Glimmer Of Sunlight Enters Gloomy SF Solar Debate
Mayor Lee Instructs SFPUC To Find Additional GoSolarSF Funding, Environmental And Cleantech Leaders Hopeful For Positive News
Mayor Ed Lee has joined efforts to restore devastating budget cuts to San Francisco's successful GoSolarSF program.
After hearing from hundreds of members of the Bay Area Sierra Club, environmental justice and green jobs advocates, and clean technology companies that employ hundreds of local workers, Mayor Lee has directed the city agency that manages the program to "look into alternate funding sources for GoSolarSF."
The Board of Supervisors will vote as early as tomorrow on a two-year budget that includes an all-time low in funding for the City's landmark solar rebate, which has helped over 1,800 homeowners and businesses install over 7 megawatts of solar panels since 2008, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which administers GoSolarSF, indicates that reducing program funding to $2 million from its initial $5 million level is part of the
$800 million department's 10-year capital plan. GoSolarSF was cut to $3 million last year and ran out of funds mid-year, turning away several hundred customers. Over 40% of program applicants are low-income homeowners who have used the tax rebate to help them make the switch to clean energy.
The ratepayer-funded solar program is self-sustaining, unlike government subsidies to oil companies and other polluters. According to Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, who worked with former Mayor Gavin Newsom to establish the program, GoSolarSF pays for itself in the form of increased property tax revenue on homes that go up in value with solar panels that decrease local reliance on fossil fuel-powered electricity.
The Mayor recently highlighted the program's success at the Intersolar Trade Conference and is committed to policy innovation that maintains San Francisco's status as a clean technology leader. San Francisco has enjoyed the title of "greenest city" in America in recent years, though it slipped into a tie with Portland and Seattle this year on the heels of last year's solar slowdown.
Two weeks ago, Bayview Hunters Point community activist Espanola Jackson and other environmental justice leaders met with Mayor Lee at his office and asked him to fully fund GoSolarSF. Jackson, who kicked off a solar revolution in her community when she became the first low-income homeowner to take advantage of the program, said afterward that "he told us he would take care of it." Jackson's electricity bill now costs her just $4.19 per month.
Since 2008, 1,826 homeowners and businesses have used GoSolarSF to advance clean energy and lower their electricity bills. The 7 megawatts of solar installed in San Francisco in the past four years can power the equivalent of 7,000 households. 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 month that GoSolarSF was a major reason for their decision to locate and grow their businesses in San Francisco.
GoSolarSF is a cornerstone of San Franicsco's renewable energy leadership and has helped attract over 200 cleantech companies to the City, according to the Cleantech Group. Sunrun, the nation's largest home solar company that employs nearly 200 workers at its San Francisco headquarters, told the Chronicle that "if you're scaling back critical policies that have clearly helped a market grow, then you're not sending a message that would attract new leaders."
“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.
The Sierra Club, who worked for several years to establish GoSolarSF, has weighed in as well. In the past two weeks, over 400 San Francisco Sierra Club members have emailed Mayor Lee asking him to help “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.
When we pushed through the GoSolarSF program, we had no idea how wildly successful it would be," said Sierra Club political director John Rizzo. "The program is making San Francisco a center of the renewable energy industry, bringing solar companies to the City and putting local residents to work. Gutting GoSolarSF would put the breaks on job creation and the fight against climate change."
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.
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.
"Last year was a major setback for solar in San Francisco," said Brightline executive director Joshua Arce, who worked to establish the low-income incentive and local hiring requirements for GoSolarSF. "We are counting on the Mayor, SFPUC, and Board of Supervisors to step up with a big environmental and green jobs win for the City tomorrow."