inadvertently ordered the state’s three investor-owned electric utilities to require applicants for solar installation rebates to sign up for electric pricing plans that charge more for power consumed when demand is highest, such as on hot summer afternoons.

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As a result, switching to solar power suddenly became overly expensive, particularly in the desert regions of Southern California served by Southern California Edison Co.

To remedy the situation, the utilities commission approved a rule Thursday that frees owners of new solar systems from having to pay the higher, so-called time-of-use rates.

In the meantime, commission President Michael Peevey said his agency and utilities would develop more comprehensive time-of-use prices that would give owners of larger solar systems an incentive to return surplus power to the electric grid, without penalizing people with smaller systems.

But solar-electric generation wasn’t the only type of solar power to get a boost from the state Legislature this week.

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The Assembly approved a bill that would create a $250-million program to provide rebates to homeowners who install rooftop solar water-heating systems.

The rebates would cut the cost of a $6,000 solar-thermal system by as much as 25%, said the bill’s author, Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). Widespread use of the relatively low-tech heating panels could cut statewide natural gas consumption by 5% and emissions of greenhouse gas that cause global warming, he said.

Another Huffman measure, one that would require the makers of light bulbs to meet energy-efficiency standards beginning in 2008, also was endorsed by the Assembly. The legislation, which had the backing of manufacturers, would require all light bulbs, whether they are incandescent, fluorescent or light-emitting diodes, to become 50% more efficient by 2018.

Both the Huffman proposals now will be considered by the state Senate.

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Meanwhile, a separate and more controversial light bulb measure stalled. The bill by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) sought to ban the use of traditional incandescent bulbs in favor of power-saving compact fluorescents.

Opponents criticized the bill for favoring a single lighting source and for failing to address the problem of recycling the small amounts of mercury found in fluorescent bulbs.

marc.lifsher@latimes.com


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