Popular SF Solar Program Faces Uncertain Future

Popular SF Solar Program Faces Uncertain Future City Leaders Have Short Window To Restore Devastating Budget Cuts

By any measurement, San Francisco’s GoSolarSF program has been an incredible success.

Since 2008, the City’s solar rebate has leveraged state and federal incentives to assist over 1,800 local homeowners and businesses to install the equivalent of 12 football fields of solar panels across San Francisco rooftops. Among all GoSolarSF installers hired to date, at least 86 are graduates of the City’s green jobs training programs for economically disadvantaged residents. Cleantech companies employing over 500 workers in the City wrote to Mayor Ed Lee last week that GoSolarSF was a major reason for their decision to locate and grow their businesses in San Francisco.

Yet, despite quadrupling the number of solar panels in the City in just over four years, the GoSolarSF program currently remains in limbo as San Francisco Supervisors prepare to cast a final vote on the City’s budget on July 17.

Historically, GoSolarSF has been funded at $5 million per year, but that figure is proposed to be slashed down to $2 million for each of the next two years. When funding was cut to $3 million in the most recent fiscal year, the program dried up just nine months into the cycle and forced the City to turn away customers for the first time since the program began. The current funding level is expected to kill the GoSolarSF program just months into the City’s proposed two-year budget.

Over the last several months, environmental and green jobs advocates worked with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, who funds GoSolarSF with a portion of dollars collected from electricity ratepayers, to attempt to restore at least a portion of these cuts. When those efforts were unsuccessful, clean technology industry leaders appealed directly to Mayor Lee.

Last week, the San Francisco Examiner highlighted industry backlash to proposed cuts to GoSolarSF in the form of a letter to Mayor Ed Lee signed by the City’s nine largest clean technology employers, including Sunrun, the nation’s largest home solar company. Industry leaders wrote that the proposed cuts “negatively impact San Francisco’s clean technology leadership and economic development“ and that “economic drivers such as GoSolarSF are key to retaining and growing the local cleantech sector.”

In addition, over 400 San Francisco Sierra Club members emailed Mayor Lee last Thursday and Friday, asking him to “Save GoSolarSF” and ensure the sustainability of a program that has become a model for other cities seeking to increase solar adoption and address the challenges presented by climate change, particularly within environmental justice communities.

GoSolarSF was established in 2008 by former Mayor Gavin Newsom and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, whose office has noted that the solar program helps to pay for itself in the former of increased property tax revenue on homes that increase in value when solar panels are installed.

Three years ago, community leader Espanola Jackson kicked off a solar revolution in Bayview-Hunters Point when she became the first low-income homeowner to take advantage of the program. “After I went solar in 2009, many of my neighbors asked me how I was able to put solar on my home and I told them about the GoSolarSF program. Many senior citizens on fixed incomes have been to take advantage, and more funding is needed to stop the program from running out,” said Jackson, whose electricity bill now costs her just $4.19 per month.

In fact, as of March 2012, nearly 40% of all GoSolarSF applications have come from low-income families in communities across the City. Training organizations such as Asian Neighborhood Design, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and Young Community Developers regularly graduate candidates from low-income communities who are able to succeed in job opportunities that have opened up thanks to GoSolarSF.

“GoSolarSF embodies action toward the economic and environmental justice values that the City cares about by ensuring broad community access to solar, green jobs, and an equitable clean energy future,” said Jeanine Cotter, CEO of San Francisco-based Luminalt Solar, who has been profiled by publications ranging from Sierra Club Radio to CNN as one of the solar industry’s most visionary CEOs.

As the Board of Supervisors Budget Committee wound down its deliberations last week, at least one city Supervisor is understood to have weighed in to save the program. Mayor Lee, whose Renewable Energy Task Force just completed a set of recommendations as to how San Francisco might strike a path to 100% clean energy and received an award for its work last week, is said to be engaged. And SF Public Utilities Commission General Manager Ed Harrington, who recently opened a new SFPUC headquarters that has been crowned “the greenest building in the country,” is purportedly actively looking for solutions within his own budget.

The next two years of GoSolarSF are critical, community-labor advocates have argued, because of increased support to explore state-certified apprenticeship and journeyman upgrade training on GoSolarSF projects through programs such as those provided by organized labor and promoted through San Francisco's successful local hiring policy.

"News on July 17 that these recent and ongoing efforts have successfully identified funding that will keep GoSolarSF operational and continue San Francisco’s renewable energy and green jobs leadership will be a major environmental, green equity, and economic development win for the City," said Brightline executive director Joshua Arce, who has worked on GoSolarSF since its inception as a member of the San Francisco Solar Task Force.


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