California Solar Initiative Shines With 391MW-Installed Record Year

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The visionary California Solar Initiative (CSI), intended to install nearly 2,000 megawatts (MW) of new rooftop solar and achieve grid parity in the Golden State, just completed a record year and has been so successful it may reach total program goals years ahead of the initial target date.

CSI Solar Capacity Growth
CSI Solar Capacity Growth chart via CPUC

California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) 2013 Annual Program Assessment reveals the dramatic success CSI has had in spreading rooftop solar across the state. Launched in 2007 with a target end date of 2016, CSI has already achieved 66% of its total program goal, with another 19% in pending projects.

As of the end of Q1 2013, an estimated 1,629MW of rooftop solar has been installed via CSI at 167,878 customer sites, enough to power 150,000 homes. This milestone is amazing considering California only crossed 1GW installed solar late last year, and is a major factor behind California’s record-setting 2GW solar generation output.

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CSI Designed With California’s Solar Market Growth In Mind

CSI is operated by the CPUC, and provides solar rebates for customers in California’s three investor-owned utilities: Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). CSI only funds small-scale rooftop solar systems intended to offset individual customer energy demands and is open to residential, commercial, industrial, government, and agricultural properties.

As the program progresses toward its goals, incentives are designed to drop incrementally across ten “steps” based on target amounts in each utility territory, matching market conditions. As California’s solar market has grown, CSI incentives have shrunk, from $2.50 per watt to nearly zero for two of the three utilities.

Current CSI solar incentive levels
Current CSI solar incentive levels chart via CPUC

Incentives Keep Falling, But Solar Demand Keeps Rising

But even though solar incentives are falling, demand keeps rising. In 2012, the amount of solar installed through CSI grew 391MW, an 38% increase in total installed capacity, and 26% more than the amount added in 2011.

PDG&E and SDG&E have installed or reserved enough new solar capacity to reach their goals in the residential sector, and PG&E has achieved the highest rate of success, with 70% of their non-residential goal installed across 77,782 customers in its Northern California territory.

SCE may be the only utility to not yet reach CSI goals, but at 62%, it’s close and closing fast. CSI’s success seems to be working for the utilities, as 94% of solar capacity in the state is signed up for net metering rebates – a contentious program for state utilities.

Progress toward CSI program goal
Progress toward CSI program goal chart via CPUC

Overall, CSI is not only succeeding at installing solar, but in also lowering prices. The average cost of residential solar systems has fallen 32% from $8.77 per watt to $5.98 per watt since 2007, notes Dana Hull in the San Jose Mercury-News.

Benefits For Low-Income Families And Grid Integration

Perhaps most promising, rooftop solar growth has helped low-income families tap into the power of the sun. CSI’s Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) program has received 3,386 applications, resulting in 8.5MW of installed capacity and 1.8MW in process, along with $64 million in support for solar systems.

In addition, CSI’s Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) program has completed 287 projects for 18.4MW with an additional 83 projects in process representing 11.3MW additional capacity. These projects are covered under the state’s Virtual Net Metering program, allowing tenants to receive direct reductions on their monthly utility bills by sharing credits with solar system owners.

As with any renewable electricity source, energy variability is an issue for grid operators, but CSI’s got that covered too. A portion of program funds are directed toward research and development, and has resulted in grant funding for 23 projects worth $28 million directed toward grid integration. Another round of project solicitations is anticipated to direct $7 million into solar integration to local distribution during second quarter 2013.

“CSI was designed to do something remarkable: achieve scale and lower costs to make rooftop solar a real and growing part of the state’s energy landscape,” blogged the Vote Solar Initiative. “As indicated in yesterday’s report, the CSI is achieving those goals ahead of schedule.”

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