California Must Embrace the Best One
by Laura Deehan
Putting solar on rooftops is the best way to protect our public lands and the environment
In 1976, Mary McGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. As we move toward an increasingly solar-powered future, you could say California is caught in a similar situation, torn between two ways to get there.
In 2018, the Golden State set a goal, with Senate Bill 100, to achieve 100% clean energy by 2045. Environment California, the California Sierra Club, and many other groups pushed hard for this legislative accomplishment, and we remain intensely proud of it.
But it’s not enough to simply phase out fossil fuels and build a carbon-free economy: we are also facing a dire biodiversity crisis, in large part, from large-scale habitat loss. To address these problems, California Gov. Gavin Newsom set a goal in 2022 to protect 30% of our state’s land and water by 2030. His proclamation was part of an international effort to protect more of the natural world. If the 30x30 goal is achieved, it will not only help to ensure our survival, but will create richer, better, happier lives for all of us.
By setting these ambitious environmental goals, California has once again demonstrated its ability to lead on protecting the natural world. Californians should be proud that the Golden State is taking meaningful action despite partisan dysfunction and well-heeled opposition that can stymie environmental policies.
And it would be lovely if the story ended there, but it doesn’t. We still need to get to 100% renewable energy – without destroying more imperiled species habitat.
This is where the problem lies. One way to get to 100% clean, renewable electricity is to ramp up large, industrial-scale, utility-run solar projects. The thinking goes something like this: Let the utilities go nuts building solar farms; solar farms are preferable to coal and natural gas, so we can put them anywhere; more is always better.
And the truth is that we do need these major solar projects. Utility-scale solar does need to be a part of the overall plan to hit 100%. But utility solar often does have either a direct or indirect impact on natural landscapes. The far better option is to put solar in an already-built environment, which is mostly to say, put solar on roofs. Home roofs, church roofs, school roofs, Walmart and other big box-store roofs – they’re all good. Additionally, the solar panels can cover parking lots and provide a little shade to those parking their electric (and gas, for now) cars there. <https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-04-14/la-california-electric-vehicle-mandate-end-gas-powered-car-sales>
To be clear, in our preference for rooftop solar, we’re not throwing shade at utility-scale clean energy systems. It’s simply that, in many cases, building solar on already developed land in our cities and towns makes much more sense. Environment California Research & Policy Center report “The Environmental Case for Rooftop Solar” looked into the most immediate reasons why we should prioritize rooftop over utility-scale solar. Here they are:
One: Rooftop solar energy does not change existing land uses and can help California protect agricultural land, fragile habitats, and natural areas. Landscapes are disrupted by utility-scale solar projects. We will need some big solar projects. But by choosing rooftop solar opportunities, California can reduce the total amount of utility-scale solar needed and help to protect natural areas. Consider this: state regulators calculate an additional 28.5 GW of rooftop solar will be built by 2045. By using this amount of rooftop solar instead of utility-scale solar, California can preserve more than 148,000 acres of land – an area about half the size of the City of Los Angeles.
Two: Rooftop solar produces electricity where it is also consumed, and this eliminates the need to pipe the electrons across long-distance transmission lines. Rooftop solar produces electricity close to where it is consumed. As a result, it reduces the need for new transmission infrastructure, which can harm land conservation efforts by damaging farmland and ecosystems. Additionally, as we’ve witnessed time and again, downed or damaged transmission lines can spark massive wildfires. <https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/05/power-lines-are-burning-the-west/561212/>
Three: Rooftop solar can be installed more quickly than any other electricity generating source, enabling California to respond at the speed and scale necessary to address the climate crisis. A residential rooftop solar project is typically installed within three months of inception, and commercial rooftop installations typically take between two and four months. That’s not quite real time, but it’s fast. And the faster the installation, the more we can avoid climate emissions now, which helps to limit the extent of warming that the state and the rest of the world will experience down the line. Put another way, pollution reductions today provide greater benefit than the same emission reductions a year or 10 years in the future.
But how does the state go about “choosing” the better form of solar? Knowing that we need some of both, how do we ensure that we get the most rooftop solar possible? To start, California can cut the red tape associated with solar; second, the Golden State shouldn’t cut incentives and thus knee-cap the market.
In terms of cutting red tape, local governments have hours of paperwork per application. And as a result, consumers have experienced delays in getting solar panels on their roof. That’s why the Department of Energy developed SolarAPP+. U.S. Sec. Jennifer Granholm came to California to celebrate the promise of this new tool “to make installing solar panels cheaper, faster and even more popular.”
Thanks to the state legislature’s investment in last year’s budget, the California Energy Commission will have a new grant program available to support local governments adopting this system. Passing Senate Bill 379 is the next step to speed up adoption and ensure that consumers and solar companies can quickly move through the application process.
The California Public Utilities Commission has proposed new fees on rooftop solar.
It may seem unbelievable that a state known for its green leadership is considering these changes, but here we are.
Currently, Californians who generate excess electricity from their rooftop solar panels are able to sell that energy to their local utility through a process called “net metering.” In December, CPUC proposed what amounts to a $700 per year tax on these local power generators. After public backlash, the proposal was shelved, but in May of this year, the Commission began seeking public input on three new changes to net metering, including an average $300 to $600 per year solar tax. <https://solarrights.org/the-solar-tax-is-back-and-the-solar-cliff-too/>
In response to the Commission’s plan, Environment America Research & Policy President Wendy Wendlandt said:: “We’re facing a climate emergency. California will not meet its goals to fight climate change if we back off from rooftop solar. Actually, we need to quadruple rooftop solar capacity by 2045. Every rooftop without solar is a missed opportunity for a cleaner, healthier future for every Californian. The last thing we need to do is make rooftop solar more expensive.”
It makes no sense to place a new financial burden on Californians who, by their own actions, are increasing the amount of renewables in our energy mix. We should incentivize rooftop solar and other forms of clean, renewable energy, not drive people back to fossil fuels.
Political Leadership. California produced a joint agency SB100 report (https://efiling.energy.ca.gov/GetDocument.aspx?tn=239588&DocumentContentId=73021) which indicates California will need 28.5 GW more rooftop solar capacity to meet the state's clean energy goals by 2045. That’s nearly four times the state’s current rooftop solar capacity.
We’ll need leadership to get there. But getting to 100% is achievable -- and profoundly necessary to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. While California will continue to be torn between two solar pathways, the person best situated to ensure that state agencies and political bodies continue to embrace solar is Gov. Newsom. If he can lean into the Legislature and Public Utilities Commission, our state will be much better positioned to ensure that we embrace rooftop solar.
Laura Deehan directs Environment California’s work to tackle global warming, protect the ocean, and fight for clean air, clean water, open spaces, and a livable planet. Laura stepped into the State Director role in January, 2021 and has been on staff for over twenty years. Laura lives with her family in Richmond, California where she enjoys hiking, yoga and baking. <https://environmentcalifornia.org/>