Funding cloudy for San Francisco solar-rebate program

Funding for a popular San Francisco rebate program that has encouraged the installation of more than 1,200 solar projects may be cut from $5 million to $3 million.

The two-year-old GoSolarSF is funded by revenue generated by the city-owned dam at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. It has helped foster a local solar industry by providing rebates of $2,000 or more to residents and businesses going solar.

Projects installed with that funding have so far offset 4.3 megawatts of PG&E generating capacity from hydroelectric dams, natural-gas power plants and the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, as well as other sources.

But in its 2011-12 budget proposal, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has proposed that $2 million should be redirected toward improving Hetch Hetchy’s hydroelectric generators instead.

“This year, we had to cut over $200 million from Hetch Hetchy’s 10-year capital program,” agency spokesman Tyrone Jue wrote. “GoSolarSF does not generate any revenue.”

Local solar companies have thrived under GoSolarSF, and since it was designed as a 10-year workforce development program, contractors say the cuts are premature.

“I understand that tough decisions have to be made,” said co-owner Jeanine Cotter of the company Luminalt. “But it would be a real travesty to lose the opportunity to continue this really innovative program.”

Cotter’s company, which started in 2004, ballooned from five employees to 20 after the program started. And because 50 percent of all GoSolarSF installation hours must be performed by local employees, one-third of Cotter’s employees came from a local job-training program.

Mayoral candidate and Assessor Phil Ting recently started a petition urging Mayor Ed Lee to reject the budget proposal. So far, Ting has collected more than 700 signatures.

“We have a really successful program,” Ting said. “It’s oversubscribed and it’s creating jobs.”

But Jue said pitting solar incentives against upgrades to the very system that pays for the program “is like spending money on a fancy electric car with no infrastructure to plug into.”

SFPUC energy-efficiency programs, transmission-line upgrades and road improvements would also suffer under the proposed budget.

Noe Valley resident Rebecka Wright said she saved $9,750 of the $11,918 cost of outfitting her home with seven solar panels, and would not have done it without GoSolarSF. Some $2 million of the current budget is reserved for low-income residents such as her.

“I understand there’s definitely a juggling act, and I don’t envy anybody, but I do feel like any investment in solar is an investment in the future,” Wright said.

Looking less sunny

GoSolarSF by the numbers:

Solar systems installed with GoSolarSF: 1,278

Megawatts generated: 4.3

Last year’s budget: $5 million

Amount proposed next fiscal year: $3 million

Work hours that have to be local: 50 percent

Source: SFPUC

Bay Area NewsLocalPhil TingSan Francisco Public Utilities Commission

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