Rooftop Solar Reaffirmed

I wrote last weekend about a last minute motion by three Los Angeles City Council members who sought to kill a feed-in-tariff proposed by the city's utility company, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).  I am happy to report that the motion was not approved, and the feed-in-tariff will survive (thanks to the folks who went to the council meeting and spoke up, and for the supportive council members!).  The feed-in-tariff is hopefully one of LADWP's initial steps toward generating more clean energy locally, and relying less on far away power plants that destroy desert wildlands.

Wall Street Eyes Rooftop Revolution
Also this week, a report released by financial services firm UBS made waves.  The company assessed that rooftop solar's growth in Europe is about to boom (keep in mind, Germany alone has already installed thousands of megawatts of rooftop solar). Because the cost of energy from rooftop solar panels is now cheaper than energy from the grid in some European countries, UBS wrote: "[p]urely based on economics, we believe almost every family home and every commercial rooftop in Germany, Italy and Spain should be equipped with a solar system by the end of this decade.”  UBS assesses that Germany could add an additional 80,000 megawatts of mostly rooftop solar without subsidies.

The US will not be left out of what UBS calls the "unsubsidized solar revolution."  By 2016, solar will match the price of grid electricity in enough cities that homes and business could install over 100,000 megawatts of rooftop solar, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  Within ten years we could see over 300,000 megawatts of rooftop solar at grid parity.

Fight for Local Clean Energy
But the rooftop revolution will not be easy, and we still have a lot more work to do.  It is important that you continue to speak up in community forums and encourage policymakers in support of the tools we need to deploy more local clean energy:
  • Accessibility:  Rooftop solar is not a luxury -- most California rooftop solar installations are in median-income neighborhoods, according to the California Public Utilities Commission -- but we have more work to do to make solar affordable for all.  The California legislature is considering "on-bill repayment," which would allow home and business owners to install solar panels and pay off the cost over time through installments on their utility bill.  Hawaii's Governor also wants to implement this mechanism to bring "solar for all."  In Washington, we are working to cut Federal red tape on property assessed clean energy (PACE), which is another way for people to finance their own rooftop solar panels.
  • Permit Costs: We need to cut "soft costs" for solar to make sure the cost of installing solar panels continues to fall.  Most of this involves streamlining local permits issued by the town where the solar panels are installed.  The Department of Energy is attempting to address this issue across the country with its SunShot initiative, and Sierra Club volunteers in California have analyzed variations in municpal permit costs.
  • Interconnection: Utility companies are fighting back against rooftop solar.  They claim that too many rooftop solar panels can destabilize the grid. They would rather we stick with the old model of centralized power plants shipping energy to us from far away, gauranteeing utility companies a healthy profit margin.  Many states have an arbitrary cap on the number of rooftop solar systems, and will try to impose costly studies on rooftop solar installations that exceed the cap. It's time to lift that cap and streamline any necessary studies. 
  • Feed-in-tariffs:  Utility companies pay high prices when they buy energy from coal, wind and solar facilities built far away from the city.  Then they pay more money to build and maintain transmission lines.  If a household with rooftop solar panels feeds extra energy into the grid, they should be paid for their energy, too.  This is a payment or credit to the rooftop solar owner known as a feed-in-tariff.  Utility companies don't like this idea because they would rather take your money, and not give it back to you.
Efficiency and Conservation First
Local clean energy generation is necessary to replace old fossil fuel plants, but if you are not ready for rooftop solar, there is something else you can be doing.  Energy efficiency (replacing wasteful appliances and light bulbs) and conservation (turning off appliances when they are not in use) can also help us replace destructive energy plants by drastically cutting demand, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

There are plenty of decisions and investments you can make -- short of installing solar panels -- that still can drastically change much energy you need to draw from the grid.Consider replacing your old incandescent bulbs with LEDs -- LEDs are more expensive, but they use a fraction of the energy, do not contain mercury like CFL bulbs, and can last over 20 years.  I have had good experience with Philips bulbs, so far, but you can check out reviews online.  Set your thermostat higher during the summer.  Be aware of "vampire" appliances, such as DVR systems that are running even when your television is off.  Compare the energy efficiency of new appliances before you buy.

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