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L.A.'s solar subsidies: Should the City Council come to the rescue?

November 14, 2010 |  4:21 pm

West LA solar
Los Angeles homeowners and businesses have applied for $70 million in rebates from the city utility this year to build rooftop solar panels. That should be good news for green jobs and for the small businesses that have grown up to install solar panels in one of the nation's sunniest cities.

And it should be good news for the planet, because the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the nation's largest municipal utility, imports a sizeable chunk of its electricity from coal-fired power plants outside the state -- energy that distributed solar generation could partly replace.

Coal is the dirtiest energy source in terms of health-damaging soot chemicals, and also contributes massive amounts of carbon dioxide (C02), which traps heat in the atmosphere and has begun to change Earth's climate.

But the DWP only budgeted $30 million for rooftop solar this year and is now threatening to slash the subsidy to businesses and residents. The move has sparked an uproar from solar installers, along with residents and businesses who hope to lower their electricity bills with photovoltaic panels.

Earlier this month, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's appointees on the DWP commission voted to scale back the size of the solar rebate offered by the utility on the grounds that the program was running out of money. But on Friday, the City Council voted to review the plan over the next three weeks.

John Dennis, a senior DWP power system manager, said other utilities, both public and private, face the same problem and have made moves to slow down or suspend their rebate programs. "We still offer the best, or one of the best, incentive programs here in the state of California, even with these proposed reductions," he told the council.

Councilman Paul Koretz agreed that the DWP's solar program, which currently has 1,500 applications, has been a "victim of its own success." But he said he had received dozens of calls from residents, business owners and environmentalists who warned that the reductions, which would take effect Jan. 1, are too much too soon.

"From everything we've been hearing from the environmental community, this would pretty much gut the program," said Koretz, who represents a district that takes in much of the west side of L.A.

Two installers, Ken Button, president of Verengo Solar Plus, and Ethan Sprague, director of government affairs for Sunrun Inc. said that the DWP proposal would cut rebates for homeowners by 32%, making residential solar much less affordable. "In some circumstances, such as the popular lease option, down payments will balloon by 400%," they wrote in a letter to The Times. "Residential solar was just starting to heat up in LADWP, power is expensive enough already, and green jobs are critical to the local economy."  

The proposal to cut subsidies for rooftop solar comes at a time when the utility is planning large-scale renewable energy plants, transporting electricity on transmission lines from outside the city. Activists have protested against "Big Solar," saying that industrial power plants are ultimately more expensive than rooftop panels, as well as disruptive to endangered wildlife such as desert tortoises. However, planners say that centralized large-scale solar, rather than distributed rooftop units, make the electricity distribution easier to manage.

-- Margot Roosevelt, with David Zahniser at City Hall

RELATED: LADWP to reduce solar incentives in 2011

                San Bernardino Solar Installation Approved

                Brightsource's Ivanpah solar plant breaks ground

Photo: Daniel Morabito, left, and Sal Sanchez of SolarCity install solar panels last fall at a home in West Los Angeles. Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times

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