I N · T H I S · I S S U E
Net Energy Providers
The California Solar Initiative (CSI) is my state’s path to a solar future. Progressive and exciting, it is a $3.2 billion solar program championed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and supported by ratepayer funds. Some say it is booming; others claim that it’s falling short of the mark. Incentives are falling faster than product prices; it’s not clear how the market is holding up. Participants continue to be confused about the CSI “solar deal,” in many cases having to gamble on utility escalation rates.
Another limitation of the CSI is that it limits production at any given site. California’s net metering law limits the size of a homeowner’s solar system to the usage of a specific, on-site electric meter. While the notion of “running the meter backwards” is appealing, the best our digital meters can do is “zero out” the bill. CSI participants, regardless of their roof size, land available, or desire and capital to make solar investments, cannot produce more than they use on an annual basis.
Why apply the brakes? Why not allow for “net providers,” those that produce more than they use on site? Less than a single percent of California homes have solar. Of the rest, not everyone has solar access. What can they do? What about apartment owners that lack designated roof space? The CSI misses the opportunity to help everyone go solar, which in turn limits the role of distributed solar generation in meeting local, state, and regional climate protection commitments.
EcoMotion spent a week in Germany exploring its “feed-in tariff” for solar systems, an incentive model that works well: It is simple, clearly profitable for participants, and there is no limit of power that a participant can feed into the grid. Solar developers – from homeowners to farmers -- are encouraged to produce as much as they can. Solar system sizes are not bridled, and many systems do indeed “run the meter backwards.” Last year, Germany installed eight times the capacity of the entire United States.
German homes that generate more power than they use are known as “Energy Plus+” homes. In these cases, the solar system can help pay the mortgage. EcoMotion visited a major consumer electronics store in Freiburg whose new roof is being paid for by its 140 kW photovoltaic system. Farmers are augmenting their farm income by putting land in clean energy generation. It’s good for the owner, and it’s good for society. We need net providers to account for those of us that cannot go solar. And the German rate impact – for those that care -- is about a fifth of a percentage point.