Solar America City/San Diego: Top city in CA with most solar roofs according to new report

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a place where solar energy installations are ubiquitous. Like San Diego.

In 2007, San Diego became one of 25 Solar America Cities, one of six in California. Already a California city with a highly developed solar ethic, San Diego alone hosts over a third of the region’s installed solar panel projects. Over the past five years, the number of installed PV systems increased by 35%. Thirteen of the City’s public buildings have solar, generating almost 1.3 MW of electricity annually, enough power for about 1,000 homes.

For Solar America Cities, San Diego upped its commitment with a solar energy generation plan for about 5 megawatts of PV at city facilities, including two large water treatment facilities. They’ve developed a web-based solar map of the region, and the results from a solar customer survey is are due out later this month.

“Geography has something to do with it,” said Andrew McAllister, director of programs at the California Center for Sustainable Energy (CCSE) and manager of the CSI. “It’s no surprise that San Diego itself has terrific is a solar resource, and the City covers an extensive area.”

California’s Solar Cities: Leading the Way to a Clean Energy Future, a recent report by Bernadette Del Chiaro of Environment California used 15 years of solar data to determine solar leaders in California. Based on the number of installations and the amount of energy generated from those installations, San Diego emerged as the winner with about 2,300 solar roofs, the most of any city in California and in the U.S. On a per capita basis, it’s Nevada City with nearly 1 in 5 households hosting a solar system. The City of Industry, outside Los Angeles, had the most capacity per capita, with 1.5 kilowatts installed per person.

I’m getting jealous.

Incentives have played a key role in making solar ubiquitous in California, and in San Diego.

“The incentive environment in San Diego is the same as in other parts of the state, and one might actually argue that the applicable electric rates here have not been are not particularly conducive to solar PV in comparison to some the other IOU territories;, so the context is a variety of factors pushing in both directions,” said McAllister.

In case you missed it, in 2006, the California Public Utilities Commission adopted the California Solar Initiative (CSI), providing an enviable $3 billion+ in incentives for solar energy projects through three investor-owned utilities: Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. With this funding, Californians are expecting some 3,000 MW of solar capacity by 2016 on about one million of their roofs.

Talk about ubiquitous.

The nonprofit California Center for Sustainable Energy (CCSE) administers the California Solar Initiative (CSI) for San Diego Gas & Electric customers, with a $223 million purse of solar rebates for residential, industrial, agricultural and commercial property owners.

The CSI incentive levels, as with PG&E and SCE, are structured to reduce over the duration of the program in 10 ‘steps’ based on the aggregate capacity of solar installed. The earlier qualifying customers apply, the greater their incentives.

Just two and one half-years into CSI, CCSE is already at ‘Step 5’ for Expected Performance-Based Buydowns (EPPB), paying $1.55/W incentive for residential and non-residential/commercial systems. When the incentive program began in 2007, the incentive rate was $2.50/W AC for residential and commercial systems and $3.25/W AC for government entities and nonprofits.

Performance-Based Incentives (PBI) for systems greater than 50kW, are currently at $0.22/kWh ($0.32/kWh for govt, non-profits), down from $0.39/kWh for the first five years for taxable entities, and $0.50/kWh for the first five years for government entities and nonprofits.

According to CSI’s Statewide Trigger Point Tracker, 3.10 MW remain for SDG&E’s EPPB (residential) customers at the current $1.55/W, and 12.02 MW remain for its PBI (non-residential/commercial) customers at $0.22/kWh. Once those targets are reached, the incentive levels will be reduced further.

“The vast majority of the systems going in are residential, but the majority of the capacity is non-residential,” said McAllister.

According to Timothy Treadwell, Program Analyst, CSI, San Diego’s 2,300 solar roofs add up to 16 MW.

Solar hot water incentives aren’t part of the CSI, but CCSE does offer incentives for solar water heaters through a separate program based on the pilot program currently underway within SDG&E’s service territory.

Under the program, incentives for residential systems are up to $1,500, and up to $75,000 for commercial systems. SDG&E customers can submit applications at these levels until December 31, 2009. A new, statewide solar water heating program is expected to begin January 1, 2010, likely with comparable lower incentives.

Those solar installations, both PV and solar hot water, can be seen on an interactive solar map. Developed with funding from both by DOE and CPUC, the map allows consumers canto click on yellow solar icons to learn the size of the system and the installer. Consumers can search by zip code, and can get a detailed solar estimate for their home or business.

Despite the impressive solar numbers and enviable incentives, barriers still exist.

Permitting hurdles, lack of easily accessible financing high up-front costs and lack of solar knowledge in the real estate community are three of them.

One of San Diego’s Solar America Cities task was to identify those barriers and find ways to overcome them.

“The ‘Solar Survey’ seeks to identify challenges and success of those who have installed solar in San Diego,” said Linda Giannelli Pratt, Chief Program Manager, City of San Diego Environmental Service Department. “Similarly, we’ve interviewed three focus groups-real estate and associated professionals, municipal permitting review staff, and those who have installed solar. The outcome was interesting, although not entirely surprising.”

Pratt said that the report revealed confusion about the permitting processes for cities, installers and consumers. “As a result, we will be advocating a more consolidated and consistent permit review, and to the extent possible, we will also provide additional training to permit reviewers. On a related note, the City of San Diego’s permit review department will bemay be laying off a number of employees as a result of the economic decline. Yes, there has been a slow-down in construction projects.”

Survey findings revealed consumer’s desire to ‘go green’ was stronger than their desire to save money.

“Many people cringe at the large up-front investment that has a 15-20-year payback on a home they may live in for only five more years,” said Pratt. “San Diego and many other cities and the County are at various stages of evaluating and potentially implementing new solar financing options. Attaching that cost to a 20-year payback program on property taxes that stays with the home addresses that hurdle.”

Real estate and associated professionals didn’t promote solar as they would other amenities.

“The concern,” said Pratt, “is that it is difficult to determine the cost-advantage to solar on a home relative to the cost of other homes in the area. This group was uneducated about solar; they viewed it solar installations as an ‘unknown,’ so they weren’t comfortable touting it to potential home buyers. I believe we can address this with a more targeted outreach program to them through their professional associations.”

Pratt expects the report to be available by the end of September.

Still, McAllister is upbeat about San Diego’s ability to meet, exceed even, its solar goals.

“The near-term goals for the greater San Diego region flow from the CSI program itself, and are roughly 200MW of distributed PV (<1MW system size) by end of 2016. Roughly 85MW of this would be in the City of San Diego at current installation rates. Region wide, I believe we can go well beyond that, and CCSE has projecteds that the region could feasibly do 1000MW by 2030."

CSI’s Treadwell agrees.

“The application rate is growing exponentially. Typically, as we approach the next ‘step,’ we tend to receive a lot of applicants who want to lock in at the current incentive level. We received the most applications ever for ‘step 5,’ which is where we are now. The City is in the process of developing a municipal financing program, and if that goes through, well, look out.”

So the economic downturn hasn’t affected people’s discretionary spending?

“Our industrial, commercial application rate has slowed down,” said Treadwell, “but our residential applications are still on the rise. Attendance at our Solar for Homeowners workshops is over capacity sell out. They tell us investing in a solar PV system on their house is smart; it’s better than investing in the stock market.”

 

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