California Solar Energy: Bill Would Provide
by Bernice Yeung
San Diego is home to more than 2,600 solar residential rooftops - more than any other California city - but in the neighboring lower-income community of National City, there are only about a dozen.
A bill before the California Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce this month seeks to equalize renewable energy installation in the state by promoting small-scale solar rooftops in the disadvantaged communities.
The bill targets neighborhoods with high unemployment rates and those that "bear a disproportionate burden from air pollution, disease, and other impacts from the generation of electricity from the burning of fossil fuels," the bill said.
Bill author Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Mountain View, said the legislation would create jobs and build "cleaner, safer, and healthier neighborhoods."
"Unfortunately, California's most vulnerable communities - those that have suffered first and worst from pollution - have not benefited much from existing renewable energy policy," Fong said in a statement provided to California Watch.
The legislation would require the state to install enough systems to produce 375 megawatts of renewable energy - or about 1,000 small-scale projects - in disadvantaged communities between 2014 and the end of 2020. Utility companies are required by a 2011 state law to achieve a 33 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2020.
The renewable energy systems supported by Fong's bill would take the form of rooftop solar installations on apartment complexes and commercial buildings, and each project would be limited to producing 500 kilowatts of power, a project the size of a typical Costco rooftop.
Advocates say passage of the bill could improve both the health and economy of these low-income communities.
Through a program known as "feed-in tariff," the owner of the solar panels would be able to earn revenue by selling back unused energy to the local utility company. Additionally, the bill promotes the hiring of local workers to install the solar panels.
And because reliance on carbon dioxide-emitting power plants used during periods of high energy demand - called peaker plants - could be decreased with an increase in renewable energy creation, there are health implications to the bill, said Strela Cervas of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, which sponsored the legislation.
"Peaker plants are those that are polluting our communities the most," Cervas said. "We see (the bill) AB 1990 as the first step to address the health crisis in these communities."
Michael S. Hindus, an attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman who has represented clients who developed small- and utility-scale solar projects, as well as solar rooftop owners, said he supports the expansion of rooftop solar. He believes a feed-in tariff system will make the small projects more feasible.
He said he hoped that the benefit of the easy-to-implement feed-in tariff is not offset by hard-to-implement environmental justice goals. "The uncertainty," Hindus said, "is how to meet the social justice and environmental justice criterion which are set forth in the bill. As it goes through the legislative process, the ease of implementation will need to be balanced with the environmental justice goals."
To determine which communities would meet the environmental justice criteria, the bill sponsors point to an environmental justice screening method developed by professors at UC Berkeley, the University of Southern California and Occidental College. This screening method weighs environmental health risk factors, like air quality, and social factors, like income and age. Neighborhoods in cities like National City, Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area, Huntington Park in southeast Los Angeles and the Central Valley's Tulare would qualify.
Private utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have not yet taken a position on the legislation. Spokeswomen for Southern California Edison and PG&E said they are reviewing the bill.
Although the California Municipal Utilities Association "supports the State's goal of increasing distributed generation," the association's spokesman, Patrick Harbison, said in a statement that the organization is concerned that the bill will result in higher bills for some customers.
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