Dark days - Page 3

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

Sup. Chris Daly agrees. "I would support this program if we were running out of municipal [solar] projects," he said. "But we're not."

In addition, the progressive members of the Board of Supervisors, who have all advocated a citywide sustainable energy policy known as community choice aggregation, or CCA, weren't represented on the Solar Task Force.

The fund Newsom wanted to tap for his project is also the source of funding for the community choice aggregation program, which the progressive supervisors see as the city's energy plan, which in turn constitutes a far more comprehensive response to climate change, with a goal of relying on 51 percent renewable energy by 2017.

Sup. Gerardo Sandoval is working on a loan program that would allow residents to borrow money from the city for renewable energy and efficiency upgrades for their homes and pay it back at a relatively low interest rate folded into their monthly tax bills. (See "Solar Solutions," 11/14/07.) Sandoval's plan would enable loans of $20,000 to $40,000 at 3 percent interest to people who voluntarily put solar on their homes.

The city of Berkeley is pursuing a similar plan. But the task force never consulted Sandoval — in fact, he told us that he had no idea Ting's task force was meeting until a few months ago.

The supervisors' Budget and Finance Committee is slated to review Newsom's plan April 16.

Solar installers aren't happy about the delays: "I'm on the disappointed receiving end of that start and stop," Cinnamon said.

While city officials duke out where the money should come from and who gets it, San Franciscans interested in purchasing panels are left in limbo. Jennifer Jachym, a sales rep from Solar City who used to handle residential contracts in San Francisco, said, "I have worked all over the Bay Area and I'd have to say it seems that the delta between interest and actual purchase is highest here.

"It was hard to get people to pull the trigger," she continued. "What the San Francisco incentive program basically did was bring the cost incentives here to where they are everywhere else."

The holdup has dispirited customers and solar companies. Cinnamon said he wasted 10,000 advertising door hangers because of the delay. Solar City also put on hold a handshake deal with the Port of San Francisco to rent a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in the Bayview District for a solar training academy that could turn out 20 new workers a month.

"As a San Francisco resident, I really want to see it happen there, but as a business, I have to think about it differently," said Peter Rive, chief operating officer of the company. "Almost every city in the Bay Area is aggressively trying to get us to build a training academy in their city."

 

TENANTS AND LANDLORDS

Another reason we don't see more panels on San Francisco roofs is that most San Franciscans are renting and have no control over their roofs. "The landlord doesn't care. They don't pay the electric bill," Cinnamon said. When asked if there were any inroads to be made there, he said, "Nope. That's not a market I see at all."

In spite of that, solar companies still are eager to do business here, which means there's either enough of a market — or enough of a markup.

Rive wouldn't tell us their exact markup for panels, but said, "The average solar company adds 15 to 25 percent gross margin to the installation. Our gross margin is in line with that."

Rive's company has another option for cash-poor San Franciscans, a new "solar lease." In this scenario, Solar City owns the panels and leases them to homeowners for 15 years. The property owner pays a low up-front cost of a couple of thousand dollars and a monthly lease fee that increases 3.5 percent per year.

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