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Solar for the masses

Californians are a trend-setting bunch. The Hollywood elite set the stage for fashion, there automobiles set the stage for soon to be national standards in cleanliness, and now they are trying to be the front runners in solar energy. SB1 the “million solar roofs bill” aims to create just that, 1 million solar roofs by 2017.

Co-authored by Senators Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles) and John Campbell (R-Orange County) and endorsed by Governor Schwarzenegger, this bill continues it’s way though the legislator. “Momentum for establishing the nation’s biggest solar power program is on our side,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, Clean Energy Advocate with Environment California, a leading supporter of the bill. “The California Senate has demonstrated tremendous bi-partisan leadership over the past two months by advancing a commonsense policy that will give Californians cleaner air and greater energy independence.”

The bill will do more than just save electricity (at completion it will offset 12 power plants running full tilt), it will also change the way solar works in America. With large numbers of users comes economy of scale. Computers used to cost millions of dollars; you can now buy one for under $500. Solar panels themselves have come down over 50% in the last ten years; with 1 million more users the demand will push prices even lower. At the same time the cost of oil and natural gas will only be going up. Economic modeling by Environment California Research & Policy Center show this kind of sustained growth could be enough to cut the cost of installing solar panels, currently around $8-9/watt, in half by 2015.

The bill will also include provisions to increase the amount of money available to homeowners. These rebates have been shown to increase market activity. At the same time the bill will force construction firms to offer the choice of solar panels for all new single-family homes. This is could continue to spur the industry as studies have shown that about 1% of people will install panels if they are offered. In addition to this the bill will ad a 15% carve-out in the rebate funds for affordable housing and low-income homes. With this bill, we are no longer talking about solar power being only for the backwoods hippy or the Malibu millionaire. Rather, building a million solar roofs will make this common-sense technology mainstream and cost-effective in a decade.” Said Del Chiaro.

Opposition to the Million Solar Roofs bill has come primarily from the electric utilities concerned about the impact a million more independent customers, with net metering options, will have on their business. Opposition has also come from labor unions pushing for the inclusion of prevailing wage requirements as well as a requirement that all future solar installations are overseen by a California licensed C-10 electrician instead of a C46 licensed installer.

The Million Solar Roofs bill will be heard in two committees in the Assembly – Utilities and Commerce and Appropriations – before heading to the Assembly floor later this summer. A special hearing on the bill will be held on Monday, June 27th in Assembly Utilities and Commerce with a vote scheduled on July 6th. Should SB 1 make it out of this committee – last year’s version of the same bill died in Assembly Utilities and Commerce – it will have until August 26th to pass Assembly Appropriations and then until September 9th to pass off the Assembly floor.

SB 1 received two previous hearings and three votes in the state Senate. The first was in Senate Energy Utilities and Communications on April 26th where it passed by a vote of 10-0. The second was in Senate Appropriations on May 26th where it passed by a vote of 8 to 4. SB 1 passed the state Senate on June 1st by a vote of 30-5.