Dark days - Page 4

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

For Murphy, the price would be $2,754 down and $88 a month. The panels would still cover only 64 percent of his energy needs, so he would owe PG&E about $70 a month. Because he would be using less energy, PG&E would charge a lower rate, which is something Solar City typically tries to achieve with a solar system.

However, people can't make money off their solar systems. "People ask about it all the time," Jachym said. "Especially people in San Francisco. They say 'I have a house in Sonoma with tons of space. Can I put panels there and offset my energy here?'"

The answer, unfortunately, is no, which means San Franciscans have no incentive to put up more panels than they need and recoup their costs by selling the energy to the grid. Unlike Germany, for example, where people are paid for the excess solar energy they make, California's net metering laws favor utility companies. If you make more power than you use, you're donating it to the grid. PG&E sells it to someone else.

If the law was changed — which could be a feature of CCA — citizens could help the city generate more solar energy to sell to customers who don't have panels, helping the city to meet its overall goal of 51 percent renewable by 2017.

Under Solar City's lease program, the company gets the federal and state rebates. If Murphy leased for 15 years he'd have an option to buy the used panels, upgrade to new ones, and end or continue the lease. If San Francisco launches the incentive program, the $3,000 from the city could cover the up-front cost and he could get the whole thing rolling for almost no cash. It sounds like a sweet deal.

Except it's not going to work. Solar City only leases systems of 3.2 kilowatts or more, and only 2.8 could be squeezed onto Murphy's roof. "I think it's Murphy's Law," Jachym says wryly. "If you have a house that wants solar, a whole row of houses on the street nearby are better suited for it."

She says the 3.2 cutoff has to do with the company's bottom line. "If it's any less than 3.2 the company is losing money." Ironically, she tells me, "the average system size in San Francisco is even smaller" — usually less than 3.1. Solar City has set the bar high in a place where many people like Murphy are prevented from leasing.

He tells us he isn't interested in a lease anyway: "I don't own that." He's now more interested in a do-it-yourself situation and wishes the city would put some energy toward that. "If they were serious they would have a city solar store," he said, imagining a kind of Home Depot for solar, where one could buy panels and wiring, talk with advisors, contract with installers, or just fill out the necessary paperwork for the rebates.

Some people are going ahead anyway, without city support. Nan Foster, a San Francisco homeowner now installing photovoltaic panels and solar water heating, says her middle-class family borrowed money to do these projects, "because we want to do the right thing about the environment and reduce our carbon footprint. It would be a great help to get these rebates from the city.

"The public money for the project would increase the spending of individuals to install solar — so the public funds would leverage much more investment in solar on the part of individuals and businesses," Foster argued.

There's another approach that isn't on the table yet. Eric Brooks, cofounder of the Community Choice Energy Alliance, told us that the city, through CCA, could buy its own panels to place on private homes and businesses, giving those homes and businesses a way to go solar — free.

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