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Talking green but working against it

PG&E opposed a bill the governor recently signed into law that could make home solar power more affordable

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SUN MONEY :  Owners of home solar power plants can now sell surplus electricity to the power company. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SUN MONEY : Owners of home solar power plants can now sell surplus electricity to the power company.
Ever since she saw the House of the Future at Disneyland when she was a little girl, Nancy Van Tassel wanted a home that would be self-sustaining. This year, she finally had a solar system installed atop her house high in the hills above Atascadero. She was ready to enjoy guilt-free air conditioning and planned to replace her gas heater, washer, and dryer with electric versions so her house could be energy self-sufficient. She looked forward to never having to deal with a utility company again.

 

Her dream faded as the installation began. Van Tassel wanted to build a system big enough to also power an electric pool heater she planned to buy next year, but her utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, didn’t like the scope of her ambition. State regulations dictate home solar plants should be only large enough to produce the amount of energy the house consumed during the past year. PG&E sent letters to Van Tassel’s installer, Absolute Solar, questioning why her system was so large and only backed off after learning about her plan to heat the pool.

 

She had another shock when she realized who would benefit from any surplus electricity her system would generate: PG&E. 

 

“That’s when I knew something was deeply wrong with the way solar power works in this state,” Van Tassel said.

 

Van Tassel had discovered a little-known fact of solar power: the utility company takes any surplus home systems generate and doesn’t pay a dime for it. At the end of the year, PG&E will give her a credit to make up for the times when she cannot use her system, but no more than that.

 

Solar-power advocates say this is a disincentive for people interested in clean energy. Germany, whose weather is far less conducive to solar power than sunny California’s, mandates that users of home solar power systems profit from any excess power their equipment generates. Now, a bill recently signed by Governor Schwarzenegger establishes a similar sales relationship between utility companies and solar-system owners here.

 

Assembly bill 920—the California Solar Surplus Act of 2009—requires utility companies to pay for power homeowners put into the utilities’ electrical grids.

 

Each home solar system in California has a meter that monitors how much power is given to and taken from the electrical grid. The meter records when a house takes power from the grid (when it’s cloudy or dark and the solar cells can’t produce power), and when the solar array puts electricity into the grid.

 

 

The new law can only help spur more interest in solar panels, according to Greg Quirk of Absolute Solar, the company that installed Van Tassel’s solar array. “When we design a system we have to match it exactly to what the house is supposed to need,” said Quirk.  “I just think the power company doesn’t want to compete with small providers.”

 

PG&E is the only utility company that opposed the bill, claiming it would raise costs for non-solar utility consumers. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric declared themselves neutral. According to information provided by PG&E to the California Public Utilities Commission, 8 percent of the utility’s solar-powered homes are “net surplus electricity” producers.   

 

Some of those owners had asked the California legislature to change the law to allow home producers to benefit from the excess power they make, said Lawrence Cooper, legislative director for State Assembly Member Jared Huffman, who sponsored the bill and represents Marin County.

 

“The present system is unfair,” Cooper said, just before the governor signed the bill into law. He also said the legislation would create an incentive to conserve energy rather than use it to avoid giving the power back to the utilities.

 

The system had created a “significant barrier” to the expansion of solar power in California, contended Bernadette Del Chiaro, a clean-energy advocate for Environment California, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for environmental legislation.

 

“A lot of people can’t stomach giving away their power to the utilities,” said Del Chiaro. “It still costs a lot of money to put in solar. This bill [now law] will make the burden easier on the consumer.”

 

Despite what she saw as a fundamentally unfair market arrangement with PG&E, Van Tassel had no regrets about buying the solar system for her house, which was quite expensive. She spent $49,000 for it, though the state will give her a $9,000 rebate and the federal government offers around $11,000 in tax rebates, but thinks it was worth every penny.

 

“Imagine what this place would be like if all of us produced our own power,” said Van Tassel. “No more coal producing plants, no more nuclear. It would change the world.”

 

She is still surprised PG&E doesn’t ease up on solar users in California.

 

“They talk about going green and having sustainable energy,” said Van Tassel. “They need to walk the walk, you know. They need to get rid of the old ways and get with the program or they will be left behind.”

 

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com

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