Another chapter in California’s growing attempts to harness its abundance of solar energy was written in the wee hours of last Wednesday morning when the state legislature passed a statewide incentive program for solar water heating (AB 1470). The measure will now go to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is expected to sign it, according to the environmental group that helped craft the bill. The final Assembly vote was 43-29.

In addition to the solar water heating rebate program, three other energy bills emerged before the California legislature adjourned its regular session that same day to head into a gubernatorial-called special session this week (Sept. 17-20) to deal with health care and some other specific issues. The three bills dealt with renewable energy and global climate change issues.

“The [solar bill equates to] the nation’s largest solar water heating program, creating a $250 million fund to provide rebates to homeowners and businesses who install solar water heating technologies,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean energy advocate for Environment California, a sponsor of AB 1470.

Del Chiaro’s hope is that the new law will create “a world class, mainstream market” for solar water heating technologies over the next 10 years, during which California also will have its solar photovoltaic (PV) initiative providing several billion dollars in rebates to homes and businesses for electricity-producing solar units.

Others among the relatively energy bills managing to get out of the legislative grinder are good news for (a) utilities that now will be able to count eligible customer onsite kilowatt hours (kWh) produced from clean sources toward their renewable portfolio standard (RPS) goals (SB 451); (b) hydroelectric facilities of 30 MW or less that will be eligible for renewable status under the RPS program (AB 809); and (c) combined heat/power (CHP) operators of onsite generation facilities that will be able to sell excess power to local utilities under a mandate from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The latter bill is AB 1613.

SB 451 would require each power utility in the state to pay for customer-generated renewable-based electricity up to its share of an overall statewide 1,000 MW cap for distributed renewable power supplies. Every kilowatt hour of renewable power produced by a customer’s facilities, including power used by the customer to offset what it gets from the utility, would count toward the utility’s RPS goal.

Under AB 809, any hydroelectric generation of 30 MW or less that began operations after 2005 will be eligible as a renewable energy resource under the state’s RPS program. It further allows small hydro facilities that increase their output beyond 30 MW because of efficiency measures taken after Jan. 1 will remain eligible to be part of the RPS program.

AB 1613, the Waste Heat and Carbon Emissions Reduction Act, seeks to “dramatically advance the efficiency of the state’s use of natural gas” by capturing more waste heat for combined heat/power facilities — both customer- and utility-owned CHP. Electric utilities will now be required to purchase excess power from CHP operators that comply with certain size, efficiency and emission control requirements. The systems also would have to meet greenhouse gas emissions limits.

Like most of the energy legislative measures this year when it was passed by the Assembly initially last June, AB 1470 backers promoted it as is being another means of mitigating global warming and helping to achieve energy independence.

“This is another form of solar power that is currently underutilized in the United States but is thriving in European and Asian countries,” said Del Chiaro, after last June’s passage. Her group was one of the key proponents of AB 1470, which was authored by Assembly member Jared Huffman. The measure is supported by “hundreds of organizations and businesses,” Del Chiaro said.

“The changes we made to the bill make it governor-friendly,” she told NGI. “It returns to previous language directing the California Public Utilities Commission [CPUC] to exempt low-income ratepayers from paying the 13 cents-per-month surcharge based on enrollment in the CPUC’s already existing low-income assistance programs.”

AB 1470 is supposed to be very similar to the so-called Million Solar Roofs program (SB1 from last year) that is now in effect, and for which interest is growing among homes and small businesses, according to a report at the CPUC last Thursday. AB 1470 will provide rebates for solar water heating systems that displace natural gas use, drawing its funding from a monthly surcharge on customers’ bills.

“California relies predominately on natural gas to meet its water heating needs,” Del Chiaro said. “This leads to heavy dependence on imported fossil fuels and air pollution; solar water heating can reduce the amount of gas needed to heat water in homes and businesses by 50-75%.”

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