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Clean Energy For All: California Advances Pioneering Shared Renewables Bill

California is already leading the nation in the transition to a clean economy and now the state’s legislators are looking to further cement that status.

Last week, the California Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee overwhelmingly approved SB 43, a groundbreaking new program that would give millions of Californians who currently don’t have access to renewable energy the opportunity to use 100% clean energy for the first time. The measure moves on to the Appropriations committee but supporters are confident it will pass the full Assembly and, with Gov. Jerry Brown’s support, will launch a 500 MW pilot program in 2014.

“This is really the highest hurdle. It is where it ran aground last year,” said Tom Price, spokesman for California Shared Renewables.

SB 43 will benefit scores of Californians who are currently unable to install renewables on their property — residents who rent homes and apartments, business owners who lease office space — as well as remove the obstacles that prevent schools and local governments from investing in off-site renewable energy.

While rooftop solar is booming in California, at least 75% of households cannot participate because: they are renters and don’t own their roofs, they do not have strong enough credit ratings to finance the installation, or their roof is too small or doesn’t receive enough sunlight.

Senator Lois Welk, a longtime solar energy advocate and the bill’s author, explained that SB 43 will help the state meet the goals outlined in its Renewable Portfolio Standard, create jobs, and greatly improve access to clean, affordable sources of energy — all without any state incentives.

“Three out of four Californians have a strong interest in buying clean energy, and pay into programs to support renewable energy programs, but aren’t able to install their own solar unit or other renewable power generation system for a variety of reasons. The innovative program established by this measure will give consumers the option of utilizing renewable energy generated off site. It will help the state meet its renewable energy goals while creating thousands of jobs and encouraging more investment in an important sector of our state’s economy. And it won’t require any state funds or shift costs to consumers who choose not to participate.”

SB 43′s pilot program will enable customers of the state’s three largest investor-owned utilities to sign up to participate in shared renewable energy facilities, and receive credits and charges on their utility bill for the energy produced by their share of the project.

Broadening access to clean energy through shared renewables is a concept emerging in multiple states.

After passing legislation in 2010, Colorado has become a hot spot for “solar gardens,” which enable small business and people who live in an apartment, don’t have a sunny roof or can’t afford a full solar array to buy or lease a piece of an array for as little as $3,700. As the Denver Post explains, this opens the renewable energy market to far more of the state’s residents, considering the average cost of a residential rooftop array in Colorado runs between $20,000-$30,000. And the response has been overwhelmingly positive — last summer, the first solar gardens program was full within 30 minutes, receiving three times as many applications as it could fill.

The success of Colorado’s pilot program — run by Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility — is a model for states like California and Minnesota, which passed legislation earlier this year requiring the state’s largest utility to begin a community solar gardens program in early 2014.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, only about a quarter of the nation’s rooftops are big enough and sunny enough for solar installations. But with the cost of solar dropping steadily and demand high, shared renewables programs have tremendous potential to transform energy access across the country. Last week, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council released an updated primer on shared renewable energy, which it deems “a critical means of expanding access to renewable energy to more Americans.” As states continue to experiment with the best way to connect consumers with the energy they want, its clear that cutting-edge programs designed to empower energy consumers have a bright future.

Photovoltaic image via Shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

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