Free solar power?

Pub date June 25, 2008
WriterSarah Phelan
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY San Francisco’s new solar incentive program just might make the conversion to green power almost free to city residents when combined with other state and federal programs, some of which expire at the end of this year.

This is an unlikely city for such a dynamic, as we reported a couple months ago (see "Dark days," 04/16/08), given our small lot sizes, high costs, and the fact that we have about twice as many renters as homeowners. The solar program also hit some political snags.

Promoted since December 2007 by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Assessor/Recorder Phil Ting, the Solar Energy Incentive program has been struggling to get Board of Supervisors approval since January when Sups. Chris Daly, Jake McGoldrick, Ross Mirkarimi, and Aaron Peskin objected to the use of public money to fund the program, which will subsidize solar installations on private homes and businesses.

These San Francisco Public Utilities Commission funds were intended to expand publicly owned power projects such as solar panel installation on city property. But as the SFPUC’s Barbara Hale explained to the Guardian, new laws prevent cities from qualifying for state rebates if they convert municipally owned buildings to solar, making those conversions a comparatively losing financial equation.

So on June 10, the board approved Newsom’s program in an 8-3 vote, with Mirkarimi lending his support after he secured funding for a complementary $1.5 million, one-year solar pilot program targeted at nonprofits and low-income families. The San Francisco Solar Energy Incentive program will provide $3 million in solar rebates annually for 10 years.

As Mirkarimi aide Rick Galbreath told the Guardian, "Nonprofits can’t always move as fast as the private sector, and solar advocates, who have been pushing other programs since December, have already got things in the pipeline."

Some of those other programs combine with the new city one in interesting ways. "What if solar were free? Then everyone would install it, right?" was the question posed by Tom Price, whom we profiled in January (see "Solar man," 01/02/08) for founding Black Rock Solar, which does large public interest solar projects using volunteer labor.

Now Price thinks the free solar power that he’s been able to leverage for schools and hospitals just might be available to the average San Franciscan. "This program inadvertently could make solar in San Francisco the cheapest it’s ever been," Price told us. "At least for a short window of time."

Under the city’s program, solar rebates begin at $3,000 for homeowners — and rise in $1,000 increments to a maximum of $6,000 if residents use local installers, hire city-trained workers, and live in city-designated environmental justice districts. For private businesses, the rebate cap is set at $10,000. But that amount can rise if combined with the state and federal incentives that expire at the end of the year.

"I’m one of three tenants. Each of us has an electrical meter, each of us is eligible for a $5,000 rebate under the city’s program," said Price, who rents on Potrero Hill and hopes to pull off an almost no-cost conversion with his landlord.

Price estimates the solar conversation will cost about $15,000 per tenant. So, if two conversions are done (there’s only space for two conversions on most of the city’s Edwardian and Victorian homes), Price’s landlord can subtract two $5,000 cash rebates, plus the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.–administered California solar incentive, plus a $2,000 federal tax credit.

Price said landlords can also take advantage of a 30 percent investment tax credit on top of a 60 percent tax deduction that Dave Llorens of Next Energy found buried deep within the economic stimulus package signed by President George W. Bush earlier this year. Landlords can then arrange to sell cheap, renewable power to their tenants.

"What if I sign an agreement with my landlord to pay $50 per month for the right to have access to his solar system?" Price said. "So now the money that would have been going to PG&E goes to the landlord."

And it’s clean, free power, rather than PG&E’s expensive power generated largely from nuclear and fossil fuel sources.

"This makes San Francisco the first place a tenant and a landlord can really work together to make solar power affordable," Price said. "And that in turn will help drive adoption of renewable energy."