December 15, 2004

California Seeks to Create More Solar Homes

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California could have 1 million buildings producing solar energy by 2018, with half of all new homes powered by the sun, administration officials said as they outlined ways to meet one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's more ambitious campaign promises.

The goal is to create a self-sustaining solar industry in 10 years, making the zero-pollution power source so commonplace and cheap that costly incentives are no longer necessary, Joe Desmond, Schwarzenegger's deputy secretary for energy, said Monday.

Until then, environmental officials are considering funding methods that could include a charge on electricity bills to pay the estimated $700 million to $1 billion cost. That would return a projected $3 billion to $5 billion, Desmond said in an interview.

The goal is to generate 3,000 megawatts of power from the sun within 13 years, the equivalent of a dozen medium-sized power plants. One megawatt is enough to power about 750 homes.

To get there, solar manufacturers who move to California might be offered an investment credit, while homeowners' income and property tax credits, set to expire in 2006, might be extended, Desmond said.

The administration officials propose to require builders to offer solar power as an option in subdivisions of 50 homes or more by 2010. And they want the California Energy Commission to consider requiring solar energy in the same way the commission has in the past mandated low-flush toilets, insulation standards, energy efficient appliances or low-energy lighting fixtures in bathrooms.

They also want to let owners of solar-powered buildings sell more of their electricity back to power utilities.

The proposals all come in the wake of the blackouts and spiraling power costs that plagued the state in 2000 and 2001 and reverberate today.

California already is the world's third-largest market for solar technology, but advocates say such a statewide incentive plan would put the state on a par with leaders like Japan and Germany.

Schwarzenegger backed a solar homes proposal that failed in the Legislature four months ago. Resource and Environmental Protection agency officials on Monday outlined their goals and solicited suggestions on how to meet his campaign promise, though Schwarzenegger has yet to endorse a new attempt at legislation.

Unlike the previous version, the latest variation would include commercial as well as residential buildings, which may make it easier and cheaper to reach Schwarzenegger's million-roof goal, Desmond said. That's also a goal of state Sen. John Campbell, R-Irvine, who is carrying a preliminary version of the bill with last year's legislative sponsor, Sen. Kevin Murray, D-Culver City.

"The devil will be in the details," said Bernadette Del Chiaro of the Environment California Research and Policy Center.

Her organization estimated that the state needs to pay homeowners at least $2,800 for each kilowatt of solar power generation they install to make the investment worthwhile.

The California Building Industry Association has been generally supportive, but opposes mandates that would cost its members and wants to begin with a smaller program. Utilities and unions in August supported a less ambitious competing bill that Schwarzenegger aides said would have been unworkable.