California’s Lead in Solar Is Slowly Eroding

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Felicity Barringer
The New York Times
January 25th, 2012

The growth of California’s local solar-power systems, not only on rooftops but in parking lots, farmers’ fields and vineyard irrigation ponds, has kept the state well ahead of others in the total power generated from photovoltaic systems.

In 2011, according to a new report by Environment California, California’s total capacity exceeded 1,000 megawatts — up from less than 10 megawatts in 2000.

But according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, the state’s lead — California was home to two-thirds of all photovoltaic solar capacity in the country in 2008 — is shrinking slowly as other states, particularly New Jersey, provide incentives that are leading to a burst of new installations (and new complaints.

Data was available nationally through 2010, when California had 869 megawatts of installed capacity, as reflected in the chart above.

A report released on Tuesday by Environment California pinpoints the areas of California that are are home to the most rapid growth of solar power. Cities including Los Angeles have tripled their solar capacity since 2009, but San Diego leads the state in the number of installations on residential, commercial and government buildings (4,500) and overall capacity (37 megawatts).

Los Angeles is close behind in total capacity (36 megawatts) but less so in the number of installations (4,000). San Jose ranks third with 31 megawatts of capacity and 2,733 installations.

But it is in smaller cities, like the northern coastal city of Santa Cruz; Rocklin, in Sacramento’s eastern suburbs (where a videographer and I reported on solar expansion in 2006); Clovis, east of Fresno near the foothills of the southern Sierra; and Davis, the university town west of the state capital, where the willingness to install photovoltaic arrays has penetrated most deeply. Each of these midsize cities has 10 photovoltaic arrays for every 1,000 residents.

Institutional investment, from municipal utilities to the Department of Defense, is also responsible for California’s continued growth in solar power. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has long operated two solar arrays, with a combined capacity of 3.2 megawatts, while Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert is leasing 3,288 acres of its land for the construction of solar arrays whose capacity could exceed 500 megawatts.

The report’s authors in Environment California, an advocacy group, also recommend policy changes to provide more incentives to developers of small- and medium-size photovoltaic arrays.

Specifically, they want residential solar users to have a greater share of the financial benefits. They also advocate, for developers of medium-size systems of 10 megawatts or less, a so-called “feed-in-tarriff” of the kind that propelled Germany’s growth in solar power systems and won support in France and Britain.

Instead of limiting rebates to money already paid to the utility, the tariff permits owners of such systems to continue to receive compensation from utilities, even if it is in excess of the total payments they have made to the utility.

The report also supports new financing methods allowing a homeowners to share the cost of installation (often more than $20,000) with their utilities and to pay off their dept through surcharges on their monthly bills.

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