July 25, 2014

Budget cuts impact successful GoSolarSF program

San Francisco homeowners and businesses have used the GoSolarSF incentive to install thousands of solar panels across the city, hiring local companies such as Luminalt which recruit graduates of San Francisco's green-job programs.

San Francisco homeowners and businesses have used the GoSolarSF incentive to install thousands of solar panels across the city, hiring local companies such as Luminalt which recruit graduates of San Francisco's green-job programs.

San Francisco’s phenomenally successful GoSolarSF program faces budget pressures that could cripple it or even lead to its complete elimination.

In 2007, before GoSolarSF was started, San Francisco ranked last among the nine Bay Area counties in solar panels installed per resident. The Sierra Club joined a diverse group of policy makers, environmentalists, and environmental-justice advocates who came up with a plan to increase the amount of solar on local rooftops.

The result was GoSolarSF, a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) incentive program that provides financial assistance for homeowners, businesses, and non-profits to install solar panels. The program has supported installation of over five megawatts of solar power, more than quadrupling the amount of solar in San Francisco and boosting the city from last to first in Bay Area solar per household. It has also fostered the creation of hundreds of jobs, including at least 82 for economically disadvantaged San Franciscans. Budget cuts, however, threaten the program’s progress.

For the past five years the San Francisco Solar Task Force, chaired by assessor-recorder Phil Ting and made up of Sierra Club representatives, SFPUC staff, and local solar companies, has sought to maintain a consistent yearly $5 million of GoSolarSF funding. From July 2008 through June 2011, while GoSolarSF was fully funded, it averaged nearly 500 new solar installations per year.

For the 2011-2012 fiscal year, however, the SFPUC was forced to cut GoSolarSF funding to $3 million to address maintenance needs of the city’s municipal electricity system. As a result, just a few over 250 installations were financed, and all incentive money dried up three months before the end of the budget cycle.

Prospects for the next two years are even worse. Further budget shortfalls find GoSolarSF proposed to receive only $2 million per year from July 2012 – July 2014, forcing Solar Task Force members and the SFPUC to come together to craft solutions to ensure the program’s survival. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will approve a 2012-2013 budget in June, and the Task Force and SFPUC are working together to identify potential revenue sources to make up the $3 million shortfall.

We are also studying whether modified incentive levels could leverage limited funding for more installations and a full twelve months of service. Under the program, for example, some solar installations have been free; would such households still go solar if their system were not free but discounted? In addition, green-jobs advocates are re-examining how the environmental community can partner with organized labor to ensure sustainable working conditions, wages, and benefits for workers on GoSolarSF installations.

Even if these patchwork solutions throw GoSolarSF a lifeline for another year, the program may not survive a further year of funding at the $2 million level.

Josh Arce, Executive Committee, Sierra Club Bay Chapter

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