Calif. Rule Casts Shade On Solar Panels Solar panels are this season's must-have construction accessory in Southern California. But there's a regulatory roadblock. Green boosters say one more state rule needs to change if solar is going to be anything bigger than a flash in the pan.
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Calif. Rule Casts Shade On Solar Panels

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Calif. Rule Casts Shade On Solar Panels

Calif. Rule Casts Shade On Solar Panels

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, boot camp for an entire nation's police force, teaching police reform in Haiti.

BRAND: First though, both presidential candidates talk a lot about weaning America off foreign oil and adopting alternative energy. Well, here in California, that is already happening. Utility companies pay people who produce solar energy and then send the excess energy back to the grid. How much these companies pay, though, is the subject of some dispute. Rachel Myrow of member station KQED reports.

(Soundbite of wine being poured)

Unidentified woman: This is for you.

RACHEL MYROW: The 2007 sauvignon blanc on the house at Cade Wineries grand opening in Napa Valley. Sipping a glass, Green Building consultant Bill Worthen stands on the patio overlooking neat rows of grape vines and thinks big thoughts about the future.

Mr. BILL WORTHEN (Simon and Associates, Green Building Consultant): Green Building is a step in the right direction, and now, we need to move toward truly sustainable design or regenerative structures, and that's kind of the next step. And that's where net zero energy comes into play.

MYROW: Net zero means the building generates as much energy as it uses by design. And Cade is a case study, one of the first net zero wineries in the nation. Built entirely out of concrete, steel, and grass, Cade doesn't need any air conditioning, a notable feat in hot, sunny, Napa Valley, but even a winery built to minimize electricity usage has to use some juice.

(Soundbite of machinery)

MYROW: Which is why there are solar panels on the roof. This wouldn't be the biggest solar array in a Napa Winery, but Worthen says Cade's could've been bigger.

Mr. WORTHEN: So now, if you'll notice, the size of the array is only half the size of the roof. The roof was about as twice as big as what they needed to get their power bil run back to zero. And the way the current structure is set up for rate payers, PG&E will not give you a check back for power that you generate on your site.

MYROW: Can you, say, out of the goodness of your heart, give them the extra energy?

Mr. WORTHEN: Well, given the hundreds of thousands of dollars that it would cost to put in this extra solar array, I mean, I suppose you could. But what incentive would there be, even with - when somebody's heart is in the right place, to do such a thing.

MYROW: Actually, PG&E does pay, but it's a complicated business, and the utility doesn't pay enough to make it worth the bother, Worthen says. He wants the state to require utilities to pay more for the extra energy. That, he figures, would encourage more solar-powered utility customers to reduce their energy usage in order generate extra for the grid. It's not so simple, says the regulator in charge of solar for the State's Public Utilities Commission, Molly Sterkel.

Ms. MOLLY STERKEL (Supervisor for California Solar Initiative and Distributed Generation, California Public Utilities Commission): We already have three incentives for consumers, We have the upfront California Solar Initiative Incentive.

MYROW: First, the utility covers about a fifth of the cost of the installation - for some commercial projects, you're talking about several hundred thousand dollars.

Ms. STERKEL: We exempt consumers for interconnection charges or fees or studies.

MYROW: There's another few thousand dollars. Then, once everything is up and running, solar customers may never have to pay another power bill. When the sun is shining, and they feed energy into the grid, the utility credits their account at a generous rate. When the sun's not shining, they pull energy off the grid, and the credit offsets the cost. That's an awfully rich rate-payer-financed set of subsidies, says consumer advocate Mindy Spatt of the Utility Reform Network.

Ms. MINDY SPATT (Spokeswoman, Utility Reform Network): The subsidies under the Million Solar Roofs Program are largely going to some of the wealthiest zip codes in California. At the same time, working families in California are struggling to pay their electric bills.

MYROW: But solar advocates in California say premium rates for customers like Cade that have extra solar to sell would take the state's solar port folio from respectable to stellar. Germany began offering rich rates in 2000, and now, the cloudy European nation boasts more than half the world's solar power-generating capacity. More than three dozen nations have followed Germany's lead. The U.S. Congress and five other states are considering doing the same, all of which drives Spatt nuts.

Ms. SPATT: Don't compare us to Germany. Germany also actually has social programs that will protect people when they're unemployed. There's childcare. There's healthcare. So, maybe the consumers in Germany can afford to subsidize solar because, in fact, they're already getting all those services, but here, we're on our own. You know?

MYROW: Not all consumer advocates agree with Spatt. Some see the growth of solar in all its forms, big and small, public and private as a good thing for power grid stability. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Myrow in San Francisco.

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