Editorials

Editorial: Remove hurdles that keep solar plans in the shadows

California has been a recognized leader in the national effort to curb harmful greenhouse gas emissions. You would think, then, that the state also would be a model in encouraging homeowners and businesses to make the switch to solar.

But as Tribune environmental writer David Sneed pointed out in his recent series on rooftop solar projects, the Golden State has a way to go if it’s going to see real progress in switching to the renewable form of energy.

Even here in San Luis Obispo County — which is often ahead of the curve on issues relating to the environment and public health — residents have been slow to embrace solar.

If we’re to make real progress, we must remove some serious stumbling blocks.

Price

The cost of installing solar panels is high — anywhere from $10,000 on up — and existing incentives aren’t attractive enough to entice many homeowners and businesses to install photovoltaic cells.

That would change if homeowners were able to sell excess power to utility companies at a decent rate of return. Foreign countries, which do offer that incentive — called a feed-in tariff — have seen their rooftop solar installations surge. Portugal, for example, now gets nearly 45 percent of its electricity from solar, up from 17 percent five years ago.

In the United States, utility companies have been resistant to feed-in tariffs because they could wind up having to pay relatively high prices for rooftop solar energy — and those higher prices would in turn be passed on to consumers.

The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to announce the first feed-in tariffs after the first of the year.

That’s excellent news. Surely, there must be a formula that would make solar installations economically attractive to average homeowners that will not wreak havoc on utility rates. We strongly urge the CPUC to push for that.

Design

For a variety of reasons, the majority of houses in SLO County aren’t considered suitable for rooftop solar. The roofs may be oriented in the wrong direction, or have so many design elements that there is too much shade to make rooftop solar feasible. Trees are an issue, as well; as much as we love them, tall trees can stand in the way of solar projects.

Local agencies could make a difference by making solar compatibility a goal in the planning and permitting of new buildings. At the very least, they should ensure that requirements for items such as landscaping and rooftop design do not interfere with solar installations, should the property owners want to go that route.

NIMBYs

We can understand why there would be some opposition to commercial solar farms proposed in environmentally sensitive areas. But we find it mind-boggling that anyone would attempt to block small-scale solar installations — yet that’s exactly what the San Luis Coastal Unified School District has encountered.

The school district plans to install solar panels at seven sites, including six schools and its corporation yard. Four of the projects have been stalled because opponents are appealing decisions to grant them permits; the state Coastal Commission and the city of Morro Bay are set to hear the appeals next month.

The appellants don’t object to solar installations per se — in fact, they say they support them — but they are opposed to the district’s plan to install the panels on carports to be built in parking lots.

There are several good reasons the district decided to go the solar-carport route, rather than putting the panels on rooftops. Simply put, in the long run, it’s more economical.

Opponents, though, complain about visual blight and possible environmental disturbances. They also oppose the number of trees that will have to be cut down — even though the district has agreed to plant two trees for every one it removes.

Here’s our take: Instead of being criticized, San Luis Coastal should be congratulated.

Installing solar panels will save taxpayer money. The savings isn’t great — annual estimates range from $20,000 to $60,000 in utility bills initially — but that amount is expected to increase over time.

It will serve as a model for other public agencies.

Most important of all, it will have a huge influence on thousands of children who will grow up accepting solar power as the norm, rather than a gimmick. It will take time, but that will be the surest way to make the switch to solar.

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