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Solar energy surges in California

July 15, 2009 |  7:43 pm

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It is far from the "Million Solar Roofs" that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger touted, but the number of rooftop solar installations in California has grown from an estimated 500 a decade ago to nearly 50,000 today. And in the last three years, the Golden State's solar market has more than doubled.

With city politicians fiercely competing for eco-boasting rights, a new report from the advocacy group Environment California unveils which state municipalities are making the most progress in solar installation. San Diego, with 2,262 solar roofs, beats out Los Angeles and San Francisco, both of which claim to be the greenest city in America. But when it comes to per capita installations, little old Nevada City tops the list, with nearly 1 in every 5 households hosting a solar system. City of Industry, outside L.A., has the most capacity per capita, with 1.5 kilowatts installed per person.

The bad news: Solar power still accounts for less than 1% of energy nationwide. And even in solar-friendly California, it is hampered by the lack of a robust feed-in tariff, such as the one in Germany, which would allow homeowners who install extra capacity to sell their electricity back to utilities at a favorable rate. A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), AB 920, to do just that is fiercely opposed by utilities and has so far failed to garner enough support for passage -- not to mention backing by the green governator.

The Vote Solar Initiative, a San Francisco group, has been lobbying for a bill to lift a cap on the funds available for consumers to offset their electricity bills with their own power -- a program known as net metering, which allows solar-rooftop customers to zero out their bills. The legislation has passed the Assembly and is awaiting action in the state Senate.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Workers install solar tiles on a conventional roof in Los Altos, Calif.

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