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Solar bill will help California’s energy future

For homeowners and businesses, a big part of the appeal of “going solar” is the chance to offset their energy bills by earning credit for the power they generate.

State law requires investor-owned utilities such as the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to provide such credits to their customers – up to 2.5 percent of a utility’s overall electricity load.

It is a measure of the “net metering” program’s success that PG&E, which has been in the solar forefront, will soon reach that 2.5 percent threshold.

It is time to adjust the cap. The California Legislature has just given its approval to AB510, authored by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, that would double the allotment of customer-generated solar power that utilities would be required to credit.

“This should allow us to have net metering through the life of the California Solar Initiative program … we’re thrilled about that,” said Sara Birmingham, director of Western policy for Solar Alliance, the bill’s chief sponsor.

Under the solar initiative, California offers various incentives for solar installations as part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s drive to generate renewable energy from a million roofs. While homeowners and businesses receive state rebates and federal tax credits for installing solar units, the biggest attraction of all is the possibility of low utility bills for the long term.

“If they’re going to make the investment in (solar), they’re doing it to hedge their bets against future electricity costs,” Skinner said.

The “net metering” system has often been compared to allowing a customer to treat the grid as a giant battery. Because solar generation and power usage fluctuate by time of day – and by season, for that matter – customers are getting credit for the times when their units are generating more power than they consume.

For example, a residence or business might pile up credits during the sunny summer months that will offset the periods of winter when they consumer more than they generate.

PG&E and Southern California Edison had resisted a version of the bill last year out of concerns that the state could become over-reliant on a less stable source of energy. The utilities also maintained that the net-metering credits were overly generous – and, in effect, forcing other customers to subsidize those with solar units, an argument that was echoed by consumer advocate TURN.

But Skinner seemed to assuage most critics when the bill was amended to lower the proposed net-metering cap from 10 to 5 percent of a utility’s energy load. Skinner does not buy the claim that the program is a subsidy for the wealthy. She pointed out that many of the major beneficiaries of net metering are schools, public agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. While single-family homes represent 70 percent of net-metering customers, they account for just 30 percent of the energy generated by the program.

Promotion of solar energy is not just good for the environment, solar development and installation is one of the few growth sectors in this state during the Great Recession.

“And these are jobs that can’t be outsourced,” Birmingham said of solar installation.

AB510 now awaits Schwarzenegger’s signature. The question is not whether he will sign it, but how much flourish he will attach to this significant advancement toward making solar a viable option for Californians who want to cut both greenhouse gases and their power bills.