Let there be light

The PUC offers money for solar roofs, while the city of Roseville contemplates requiring developers to build solar homes

Director of Roseville Electric Tom Habashi, atop a solar-powered fire station. The city of Roseville is contemplating an ordinance that could boost production of solar roofs dramatically.

Director of Roseville Electric Tom Habashi, atop a solar-powered fire station. The city of Roseville is contemplating an ordinance that could boost production of solar roofs dramatically.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As raindrops splattered on the driveway of her two model homes in Natomas, sales agent Cynthia Burke gushed about her solar-powered homes.

“We’re the only SMUD Platinum builder,” she said, ticking off the energy advantages of Falling Leaf at River Bend, an infill subdivision of only 32 homes just north of the Sacramento River near Interstate 5. “These energy features are standard. In other developments, they’re an option, and they’re expensive.”

These $370,000 to $500,000 houses and similar homes were to be the vanguard of the governor’s million-roof march to California’s solar supremacy—an initiative that was promised to produce a million solar roofs in the state by offering money to homeowners, requiring builders to offer solar power and forcing utilities to buy back excess juice from solar homes.

But Schwarzenegger broke badly with Democrats in the Legislature in 2005, and both sides abandoned the idea.

But it’s a big state. One local government, Roseville, is considering a law that would require at least one in 10 new homes built in that city to include rooftop solar panels.

And on the state level, the governor is encouraging the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to pump $3.2 billion into solar power over 11 years by sucking the money out of investor-owned utilities like PG&E. The money, which the commission is expected to approve January 12, would defray the costs of putting up solar panels so that homeowners wouldn’t have to choose between solar power and marble countertops.

It’s what Vote Solar, a San Francisco-based group lobbying for city governments to blanket their cities with photovoltaic panels, calls “solar nirvana.” With an estimated 3,000 megawatts of solar capacity, the new panels would supply more power than a nuclear plant. That’s potentially 5 percent of the state’s capacity—enough to head off blackouts during hot days.

“This is groundbreaking. This is exactly what we’ve all been waiting for,” said Adam Browning, the group’s director of operations. “It has the potential to bring solar into the mainstream.”

The PUC’s proposal wouldn’t help the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), however, or any other public utility. But such utilities are already coming up with their own solutions, with SMUD helping developments like Fallen Leaf by subsidizing more than a third of the cost of solar systems.

What’s been missing is a long-term commitment to help pay for solar so that builders can count on it at the end of a long subdivision-approval process, says Jim Bayless, president of Roseville-based Treasure Homes, the builder of Fallen Leaf.

“If the Legislature could show more commitment to solar incentives, then there would be more developers utilizing those programs. Right now, that scares people away from it,” Bayless said.

The first public utility in the Sacramento area to require solar on new homes may well be Roseville Electric, a city-owned utility now formulating a plan to make one in 10 of its new homes solar-powered over the next decade. At the same time, the plan would pump $2 million a year into solar subsidies over that decade, compared with SMUD’s $1 million for 2005, which was not increased for 2006 and provides no long-term commitment for builders.

“Certainly, that is a welcome development,” Browning said of Roseville’s ambitious plan. “It’s cheaper to install at the time of construction. It makes sense for the future homeowner; it makes sense for the ratepayers.”

But don’t expect builders to beam about this solar program. Building trade groups have opposed being saddled with any kind of solar requirement. And even some solar advocates are wary of forcing builders, rather than coaxing them into the sunlight.

“It would change the cost of the home. It would be an automatic $22,000-per-unit increase,” argued John Cosa, senior legislative advocate for the North State Building Industry Association. What’s worse, he said, is that Roseville’s program would require “not only the photovoltaic units themselves, but also the energy-efficient windows, tankless water heaters and energy-efficient air-conditioner units—above what the state currently requires.”

Guilty as charged, pleads Tom Habashi, Roseville Electric’s director.

But when you look at Premier Homes’ 50 solar houses recently completed near Roseville’s regional mall, the price difference doesn’t sting quite as much. Habashi says a solar home of about 2,000 square feet ends up paying about $30 a month in electric bills, instead of the usual $200. If you spread the costs of the solar and energy-saving improvements over a 30-year mortgage, they come to less than $40 a month.

The Roseville City Council is expected to vote in April or May on the $2 million-a-year Roseville program. The solar incentives would be paid, for the most part, from surplus in an existing public-benefit fund, which the city utility funds with 5 percent of its current revenues, Habashi says.

A major solar-promotion program is “easier for us because of the infrastructure that we have,” Habashi explained. The city can coordinate its utility incentives with its subdivision planning and construction permitting, with all departments speaking solar.

“A utility like PG&E cannot go to a developer and say, ‘You will design a home this way,’” Habashi said.

In the meantime, state legislators will wrestle again with the idea of making builders offer solar power to customers willing to pay for it and making utilities buy excess solar power. The PUC can provide the money, but it can’t make anyone buy or sell the product.

And some critics—university researchers, in particular—say the state’s energy consumers might be better served by investing in solar research, not simply slapping today’s technology onto a million roofs. Others complain that this is another way to help the rich save on their energy bills at the expense of poorer ratepayers.

But the PUC’s proposal would set aside 10 percent of the $3.2 billion for low-income Californians to connect the sun to their local power grid, says PUC commissioner Dian Grueneich.

“I think we can buy down the cost dramatically,” Grueneich said, with such a large investment in solar. “This is the largest effort in the world.”

As for the other research idea, Grueneich says the state already has the nation’s most comprehensive program to research energy efficiency. What the state needs now is to put the panels where the sun shines.

“I’ve been in this business 30 years,” said the energy expert and environmentalist, “and I’m saying, ‘Hey! We’re finally doing something.’”