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Future of the California Solar Initiative

Report outlines framework for solar policies after CSI program concludes    

With the winding down of rebates from the California Solar Initiative (CSI) for residential solar power occurring almost four years ahead of schedule, officials and regulators statewide are wrestling with how to continue support for consumer-scale solar and the California solar industry.

Citing the need for specific elements of the CSI program to continue well after incentive funding ends, CCSE has published a white paper on the near-term future of small-scale solar generation in the state.

“While the support provided to the solar industry by the CSI program’s monetary incentives are clear, the program’s indirect, nonincentive benefits have been equally important to the success of California’s distributed generation solar market,” said Sachu Constantine, CCSE policy director.

The report, Distributed Generation Solar in California: Framework for Policy and Regulatory Oversight in the Post-California Solar Initiative Era, is available online.

CCSE administers the CSI program for the California Public Utilities Commission in the San Diego Gas & Electric service territory, the only nonutility organization in the state to do so. CCSE began awarding CSI rebates for both residential and commercial solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in 2007 in what was to be a ten-year program of declining incentives as solar installations increased.

Solar PV Proves Popular

Solar has become so popular in the San Diego region that CCSE ran out of funding for residential PV systems in early 2013, however, rebates for commercial installations remain available although at rates 20% less than when the program began.

So far, the CSI program in San Diego has awarded more than $48 million in residential rebates and $108 million in nonresidential rebates for more than 127 megawatts of total solar generation capacity. Statewide, CSI has incentivized more than 1,544 megawatts of solar with about 200 megawatts remaining to reach the program’s goal to install 1,750 megawatts.

“Even with this tremendous success, a large potential market for residential and small commercial solar will continue to exist long after the program’s monetary incentives are exhausted,” Constantine said. “Of California’s 7.8 million single-family homes, only 2% have solar electric systems.”

Residential Rebates Nearing End

Without further funding, the residential portion of the CSI is finished in San Diego as well as in the Pacific Gas & Electric service territory in central and northern California. The state’s largest utility provider, Southern California Edison, has funding to continue residential rebates.

Constantine said CCSE’s white paper focuses on the nonincentive benefits of the CSI program that have been crucial to its success, including consumer protection, the availability of information and data, streamlined permitting and grid connection and low-income access to solar. These issues are equally important to the future sustainability of solar in California, he said, because solar providers work across utility and municipal boundaries and because consumers need access to transparent and consistent data and information.

“Without a strong statewide effort, disconnected and inconsistent processes and efforts will almost certainly result in a degraded market for residential and small-scale commercial solar and will therefore undermine California achieving its ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction goals,” said CCSE Executive Director Len Hering, RADM, USN (ret).

Main Points from the Paper

Consumer Protection
CCSE suggests that as the CSI program ends, consideration should be given to continuing its Go Solar California! brand and website. A joint endeavor of the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, the website provides consumers with a wide range of information on solar equipment, installation and costs as well as how to find a qualified solar contractor.

Information and Data
The CSI program currently collects data on the installation and performance of solar systems throughout the state that is critical to policymakers, regulators, industry officials and other stakeholders in making decisions related to solar power generation. This information is provided through the California Solar Statistics website and needs to be continued to provide transparency in the solar marketplace as well as a means of measuring and verifying various aspects of solar system load and impacts on the state’s utility grid.

Streamlined permitting and grid connection
While the CSI program has improved municipal processes for permitting solar installations and for interconnecting systems to the utility grid, considerable work remains to assure consistent processes across districts and service territories with coordination at the statewide level. Overly complex, confusing, expensive and inconsistent permitting processes can sour customers and installers alike, inhibiting greater adoption of solar technologies.

Expanded Access
The CSI program’s Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) and Single-family Affordable Solar Housing (SASH) programs have provided access to the solar PV market directly to low- and moderate-income families for whom the primary barrier to adoption is high up-front costs and lack of access to capital. Currently, Assembly Bill (AB) 217 proposes a continuation of those programs post-CSI, and CCSE generally support this approach.

Moving Forward
The CCSE report concludes that a robust, centrally administered statewide program to facilitate distributed generation solar installations is the most efficient way to deliver services to customers and the solar industry after the CSI program ends.