IMAGE: SOLAR PANELS ON HARDWARE STORE
Paul Sakuma  /  AP file
California buildings with solar power include Palo Alto Hardware in Palo Alto. Store manager Eric Hassett took in the sun as well in this file photo.
updated 12/14/2005 10:04:43 AM ET 2005-12-14T15:04:43

State energy regulators on Tuesday unveiled what would be the nation’s most ambitious program to expand solar power, proposing to offer more than $3 billion in consumer rebates over the next decade.

Environmentalists said the California Solar Initiative would help reduce the cost of solar energy, create jobs and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

“With rising energy prices and continued air pollution, this is exactly the kind of landmark initiative California needs,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean energy advocate for Environment California. “From this, we’re going to see cleaner air, affordable solar energy and California regaining its world leadership in solar power.”

The plan aims to install panels to produce 3,000 megawatts of solar energy on 1 million homes, businesses and public buildings over 11 years. The five-member Public Utilities Commission was expected to vote on it next month after a 30-day public comment period.

The proposal revives an essential component of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bid to expand use of renewable energy in California. The governor’s widely publicized “Million Solar Roofs” initiative had bipartisan support, but it died in the Legislature this year after construction unions demanded high wages for solar panel installers.

The governor bypassed the Legislature by asking the commission to sponsor the initiative, which shares many provisions of the solar roofs program.

The initiative would offer rebates to homes, businesses, farms, schools and other public buildings that install rooftop solar panels. Large public utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric Co. would not be eligible for the program.

The solar industry was ecstatic. “A long-term program with secure funding is key to bringing down solar costs and planning responsibly for California’s energy future,” Barry Cinnamon, president of the California Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a statement. “From an industry perspective, this program will eliminate the stop-start incentive cycle, and create market conditions that allow solar companies to make new long-term investments that will bring solar to the public.”

The utilities commission currently offers $400 million in solar rebates through programs funded by a surcharge on consumer utility bills. The new initiative would expand that amount to $3.2 billion using an additional surcharge over 11 years starting in 2006.

In the 1970s, California was the global leader in solar energy, but the state has been overtaken by Japan and Germany, the world’s two largest solar markets. Currently, about 15,000 California homes and businesses have solar panels, Del Chiaro said.

“Given the amount of sunshine we have in California and these investments, we will be on pace to catch up with Germany and Japan and hopefully outpace them,” she said.

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