Amending the solar plan

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EDITORIAL San Francisco assessor Phil Ting wants to encourage more city residents and businesses to put solar panels on their roofs. It's a noble idea, but the legislation he and Mayor Gavin Newsom have proposed needs work.

Ting told us he's concerned that buying and installing solar panels is too expensive and that the cost is discouraging people from taking these steps toward putting the city on a path to greater reliance on renewable energy. So he's put forward a two-pronged plan to lower the price: Using funds generated by the sale of Hetch Hetchy power, the city would offer cash payments of between $3,000 and $10,000 to residents and businesses that go solar. Then city bond money would be used to finance the remaining installation costs, and customers could pay back the city over 20 years.

The bond money Ting is eyeing comes from a measure passed more than 15 years ago, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, that makes money available for seismic upgrades to commercial property. For various reasons, including the complexity of the requirements, almost none of the $350 million in that bond fund has been spent, so with the approval of the voters it could be redirected to solar programs.

There are several problems with this approach.

We're always a little leery of spending public money to benefit private property owners (and let's remember that almost everyone who owns a home in San Francisco has seen its value increase dramatically in the past few years, despite the market slowdown). And while Ting and Newsom are right that the Hetch Hetchy money doesn't come directly out of the General Fund, it's still public money that could be spent on other programs — and the mayor is fighting against a plan to spend more city money on affordable housing.

But global warming and energy independence are important enough that we could live with the cash incentives — if the program were tailored to support community choice aggregation and public power. Instead, in its current draft, the plan would amount to a large incentive for electricity customers to snub the upcoming city program and stick with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. The language of the measure requires that applicants for the incentive program be eligible for a similar state program — but that state program is administered by PG&E and two other private utilities and is available only to their customers.

Starting sometime this year, if all goes well, San Francisco will be in the retail electricity business, competing directly with PG&E. Ting told us he'll make sure the language is fixed to make the program available to all, but we'd go further: a city incentive program should help the city's efforts. The first benefits should go to city customers, and they should be tailored as incentives for residents and businesses to stick with municipal CCA power and reject PG&E.

The bond money is problematic too. As it stands, landlords could pass along half of the costs of that money to tenants, many of whom don't pay their own electric bills anyway and thus would get no benefits. That's got to go: if the city is going to offer cheap loans to let landlords upgrade their buildings (and thus increase the value of their property), the supervisors shouldn't pass any measure that sticks tenants with any of the costs.

The city of Berkeley is working on a similar program that seems much more simple: property owners can borrow money for solar panels and pay it back through increased property taxes. Sup. Gerardo Sandoval has suggested San Francisco pursue a similar plan, and Ting and the mayor should take that into consideration.

There's the kernel of a good idea here — but the supervisors need to make some significant changes to what the mayor and the assessor are proposing before this plan moves forward.