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California’s Solar Scorecard

April 22, 2010

By Chip Jacobs

Californians: meet your sun. Or, rather, remember it.

Despite living in America’s premier green state, most of the state’s homeowners continue to rebuff solar power as a way to shrink their electricity bills, and simply plug into their local public utility much as their parents did.

The numbers paint the apathetic picture. Out of 7.7-million single family homes statewide, only about 50,000 have roof-mounted photovoltaic cells. In Los Angeles, the nation’s eighth sunniest city, only 1,627 homes boast solar hookups.

Just as distressing as that skimpy adoption rate, not one recognizable leader — not L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, not Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — has done enough from the bully pulpit recently to highlight home-based solar.

The presumption seems to be that when the Wal-Marts of the world and the utilities themselves better harness renewable sources (think massive solar installations and wind farms), everybody will have.

Besides, we’re lobbing money at the problem. The state plans to spend $3.3 billion, including $2.2 billion under the ratepayer-funded California Solar Initiative, to add 3,000 megawatts of sun-generated power by 2016.

To date, about 256 megawatts have come on line — a real achievement considering that during the 1980s and 1990s, only nine megawatts were added here in America’s solar capital.

Trouble is, corporations and institutions will scarf up most of that new capacity, when record state and federal subsidies can almost halve consumers’ equipment costs. Why? First, the outreach has been spotty. Second, even with those sweeteners, a typical home solar setup can run $24,000, and most people don’t have that disposable cash to lower their long-term electricity expenses after the Great Recession.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Californians remember the electricity brownouts of the early 2000s. They know slowing climate change will mean new taxes, as it already has in L.A., and that new power plants are unlikely. A recent state law requiring utilities to pay homeowners for excess solar power they generate might have helped, but critics believe it’s too stingy — and utility-oriented — to ignite consumer excitement.

So it’s more hypocrisy in the Golden State, where we promote eco-living with low-carbon restaurants and carpool lanes and yet fail to inspire millions to tap that gargantuan generator in the sky.

Note: this Op-Ed was part of a New York Times “Room For Debate” online roundtable. To see the entire set of opinions and comments, click here.