It’s no secret that California is king when it comes to the U.S. solar industry. The state leads the country by housing about half of the nation’s total installed solar capacity, according to the latest data from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
Even with $7.1 billion spent in California to install solar in 2013, according to the SEIA, and more expected to have been spent in 2014, the golden state’s solar industry is still vulnerable to be toppled from its ruling position.
Concern that the Golden State’s solar industry could weaken is heavily rooted in the murky future of solar policy. Key California solar policies that helped drive the adoption of the technology are expected to sunset in the next few years, and uncertainty looms over whether the federal government will renew the 30 percent solar Investment Tax Credit for residential consumers, which is slated to expire at the end of 2016.
Looking to ensure that the California solar industry is in a position to defend itself from its adversaries, and help pro-solar policies continue to flourish is Bernadette Del Chiaro, the executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA).
Del Chiaro was hired by CALSEIA in July of 2013. When she took the job, the association, which was incorporated in 1978, had roughly 100 members and one full-time staff member. The association’s budget the year before Del Chiaro came on was about $450,000.
Since Del Chiaro has taken the helm, she has helped CALSEIA build up its arsenal. Under her leadership, the association has doubled its membership, and increased its budget to about $700,000 for its current fiscal year. Del Chiaro is also looking to hire its fifth staff member early this year, and expects CALSEIA’s 2015 budget to reach about $850,000.
Del Chiaro says she is passionate about protecting the environment. She also has an intense competitive streak. “I really like winning,” she said. Del Chiaro has taken these two attributes and poured them into her career of working in public policy to help pass green laws and regulations.
While serving as energy program director for Environment California, Del Chiaro was the primary architect for SB 1, more commonly known as the Million Solar Roofs initiative. Signed into law in 2006, the legislation created a mandate to put 3,000 megawatts of solar on California roofs by the end of 2016.
Del Chiaro’s other triumphs include playing a lead role in getting passed into law AB 32, also known as the Global Warming Act Solutions, which requires California to sharply cut carbon-dioxide and other climate-changing emissions by 2020.
SolarEnergy.net spoke with Del Chiaro about the state of the California solar market, and how CALSEIA is working to build up its position of influence to address the needs of the nation’s largest solar market.
What challenges has CALSEIA had to overcome in the race to stay on par with California’s growing solar markets?
There has been some interesting history in California. The Million Solar Roofs initiative was created in 2006, and suddenly $3.2 billion dollars was available for the solar industry that had previously existed largely off of fumes from the 1980s boom. This created whole new markets that didn’t exist before. I think there were some clashes, and a lot of mistrust between the different market segments in the solar industry. People are now realizing that we’re in this together. It’s us versus, in many respects, the utilities. We really need to work together to build the political power necessary to win.
Why do you think utilities are one of solar’s greatest adversaries, and what type of opposition are you anticipating from them in the coming year?
Solar really doesn’t have much natural opposition other than from the utilities that are threatened. [Utilities’] business model is threatened by self-generation. I anticipate more of the same from the utilities, of claiming that solar is expensive, that it is a burden on electricity ratepayers. I expect them to continue to try to drum up opposition from minority and low-income communities, something that they have tried to do, and have failed repeatedly. I think those kind of antics will continue.
How are you positioning CALSEIA to stay ahead in regards to utility pushback?
A key policy that is up in the hands of policy makers right now is the future of net metering. Net metering is the ability of the consumer to generate their own electricity, and get fair and adequate compensation for their electricity that they generate on their own roof. This is something that utilities are launching multi-state attacks against, and California is not an exception to that. CALSEIA is working right now at the public utilities commission to make sure that the future of net metering in California stays strong, and in fact gets stronger than what we’ve seen.
With so many of California’s solar policies set to end, as well as the uncertainty regarding the renewal of the ITC, are you concerned that California’s solar industry will face hard times, similar to European countries, such as Germany and Spain, who had to adjust or eliminate incentive programs due to major spikes in activity?
This is an important distinction, and I’m speaking about California only, unlike Europe we have put in place policies that have allowed the industry to grow as subsidies have declined. As a result, we have a really solid foundation upon which to build. Furthermore, we’re not as dependent on a single policy, like say Germany was. The entire German market was built around the feed-in-tariff. In California we have a much more diverse set of policies.
That said it doesn’t belittle the fact that net metering and the federal tax credit are really critical to continued growth. If California got it wrong on net metering, or if the federal government refuses to extend the ITC, then California really could see a dramatic drop in the affordability and the amount of solar starting in 2017. That’s a very legitimate, very real threat. We aren’t going to go down to zero, or down to nothing, but there will be a considerable bust if policymakers allow that to happen.
What initiatives are on CALSEIA’s agenda in 2015 to help the California solar industry stay on a smooth path of growth?
Our three biggest, specific initiatives are fighting to protect, and in fact expand net metering at the public utilities commission. Fighting to get bipartisan support for the extension of the federal tax credit from California’s congressional delegation. We are also continuing to streamline permitting at the local level.
In September, California signed into law a mandate calling for cities and counties to streamline the permitting process for residential rooftop solar systems? Why is CALSEIA continuing to keep permitting among its top priorities?
In California, some of our most heavy solar markets permitting offices at the local level, the building departments, are processing 100 to 200 permits a week. That’s likely to double. Are they going to be ready for that, or, is there going to be such a backlog? Just the pure bureaucracy of managing the permitting process will cause problems throughout the entire construction industry frankly. CALSEIA is working right now in California with our building departments up and down the state to make sure they adopt the streamlined permitting practices that are going to enable them to handle and process this rush of permits. For those who don’t, it’s going to be a real problem.
By hiring you, do you think CALSEIA is making a statement that the organization is gearing up to heavily invest in influencing solar policy?
I think there is a general recognition among the industry that they need to make a bigger investment in public policy. Public policy involves a lot of organizing and a lot of hard work, and that’s clearly what I bring to the table.
I’ve been at this for almost 20 years now. I think there is a recipe for success, and we will keep focusing it on solar. There is so much potential for the California Solar Energy Industries Association to carry a bigger stick and get things done. We’ve only scratched the surface. By getting ourselves organized, putting our money into what matters — which is policy — and influencing politics we can get there. We can achieve our wildest dreams.