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Killing & Saving

Don Loweburg

©2005 Don Loweburg

Solar Initiatives

California's Solar Initiative, Senate Bill 1 (SB1), which would have provided a ten-year funding commitment for solar-electric (photovoltaic; PV) systems and a transition to performance-based incentives, died in the California Assembly on September 8, 2005. In a classic cliff-hanger, the bill became mired in committee by partisan bickering, and perished on the eve of the last legislative session without a vote being taken.

As solar advocates, as a solar industry, and as citizens, we must ask, "How could this happen?" How could this happen in a state where more than 80 percent of voters support solar technologies? How could this happen at a time when all carbon fuels are experiencing price increases, and electricity costs are climbing? How could this happen in the face of the effects of global warming, and the possible connection to the devastation that resulted from this year's exceptionally severe hurricane season?

Electrical Interference

More than two years of collective work by PV manufacturers, installers, environmental groups, and solar advocates went into the bill. SB1, as initially proposed, was nonpartisan and endorsed by California Governor Schwarzenegger after being introduced in the California Senate by Democratic Senator Kevin Murray and Republican Senator John Campbell.

However, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the utilities lobbied for amendments in committee, and these three amendments ultimately disintegrated the broad support for SB1.

The first stipulation required all solar-electric installers to be electrical contractors. California currently allows for several license classes to install solar-electric systems, and the restrictive amendment would have disenfranchised more than 50 percent of those already installing systems.

The second amendment by the IBEW inserted language that called for "prevailing wage"—union scale work done by union members. The prevailing wage amendment cost the support of one of the authors, Republican Senator Campbell, and of Governor Schwarzenegger.

Bernadette Del Chiaro, speaking for Environment California, an environmental advocacy group supporting SB1, said this about its failure: "The bill was derailed when it reached its second-to-last stop, the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where three amendments were added to the bill after intense lobbying of two labor unions, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the State Building Trades Council."

The third fatal amendment came from the investor-owned utilities. They cut themselves in for 10 percent of the available funding (approximately US$200 million), and at the same time, decreased the proposed grid-connected PV limits under the program from 5 percent to 2.5 percent of total capacity. These changes were contrary to the very intention of SB1, which called for the cost-effective use of PV as distributed generation, and substantial increases in the amount of grid-connected PV. Utilities are known to favor central station generation—the least cost-effective way to use PV in a grid-connected system.

Major solar groups, such as California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA) and Americans for Solar PV (a recently formed PV manufacturers group), opposed SB1 as amended. In addition, many environmental groups that had been in support could no longer support the amended changes to SB1. On August 25, 2005, Senator Campbell, a co-author, removed his name from the bill and opposed it. Finally, two days before the end of the legislative session, Governor Schwarzenegger retracted his support of the amended bill.

At one level, it's easy to simply conclude that SB1 failed due to politics. Behind the scenes is a looming battle between the Republican Governor and the Democratic Legislature. And yes, the Governor antagonized several powerful California unions. However, the destruction of SB1 falls squarely on the regulated utilities and their union, the IBEW.

All Is Not Lost

Though California failed to establish a long-range PV program, the immediate future for PV remains positive. The current rebate program has sufficient funding for perhaps several more months, though this funding is limited to small systems (up to 30 KW). Large commercial systems continue to be unfunded.

But California's regulatory agencies, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission, may be able to accomplish what the political process failed to deliver. During the drafting of SB1, a parallel track of action was developed within the CPUC. This consisted of formal hearings and testimony that established the cost effectiveness of distributed PV, independent power providers and the benefits for individual customers and for the entire electricity distribution system. Getting this information "on record" enables the public utility commissioners, who are enfranchised to act for the public good, to incorporate the cost of PV programs into the rate base and start a solar rebate program of their own.

Another avenue suggested is a ballot initiative, where Californians could cast their votes to support a statewide solar-electric program. With the high level of support for solar electricity in California and the rest of the United States, successful solar legislation is bound to arise again. The question is, "How difficult will the opposition make it?"

The lessons of SB1 pertain not only to California but to the rest of the United States too. With vested interests managing to defeat important bills, citizens must strongly advocate and act on their own behalf to support a sane renewable energy future.


Don Loweburg, PO Box 231, North Fork, CA 93643 • [email protected]

Environment California, 3435 Wilshire Blvd., #385, Los Angeles, CA 90010 • 213-251-3688 • Fax: 213-251-3699 • [email protected]www.environmentcalifornia.org • Links to newspaper articles on SB1

History & details of the amendments that destroyed SB1 • www.leginfo.ca.gov/billinfo.html

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