Dark days

Why is it so hard to get solar power in San Francisco?
Illustration by Mirissa Neff



Like a lot of San Franciscans, John Murphy wants to put solar panels on his roof. He's worried about the environment, but it's also about money: "I want it to pay for all my electricity," he said one recent evening as we chatted in front of his house.

Murphy pays top dollar for power from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., every month hitting the highest tier of energy use and getting spanked 34 cents a kilowatt hour for it. He's tried to cut costs by switching to energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs with motion sensors — with little incentive from PG&E's billing department.

Murphy thought installing solar panels would be worth the up-front cost, especially if federal and state rebates made it more feasible. His roof — sturdy and pitched toward the south, unshaded by trees or other buildings, and located in the fogless hollow of the Mission District — seemed perfectly suited for solar energy.

So last fall he invited a representative from a local solar installation company to the house for a free consultation. He was told his roof could only fit a 2.8 kilowatt system, which would cover about 60 percent of his energy needs — and cost about $25,000.

Murphy is apoplectic about the results. "What's 60 percent? That's like going out with her for three-quarters of the night. I want to take her home," he said.

While the federal incentive shaves $2,000 off the cost, the state rebate program — in place since January 2007 — is a set allocation that declines over time: the later you apply, the less you get. Today Murphy can get about $1.90 per watt back from the state, whereas at the start of the program it was $2.50 per watt. To him, the upfront costs are still too steep and the results won't cover his monthly PG&E bill.

"The snake oil salesmen of yesterday are the solar panel installers of today," Murphy said.

But Murphy still wants to install panels — and he's not alone. The desire for clean, green energy runs deeply through San Francisco and the state as a whole. After the launch of the California Solar Initiative, the number of solar megawatts, represented by applications to the state, doubled what they'd been over the last 26 years. Almost 90 percent of the installations were on homes, indicating that citizens are jumping at the chance to decrease their carbon output.

Yet in San Francisco, where environmental sentiment and high energy costs ought to be driving a major solar boom, there's very little action.

Back in 2000, then-mayor Willie Brown announced a citywide goal of 10,000 solar roofs by 2010. That would add up to a lowly 5 percent of the 200,000 property lots within the city of San Francisco.

But even that weak goal seems beyond reach: it's now 2008, and the number of solar roofs in San Francisco stands at a grand total of 618 installations by the end of 2007. In terms of kilowatts per capita, the city ranks last in the Bay Area. The city's total electricity demand runs about 950 megawatts; only 5 megawatts is currently supplied by solar.



Well, it's not the weather. While heavy cloud cover can hinder panels, fog permits enough ambient light to keep panels productive. San Francisco's thermostat isn't much of a factor either — panels prefer cooler temperate zones, not blazing desert heat.

It's also not for a lack of political ideas — Mayor Gavin Newsom is pushing a major solar proposal and several others are floating around, too.

But Newsom is clashing with the supervisors over the philosophy and direction of his plan. It's complicated, but in essence, the mayor and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting put together a task force that included representatives of solar installers and PG&E — but nobody from the environmental community and no public-power supporters.

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