L.A. is Making its Solar Feed-in Tariff Work, but Can it Work for Everyone?

la sunriseAs ground zero for the nation’s largest solar feed-in tariff (FiT) and 100 MW of installed solar capacity to distribute among building owners, Los Angeles is in an enviable position to generate more than a solid supply of renewable energy and a big boost in economic development. Thousands of new jobs and increased social equity in the workforce for underserved communities are also within reach — but only if the city addresses three major challenges, according to a recently released report from UCLA and USC researchers.

Now in the second year of a three-year program, Los Angeles’ FiT has allocated 40 MW of rooftop solar capacity — equivalent to the amount of energy needed to power approximately 8,640 homes in a year. It’s also created 862 job-years (one year of one job), and stimulated $122 million of solar industry investment.

Yet with only one year left of the program, Dr. Manuel Pastor, director of the USC Program on Environmental and Regional Equity and J.R. DeShazo, Director of the Luskin Center for Innovation, assert in the report “Sharing Solar’s Promise: Harnessing LA’s  to Create Jobs and Build Social Equity” that if the FiT is to reach its potential for greater economic development and social equity, greater clarity on the scale of the program and a more direct link of the program’s components to low income communities and the unskilled workforce is needed. Greater awareness is needed about the program, the report authors say.

To address these problems, the report recommends the following:

  • Scale up the FiT from its current size of 100 MW to 600 MW, which would satisfy solar advocates’ goal for Los Angeles to source 20 percent of its electricity by 2020 from rooftop solar (and bring FiT’s overall installed capacity to 1200 MW). Doing so would eliminate the uncertainty about the program’s future, create a lasting impact on the local job market and encourage more solar first to invest or relocate, the report reasons.
  • Make the program more attractive to smaller projects by offering special pricing that takes into consideration economies of scale, or the higher proportional costs needed to develop smaller projects
  • Revise the way FiT projects are selected (via a lottery) to one that rewards quality proposals, or ones that have built-in features that advance social equity in the workforce
  • Create infrastructure for unskilled workers to move beyond installation jobs and get access to train for higher-paying and more permanent jobs in the solar industry. Apprenticeship programs, for example, create an opportunity for workers to advance to a journeyman position.
  • Increase awareness about the program for building owners and workforce development programs in order to maximize impacts on all aspects of the program
  • Prioritize projects located in underserved communities, areas with high unemployment or those in areas disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice, or environmental hazards

The countdown is on to make these changes: With solar incentives and programs running on their last breaths — the federal residential tax credit will expire in 2017, and the commercial incentive will be pared down to 10 percent, for example — the FiT becomes even greater in its significance, the researchers say.

“We are hopeful,” Pastor and DeShazo write. “The most critical ingredients for securing Los Angeles’ solar future are already in place.”

Efforts to harness the FiT to benefit underserved communities and working towards solar equity are also on the agenda for business leaders, policymakers, environmental advocates and academics, they acknowledge.

Yet what will be key to manifesting this vision of solar equity, the report authors say, is making sure that all the moving parts work together.

“Bridging the gap between old and new are innovative policies that can connect the imperatives of economic growth with long-standing concerns about social equity and the environment … The FiT is one of these bridges to both a new future and new set of conversations about our shared future.”

Los Angeles sunrise photo CC-licensed by Eric Demarcq on Flickr.

Kristine Wong
Author: Kristine Wong

Kristine Wong is a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food. Her work has been featured in The Guardian (UK / US), The Huffington Post, GreenBiz, and other publications. Before becoming a journalist, she worked in community-based environmental and public health organizations for more than 10 years as a researcher and community organizer. She has degrees in natural resources and journalism from U.C. Berkeley and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Washington. Follow her on Twitter @wongkxt.

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