Adam Browning is the cofounder and director of operations for Vote Solar Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to jump-start the transition to renewable energy by helping municipal governments implement large-scale and cost-effective solar energy projects.

Monday, 26 Jan 2004

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

It’s Monday, but I will begin my story a little over two years ago, on Nov. 7, 2001. The day before, voters in the city of San Francisco had passed — by a whopping 73 percent — a ballot measure authorizing $100 million worth of revenue bonds to put solar and energy-efficiency technologies on public buildings, to be paid for with energy savings. It was a big win, and as the news spread, other cities across the country were calling campaign HQ and asking: How did you do it? Can we do it here? Who was your opposition?

All these questions made me and my business partner, David Hochschild, think of another: Why stop now? The San Francisco campaign was a grassroots effort, but we figured that if we could replicate it, we’d have a good chance of helping the solar industry build economies of scale, bringing down solar’s costs, and letting market forces do something for global warming that even Dick Cheney couldn’t stop.

Ten cities in two years, we figured. Easy. So we quit our jobs, Dave’s in the mayor’s office and mine with the U.S. EPA, subleased some office space from our friends at Fenton Communications, applied to become a project of the Tides Center, and started writing grant proposals. Game plan: Focus like a laser on municipalities, as they are large energy users, can borrow money cheaply through bonds, and are comfortable with long-term paybacks.

Catching rays at the Moscone Convention Center.

Fast-forward to today. San Francisco is doing its part — the first project implemented, a 675-kilowatt solar roof and energy-efficiency retrofit for the Moscone Convention Center, provided net savings to the city of about $210,000 a year while paying off the capital costs and much more after that. We are well on our way to the 10-city goal, but it hasn’t been easy. Bonds have proven to be only one source of potential financing, and we haven’t been able to focus like a laser. As anyone who has been doing this for a while knows, impediments to expanding the solar industry’s penetration are many, varied, and people are not necessarily impressed with Vote Solar’s can-do optimism.

Take net metering, for one. Net-metering laws allow solar-array owners to get credit for surplus electricity fed back into the grid — say, during the day, when the sun is most intense and homeowners are not at home. The meter literally rolls backward; the ability to feed surplus into the grid effectively makes solar 25 percent cheaper for system owners. During the electricity crisis of 2000-2001, California increased its net-metering limit to a nation-leading one megawatt, and the industry responded: large-scale installations increased by more than 1,000 percent. In August 2002, the expanded net-metering provision was due to sunset, threatening the newfound momentum behind large-scale solar. Utilities fought to get rid of net metering and solar advocates had to stop what they were doing to fight back. The Vote Solar Action Fund, Vote Solar’s 501(c)(4) lobbying arm (also a project of the Tides Center), funded a full-page ad in the West Coast edition of the New York Times, about 2,500 people sent emails of protest to the Public Utilities Commission, lobbyists on both sides switched into high gear, and, in the end, California’s 1-MW net-metering standard persevered.

Nonetheless, it was a pointed lesson: The proliferation of solar depends on the correct regulatory infrastructure. We’ve had to fight similar fights to preserve existing rebate programs, and almost surrealistically, what would have amounted to a tax on solar electricity to pay for California’s long-term and above-market contracts, signed to stabilize supply during the electricity crisis.

The above-mentioned litany of woes is cited simply to make the point that even organizations built around one central project end up having to pull resources away to fight necessary battles and prepare the ground for what they really want to be doing.

And in that vein, tomorrow it’s on to the good news: A solar bond is being introduced in New Mexico. Stay tuned.