Why California Should Be a Model for Solar Nationwide

Contributor: Swinerton Blogger   |   March 18, 2015
Why California Should Be a Model for Solar Nationwide

The Solar Foundation’s 2014 National Solar Jobs Report indicates that 1,672 solar businesses and approximately 900,000 homes are powered by solar energy in California.

This phenomenal growth has kept the state at the top of the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Top Solar States list since its inception—and not even the closest competitors can catch up.

Here’s what California has done to make itself number 1, and why its example should be followed by every other state
in the country.

Aggressive Policy
California’s solar boom started in 2002 when its legislature passed its first renewable portfolio standard (RPS). It brought utilities and solar advocates together because it required utilities to produce 20% of their energy from renewable sources—including solar by 2017. In other words, they had no choice but to figure out how to integrate solar into their business models.

Instead of being satisfied after the utilities crushed the goal five years early, the legislature raised the RPS to 33%. As this goal quickly nears completion, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a new RPS of 50%.

But the progressive policy structure didn’t stop there. In 2009, the legislature created a net-metering (NEM) program that requires utilities to pay homeowners for excess energy. When the program came under heavy attack in 2013, legislators not only renewed the NEM legislation, but protected the program for the foreseeable future.

Despite the battles many utilities are waging over NEM and RPS, the solar industry should fight tooth-and-nail to keep their own programs in place. Over time, the two policy prescriptions have proven to be the most effective way to grow the solar industry. They are worth defending.

Utility/Regulator Cooperation
Even the best policy and regulations mean nothing without appropriate enforcement. Members of the California Public Utilities Commission understand solar, thanks to aggressive education over the years by the state’s solar industry. As a result, they have a natural inclination to support the industry.

The safeguards in place include:

- Utilities must submit quarterly reports to the commission about their contributions to meeting the RPS goals. They can’t get away with vague platitudes because the commission requires specifics. Utilities should shy away from exaggerations, as the commission can levy heavy fines on those that don’t hit their numbers.

- What makes California unusual is that utilities work closely with the commission to ensure the goals are met. In fact, California utilities support solar expansion like no other utilities in the country. Their foresight has allowed solar to become part of their profitable portfolio instead of fighting expensive battles trying to prevent it from flourishing.

For other states, this is probably the trickiest obstacle to overcome. Many utilities in other areas see solar as a threat instead of an opportunity. It is up to solar companies in those states to educate, educate, and educate the public utility commissions further—believe us, it’s worth it.

Excellent Contractors
Last, and certainly not least, California has the best-trained solar installers in the country. The Department of Consumer Affairs Contractors State Licensing Board requires installers to pass a rigorous exam which includes six sections: planning and estimating, solar collector installation, solar thermal installation, photovoltaic (PV) system installation, service and maintenance, and safety.

Like the bar exam for lawyers or state medical boards for doctors, installers can’t bring any reference guides. Therefore, not everyone is willing to invest the commitment to installing solar and learn all they need to become licensed.

In many states, there are no requirements for people who want to hang out a shingle and call themselves solar installers. Other state industries must get on board and push for some barriers to entry, otherwise, there will be so many bad apples that it could ruin solar’s reputation—and damage the industry for everyone.