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Pacific Environment: Rooftop Solar Is the Answer

A new report by the respected Oakland-based environmental group calls for a dramatic increase in rooftop solar installations by 2020.

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If the Bay Area is going to substantially reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and help the state meet its climate-change goals, then lots of homeowners and businesses are going to need to go solar in the next eight years. That's one of the primary conclusions of a new exhaustive report — Bay Area Smart Energy 2020 — from the respected Oakland-based environmental group Pacific Environment.

Energy efficiency, wind power, geothermal energy, community choice aggregation, and energy storage are all important weapons in the battle against global warming, but none may be more pivotal than rooftop solar. Pacific Environment's report, which also serves as a call to action, envisions "the conversion of 25 percent of existing homes and commercial buildings to zero net energy buildings by 2020," and that rooftop solar will play a leading role in that transformation. The report calls for nearly 4,000 megawatts of solar power to be locally installed by the end of this decade. When including a suite of other clean-energy initiatives, the report concludes that the Bay Area should be able to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the electricity sector by 60 percent.

The report has already won plaudits from progressives, green-energy companies, and Bay Area construction unions. "Bay Area Smart Energy 2020 is an ambitious but practical plan for growing the new energy economy and giving people and communities more tools to meet their electricity needs locally," Berkeley Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner said in a statement.

The report, also known as BASE 2020, favors rooftop solar and solar panels erected on vacant parking lots over large solar farms in rural areas. "Rooftop solar is more cost-effective ... and there's no environmental controversies," explained Rory Cox, senior energy consultant for Pacific Environment.

Some environmentalists oppose large solar and wind farms in rural areas because they harm wildlife. They also cost more because they usually require expensive new transmission lines. The report estimates that the costs for building these lines could exceed $15 billion statewide if investor-owned utilities go forward with their plans. However, these expenses are typically not accounted for when tabulating the cost-efficiency of remote solar and wind farms. According to the report, a massive solar array in the Mojave Desert, including the costs of constructing the transmission lines, "costs as much as 50 percent greater than the cost of electricity produced by a 500 kilowatt [solar] array on a big box retail outlet or similar large commercial building in Oakland."

But if the Bay Area is going to turn urban and suburban rooftops and vacant lots into a sea of solar power, then it's going to require substantial public policy changes. For example, the amount of power that PG&E will accept from locally installed solar must be increased significantly. The legislature and the governor also need to provide more financial incentives for property owners.

The report suggests widespread adoption of financing programs similar to what the City of Berkeley experimented with a few years ago: the installation of rooftop solar in which there are no upfront costs and repayment is made through property tax bills. However, such a program will require lower repayment interest rates to be cost-competitive. In fact, current solar-leasing programs offered by local private solar companies, such as Oakland's Sungevity, are proving to be much more popular. They also require no upfront costs, and the monthly lease payments are offset by savings on homeowner utility bills.

But rooftop solar isn't the only answer. The other major conclusion of the report is that the Bay Area must dramatically improve energy efficiency. One of the best ways to do that is to replace old, energy-wasting air-conditioning units. The California Public Utilities Commission estimates that air conditioning is responsible for 30 percent of the total energy load statewide on hot summer days. As a result, the report calls for substantial price incentives to help property owners install "state-of-the-art" air-conditioning units, because they use far less energy than ones that only meet the federal minimum standard for efficiency.

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