California’s new solar law: A stitch in time

On October 2, former Vice President Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work fighting global warming. On the same day, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law another landmark solar-power bill, The Solar Water Heating and Efficiency Act of 2007 (AB 1470), authored by Assembly member Jared Huffman.

As Environment California celebrated our victory, I couldn’t help thinking that the impeccable timing of these two events was quite fitting.

AB 1470 sets in motion the nation’s first and largest program to put solar-water-heating technologies on everyday homes and businesses throughout California. By tapping into the sun’s limitless and pollution-free energy, solar water heaters can cut nearly 7 million tons of global-warming pollution each year in California, the equivalent of permanently removing 1 million cars from the road.

With AB 1470, California’s powerful market force can catapult promising solar technologies into the mainstream, just as we are now doing for solar electric technologies through the Million Solar Roofs bill (SB 1), signed into law last year. By offering $250 million in consumer rebates derived from a small surcharge on ratepayers, AB 1470 will help lower the cost of going solar, making it a cost-effective investment for families and businesses.

A report released last spring by Environment California Research & Policy Center, “Solar Water Heating: How California Can Reduce Its Dependence on Natural Gas,” documents some of the quantifiable benefits of creating a mainstream market for solar water heating.

Global Warming Solution: Solar water heating could reduce global-warming pollution by 6.8 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. This is equivalent to the annual emissions from over 1 million cars, and represents 5 percent of the total reductions needed to meet the state’s greenhouse-gas-emissions cap by 2020.

Save Consumers Money: Consumers can cut their energy bills by up to 50 percent by investing in solar-water-heating technologies. Further, decreased demand for natural gas saves all ratepayers money: Some studies have shown that a 5 percent reduction in demand could shave 25 percent to 35 percent off California’s wholesale natural-gas prices.

Help Low-Income Families Achieve “Zero” Energy Bills: AB 1470 carves out at least 10 percent of the total funds for installing solar-water-heating systems on low-income and affordable-housing projects. In addition, low-income ratepayers that are enrolled in CARE or FERA programs are exempt from paying the surcharge created to fund the program.

Greater Energy Independence: California imports 85 percent of its natural gas. An expanded solar-water-heating market could save 1.2 billion therms of natural gas each year, the equivalent of 5 percent of statewide gas consumption.
The bottom line is that harnessing the sun to do the work that fossil fuels currently do is a no-brainer, especially in California.
Looking ahead to 2008, there’s much more work to be done to truly solve global warming and lead the way for the rest of the country. There were a number of good bills that failed to pass the Legislature or that were vetoed by the governor. Bills like requiring California’s utilities to generate at least 33 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020 (SB 411, Perata/Simitian), are essential for reaching our global-warming goals by 2020. And policies that help reinstate some semblance of long-term energy planning, like SB 412 (Simitian) requiring the state to determine whether or not new liquefied natural gas terminals are necessary before they are constructed, are key policies for ensuring our state kicks our fossil-fuel addiction and continues down the clean energy path.

As Al Gore continues to educate America and the world about the urgent need to address global warming, it is critically important that California’s policy makers continue to pass laws that result in concrete reductions in global warming pollution. As the saying goes, by taking action today to harness unbridled pollution, California will avoid having to work nine times harder to stop global warming in the years ahead.

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