Dark days - Page 2

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

The plan they hatched gives cash incentives to private property owners, takes money away from city-owned solar installments, and does nothing to help the city's move to public power.

While all this plays out, the solar panels so many San Franciscans want aren't getting installed.

 

SUN AND SUBSIDY

What makes solar work, according to local solar activists, is a combination of sun and subsidies. "Almost every area in the United States has better sun exposure than Germany, and Germany is leading the solar market worldwide today," said Lyndon Rive, CEO of Solar City, a Foster City-based solar installer.

The price per kilowatt hour, with current state and federal subsides, is about 13 cents for solar, just two cents more than PG&E's base rate for energy produced mostly by nuclear power and natural gas.

Still, the average installation for the average home hovers between $20,000 and $30,000. For many, that kind of cash isn't available.

"The biggest reason for lack of adoption [of solar energy] is that the cost to install in San Francisco is higher than neighboring cities," Rive said. It's about 10 percent more than the rest of the Bay Area, according to a December 2007 report of the San Francisco Solar Task Force.

Why? According to Rive, system sizes are smaller. Solar City's average Bay Area customer buys a 4.4 kilowatt system, but the average San Franciscan — with a smaller house and smaller roof — usually gets a 3.1 kilowatt installation. The smaller the system, the more the markup for retailers amortizing certain fixed costs such as material and labor. On top of that, San Francisco's old Victorians can have issues — weak rafters need reinforcement; steep roofs require more scaffolding; wires and conduits have to cover longer distances. It adds up.

"There's an extra cost to doing business in San Francisco," said Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena Solar and a member of the SF Solar Task Force. "I can expect $100 in parking tickets for every job I do."

That was the motivation for Ting to establish the Solar Task Force in 2007, with the goal of creating financial incentives, including loans and rebates, to bring down the costs of San Francisco solar. The 11-member task force came up with an ambitious program that involved a one-stop shop for permits, a plan to give property owners as much as $5,000 in cash subsidies, and a system to lend money to homeowners who can't afford the up-front costs.

The task force said installing 55 megawatts of solar would combat global warming, improve air quality by reducing pollution caused by electricity generation, and add 1,800 green collar jobs to the local economy.

The streamlined permit program is in place. None of the rest has happened.

 

THE MAYOR'S MONEY

The first obstacle was the loan fund. Newsom and Ting wanted to take $50 million currently sitting unspent in a bond fund for seismic upgrades on local buildings. Sup. Jake McGoldrick wanted to know why the money wasn't being used to upgrade low-income housing; the city attorney wasn't sure seismic safety money could be redirected to solar loans.

Then Newsom decided to take $3 million from the Mayor's Energy Conservation Fund to pay for the first round of rebates. Over the next 10 years, that could add up to $50 million. McGoldrick balked again. That money, he said, was supposed to be used on public facilities (like solar panels at Moscone Center and Muni facilities and new refrigerators for public housing projects). Why should it be diverted to private property owners?

There's a larger issue behind all this: should the city be using scarce resources to help the private sector — or devoting its money to city-owned electricity generation? "In 10 years, there could be $50 million in the fund," McGoldrick said. "That's a lot of money, and it's power the city could own."

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