Assembly Vote Coming on Solar Garden Bill

Coming to a community near you? | Photo: Andreas Lea/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If you'd like to use electricity from rooftop solar but you don't own a rooftop to put it on, the California Assembly will soon be deciding whether or not to help you. On Monday, August 27 the Assembly is scheduled to vote on SB 843, which would allow renters, low-income Californians and others who can't install solar panels on their own property to buy shares in offsite solar facilities of up to 20 megawatts in size, and share in the proceeds from power sales to utilities.

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SB 843, if enacted, would create the Community-Based Renewable Energy Self-Generation Program in which retail utility customers could offset up to 100% of their utility bills by buying shares in a shared facility -- often referred to as a "solar garden." The state's Senate passed the bill in 2011. Its author is State Senator Lois Wolk; the bill was introduced in the Assembly by Members Huffman and Skinner.

Upfront costs for buying into a solar garden and the amount of credit a participant receives per kilowatt-hour generated would largely be up to the facility operator. As there's an intermediary involved, the financial return per kilowatt of generating capacity a participant buys in a solar garden will be less than if that person sold the power to the utility directly. Then again, the same is true of solar leasing programs for homeowners, and those haven't suffered as a result.

The state's three major investor-owned utilities are split in their views on SB 843. San Diego Gas and Electric supports the bill, while Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric oppose it. The bill is not without its environmentalist critics either, including many clean energy advocates. An analysis of the bill by the San Francisco Bay Area group Local Clean Energy Alliance (LCEA) charges that the 20-megawatt cap is far too large to truly encourage the development of community-based solar gardens. (A 20-megawatt PV installation would cover about 160 acres of land.)

The bill also requires only that the solar facility be in the service area of the utility serving the customer, which means a PG&E customer in Oakland could buy power from a solar facility in the Mojave Desert -- better than coal fired power, but not exactly a source of community development. LCEA is advocating the bill be amended to lower the capacity ceiling to encourage more development of solar facilities of 1 megawatt or less. The group also advocates a "local generation only" amendment to the bill, as well as provisions to ensure facilities are sited responsibly, on disturbed or developed lands including polluted "brownfields."

Amended or not, if the bill passes the Assembly on Monday it will undoubtedly be signed by the governor, given his unnuanced support of all things solar.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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