States offer incentives to expand solar power
With worldwide energy costs spiraling higher, solar power continues to gain momentum in states with robust incentive plans. In January, California set the bar for other states when its Public Utilities Commission approved $3.2 billion in rebates for solar installations in homes, businesses and public buildings through 2017. Officials aim to develop 3,000 megawatts of solar capacity — equivalent to six large power plants.
That level of commitment to solar power did not occur overnight. As early as the mid-1990s, California’s state government supported the use of solar power, and by 2001 it passed a law establishing loans to small business owners for solar energy systems and required government facilities to include solar energy equipment. A succession of city and county building projects followed. By August 2005, Alameda County installed eight photovoltaic systems generating more than 2.3 megawatts, making it the largest solar-powered county in the nation.
New Jersey also boasts a supportive environment and is aggressively installing solar power generating systems in its public schools. And with more than 50 installations on major public buildings — schools, police stations and government offices — Chicago claims to be head and shoulders above other urban centers outside of California in solar capacity, according to Sadhu Johnston, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment.
Connecticut combines surcharges and incentives to advance its alternative energy program. The state adds 40 cents to 50 cents per month on residential utility bills and funnels it to its Clean Energy Fund. Commercial users also are charged proportionately. Some of the funds pay for photovoltaic systems for communities through the state’s Clean Energy Communities Program. However, if at least 100 customers of any of the utilities participating in the program sign up for the state’s clean energy program, the utility’s city or county must commit to the state’s “20 percent [renewable power] by 2010” campaign and must invest in additional clean energy development with the savings from using the photovoltaic systems.
The program was announced last summer, and so far, 17 of the state’s 164 eligible towns have signed up, says Bryan Garcia, director of the energy marketing initiative of the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund. The state also offers an incentive to residents by directly paying photovoltaic systems installers up to $25,000 per household.
As an additional incentive for residents to jump on the renewable energy bandwagon, solar users in at least 35 states can set their meters to run backwards when they generate electricity, or bank the energy and use it later. Homeowners also can install a second meter to measure the excess electricity that flows back to the utilities, which will buy it.
Despite the progress in solar energy development and federal tax code changes for 2006 and 2007 that include credits for 30 percent of the cost of equipment, solar energy’s initial costs remain a barrier to entry. “Whatever growth there is in solar, it’s almost always done at the state level,” says Jeremy Jones, a solar systems sales representative for Bedford, Mass.-based Spire. “All of the states that have strong growth in solar, have strong statewide initiatives.”
Susan DeGrane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.