Solar energy use throughout the state and the nation is expanding rapidly — and it’s not just liberal strongholds embracing the transition away from fossil fuels.
While Los Angeles produces the most total solar power nationwide, Bakersfield and Fresno generate more on a per person basis — and all three outproduce San Francisco, according to the new “Shining Cities 2020” study by Environment California.
“You’ll find the Central Valley comes in very strong in the number of people going solar as well as (in) the size of the systems,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the trade group California Solar & Storage Association. “This is because a lot of farmers go solar and they tend to build big systems.”
Also scoring high is Riverside, which produces the ninth most solar juice per person of the cities surveyed nationwide.
But even as it offers a report card on rankings, the “Shining Cities” study also outlines dramatic gains in solar use and makes a call for more public policies to promote solar use, including batteries to store solar energy so it’s available when the sun isn’t shining.
Key California landmarks have included the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, a goal signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 and attained last year, and a mandate that all new homes in the state have solar panels beginning this year. The state’s target is 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, with natural-gas power plants already being phased out.
Climate change and pollution are key drivers behind the push, but economics help too. Solar energy is now cheaper than that produced by fossil fuels — at least once the equipment and infrastructure is in place, according to David Hochschild, chairman of the California Energy Commission. Citing Bloomberg data, Hochschild said solar cost has fallen from 50 cents a kilowatt hour in 2000 to 2 cents a kilowatt hour today.
In California, solar energy went from 4% of state’s electricity grid in 2014 to 11% in 2018, according to the most recent data available. And that near-tripling doesn’t include “behind-the-meter” energy from rooftop solar panels directly used by homes, schools and businesses.
California’s hardly alone. Of the 57 cities annually surveyed nationwide since 2013 by Environment California, nearly 90% have more than doubled their solar capacity over that seven-year period, and 45% have more than quadrupled it.
By far the biggest user of solar, on a per-resident basis, is Honolulu.
“First, it’s an island, so climate change is a bigger issue,” said Dan Jacobson, state director of Environment California. “No. 2, energy is a lot more expensive. And, No. 3, you have companies seeing they can make money from it.”
Second in the national rankings is San Diego, followed by Albuquerque, San Jose and Burlington. Also represented in the top 15 are San Antonio, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis and New Orleans.
If you want to know how your city is doing, you may need to look beyond the “Shining Cities” study.
That report looked at just nine of California’s largest cities, one for each of nine geographical areas. But a statewide ranking of more than 1,100 cities and unincorporated areas has been compiled by the California Solar & Storage Association.
The association’s list differs from “Shining Cities” in two key ways. “Shining Cities” includes solar energy produced directly by utilities as well as behind-the-meter solar panels on homes, schools and businesses. The association’s list only includes behind-the-meter solar electricity used directly by the owner of the panels, and it ranks cities according to how many roofs have solar.
San Diego, Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Fresno are at the top of the list with the most solar rooftops.
In Los Angeles County, top cities also include Lancaster (ranked 15th), Brentwood (26th), Long Beach (28th) and Palmdale.
In Riverside County, Corona tops the list at No. 12, followed by Murrieta (14th), Temecula (18th), Riverside (34th) and Lake Elsinore (35th).
In San Bernardino County, Fontana is at the top at No. 16, followed by San Bernardino (36th), Victorville (54th), Apple Valley (57th) and Rancho Cucamonga (68th).
In Orange County, Irvine leads off at No. 26, followed by Santa Ana (62nd), Huntington Beach (70th), Mission Viejo (76th) and Orange (78th).
In a state often seen as unfriendly to business, regulations are generally favorable for solar, according to experts. But cities can vary in how welcoming they — and their utility companies — are to rooftop installations.
“In cities like San Diego, the permitting is very easy,” Jacobson said. “In other cities, there are horror stories about homeowners waiting for months.”
Push for batteries
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the solar industry in California employed 74,000 people — more than the five biggest utilities combined, according to Del Chiaro. But like many industries, solar recently has taken a big hit: a 21% loss of jobs in March and April.
So Del Chiaro has added job recovery as a component in her pitch to encourage more solar generation and solar batteries. That’s on top of consumer saving, energy resiliency and clean air.
One solar initiative her trade group is pushing for is a coronavirus-safe, “no touch” permitting process that would allow homeowners and businesses to apply online and allow virtual inspection tours to be conducted via live phone video once the units are installed. The group also wants to make it easier to connect solar power with electrical utilities for putting energy into the electrical grid, and it wants protections against taxes targeting solar energy.
Additionally, Jacobson, Del Chiaro and other solar advocates are pushing for an initiative that would result in a million solar batteries, a development that would help minimize the need to use natural gas when the sun isn’t shining. Specific measures Del Chiaro’s group wants to see include expanding the federal tax credit, state help in installing storage at 2,000 schools, and a consumer-rebate program similar to that which helped jump start solar panel usage.
“We’ve got a good product,” Del Chiaro said. “The lithium ion batteries have gotten a lot better because of the electric car market and the innovation happening there. We just need to ramp up production and, to do that, we need demand.”