Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

Is DWP backing away from residential rooftop solar?

Renewable energy advocates are concerned that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's consideration this week of modifications to its solar incentive program signals a retreat from solar entirely. DWP was looking to modify solar incentives as of November 1, but has delayed the decision until next month after impassioned testimony by solar installers. Does this mean DWP doesn't want any more solar in its mix?

DWP currently pays upward of $3.50 a watt for solar installation incentives - that figure's far higher than in other parts of the state. And even though PV panels themselves have come down in price, installation costs here remain relatively high. According to a 96-page report attached to the agenda, demand is so high for solar PV that at this rate LA will burn through the money rapidly. Too rapidly: as DWP's Aram Benyamin told Sunpluggers.com:

The department has seen a rise in solar photovoltaic installations, but the systems' average cost per watt has not declined significantly, officials say, a fundamental goal of most government incentives.
"The annual budget for incentives is about $30 million and we're going to burn through about $90 million if this keeps up," said Aram Benyamin, a senior assistant general manager of the department.

For several reasons, DWP's move may not be surprising.

In the time I've covered the DWP, the utility has always stressed what its bureaucratspeak calls "demand side management" - energy efficiency measures being the highest profile way to decrease demand. The DWP also has long expressed skepticism about rooftop solar, similar to but more so than Edison or the other investor-owned utilities around the state. DWP's preference has been to own and operate its own generation, and its union has expressed a preference for its workers installing solar and working on such projects rather than emphasizing rooftop projects. That expression of preference goes back to Measure B. Solar LA - Mayor V's now 2-year-old plan to put more of LA's sun to work - sketched out plans for 500 MW large-scale solar, 400 MW DWP-owned solar, and 380 MW of customer solar programs - of which single family residential was really only about 130 MW.

The diffuse nature of rooftop solar sold back to the grid sort of unnerves all utilities generally. Utilities have long looked to cap the amount of solar residents can sell back to the grid.

Lastly, the market for PV solar has changed some, and DWP's paperwork is looking to acknowledge that, adjust the program to look more like programs in other places, and try to promote the most efficient projects possible.

So, to answer a question some readers put to me directly when asking why this hasn't gotten more play, I don't think this means DWP doesn't want solar. I think this means that at the Vegas buffet of renewable options, residential rooftop solar looks to them more and more like the waffle bar: smells good, draws you over, but it's filling, and ultimately something you don't want thirds of. So they're trying not to eat too much more of it.

Do you think the DWP should encourage rooftop solar projects more? Do you think California should?

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