California Hits Solar Energy Milestone

The California Public Utilities Commission announced earlier this month that 1,066 megawatts of solar power was installed through the California Solar Initiative (CSI) by the end of December 2012, putting the program more than halfway toward its goal of installing 1,940 new megawatts of solar power statewide by 2016. San Jose, which has installed 54.6 megawatts on homes and commercial buildings, became the state’s top solar city.

Funded by electric ratepayers in 2007 with a budget of $2.8 billion, CSI offers cash back rebates to those who install solar power systems, both for residential and commercial use. In this way, homeowners, businesses, farms, schools, local governments, and nonprofit organizations can offset the cost of their electric use with the rooftop solar power they generate. Because the response has been positive and demands strong, from $2.50 per watt in 2007 to 20 cents a watt now, the rebates continue to decrease while a self-sufficient solar industry is forming.

To put that impressive accomplishment in perspective, one-thousand megawatts is roughly equivalent to the output of a standard single-unit nuclear power plant or two medium-sized coal-fired power plants, which helps to power 750 to 1000 homes. As a leader in renewable energy production in the nation, California has the most solar capacity than any other state—its hundreds of thousands of solar roofs are helping to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, mitigating air pollution, and creating a better environment for everyone. And the state’s farms and ranches lead the country in the production of renewable energy, generating nearly one-quarter of U.S. on-farm clean power according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Achieving this benchmark is worth celebrating. We also caution that as California continues moving toward its clean energy targets, we must be mindful of doing so without compromising our invaluable farmland resources. Developing large-scale solar farms on agricultural land not only threatens the food production system of one of the world’s most productive regions, but it removes the potential for sequestering carbon in the soils and woody material of plants on farms. Guidelines such as those recommended in a report from the Defenders of Wildlife (Smart from the Start) are needed for these types of land use decisions. We continue to look for ways to accelerate distributed, local, small-scale renewable energy generation that not only provides opportunities for local economies but also avoids impacts on prime agricultural land.

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