Solar and Civic Action in San Francisco

city hallThe solar energy community of San Francisco doesn’t take kindly to the expression “You can’t fight City Hall.” Concerned citizens, solar startup CEOs, venture capitalists, and solar maker reps alike all lined up to speak before the Rules Committee this morning in an effort to sway the Board of Supervisors to get behind Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Solar Energy (Rebate) Incentive Program.

The program proposes to distribute some $3 million in rebates and could pass as an ordinance through the board. And could help cut the cost of solar to the consumer by nearly 20 percent.

San Francisco is among a rising number of cities across the U.S. that, in the wake of federal inaction, are taking renewable energy initiatives into their own hands. But while cities like neighboring Berkeley push innovative solar financing plans to help low-income citizens go solar, San Francisco, which recently became the first city in the country to ban plastic bags, is having difficulty getting traction for more municipal solar projects.

Sensing a fight ahead, solar startups and solar veterans showed up at City Hall today to take their turn at the dais. Akeena Solar, Sun Run, Sungevity, ProSolar, SunPower and Chinese solar giant Suntech Power were all on hand to make their case before the committee.

Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena, said that the proposed rebate program would help leverage a huge amount of private funds to help the city install more solar capacity. There are currently a little over 650 solar roofs in the city and Cinnamon estimates that meeting the city’s goal — of 10,000 solar roofs by 2010 — would create 1,800 jobs as well as allow the city to collect an extra $2,240 in property taxes per solar home.

solar map

All of the speakers highlighted the solar industry’s need for regulatory certainty — especially as the Federal Production Tax Credit languishes — instead of an incentive system that would change with the whim of each administration. Many of the solar installers stressed that these incentives would not run into perpetuity because solar will reach grid parity. The Suntech representative assured the committee that the Chinese manufacturer, which has its U.S. headquarters in San Francisco, was on track to offer $4 per watt solar by 2012.

“This is a long road and bumpy road,” Supervisor Tom Ammiano said once the lengthy and peopled public comment session closed, though in reference to the strong public presence at the discussion added that “the more sunshine on solar the better.”

After the agenda point was closed, the solar contingent, which took up most of the room, convened in a nearby office to discuss the next step. The Rules Committee will forward the ordinance to the Board of Supervisors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will get scheduled for discussion. No, it’s still up to the startups and citizens. So for those of you who thought your civic responsibilities ended on Super Tuesday, think again. If you want to see a sunnier energy system in San Francisco, you contact your supervisor.

Map courtesy of the San Francisco Solar Map.

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