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In Our Backyard

How to Increase Renewable Energy Production on Big Buildings and Other Local Spaces

Many large-scale renewable energy developments require new, expensive transmission lines and face significant land-use and related hurdles. Siting and construction will take years. As an alternative, renewable energy technology can be installed on the rooftops of large commercial and government buildings, and in other spaces such as wastewater treatment plants, the aqueduct, and highway rights-of-way. Many of these systems could be considerably large while still allowing the power to be generated close to the customers using it. This type of decentralized electricity production is a critical alternative and complement to large-scale renewable developments.

California’s electricity sector is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing almost 20 percent of statewide emissions. As a result, the state’s climate change goals necessitate reductions from this sector through energy efficiency measures to reduce demand and by switching from fossil fuel-based energy to renewable sources.

Achieving California’s 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goal (80% below 1990 levels) will almost certainly be impossible without significantly decarbonizing the electricity system. Experts estimate that the 2050 goals will require a 90 percent reduction from business-as-usual emission levels.

Decentralized generation represents the fastest and most reliable option for increasing renewable energy supplies. Rooftop solar could provide 60,929 MW of electricity, equivalent to 128 to 213 percent of the amount of energy California will need from off-site renewable sources to meet the RPS requirements.

Policy Needs

Policy Solutions

Providing Predictable and Adequate Financing.

Improve and Expand Existing Financial Programs.

Federal Government

Ensure that renewable energy tax incentives can be applied efficiently to public properties, such as schools and government buildings.

Public entities like schools cannot benefit directly from federal tax incentives for renewables because they are tax-exempt entities and are therefore disqualified under existing law. As a result, the best financing option for these public institutions is to enter into a power purchase agreement (PPA). To encourage widespread investment in PPA arrangements, the Internal Revenue Service could issue a “Revenue Procedure” that defines the acceptable structure and terms for solar financing under a PPA.

Federal Government

Consider creating a “Green Bank” that would extend federal loan guarantees to renewable energy projects.

Existing federal loan guarantees and tax incentives may not be sufficient to provide adequate financing given the scale of the renewable energy needs in the country.

State Government

Strengthen and improve California’s existing feed-in tariff program by expanding it to cover larger sources at a rate that will increase production without over-stimulating the market.

Sources from 3.0 to 20 MW currently are not covered by the feed-in tariff program. A new feed-in tariff should allow these sources to receive payments from the utilities for their energy contributions to the grid.

State Government

Allow owners of renewable energy systems to sell surplus electricity to more than two adjacent properties without facing regulation by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) as a utility.

Currently, the CPUC regulates as a utility any owner of a renewable energy system who sells that energy to more than two users on adjacent properties. The legislature should increase this number to increase the profit potential for renewable investors and therefore stimulate more private financing for decentralized generation.

Local Government & Municipal Utilities

Allow businesses and local public agencies to have access to municipal bond money to finance renewable energy investments.

This local bond money would provide yet another source of financing for renewable energy projects.

Local Government & Municipal Utilities

Develop a robust municipal utility feed-in tariff program that includes a payment plan that will increase production without over-stimulating the market.

Municipal utilities, such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, have the authority to develop their own feed-in tariff programs in the absence of state and federal legislation to the contrary. These local government entities should implement an effective feed-in tariff program to stimulate more renewable energy production locally.

Addressing Uncertain Government Permitting and Regulatory Programs.

Improve Existing Incentives for Decentralized Generation.

Federal Government

Amend the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) to require states to enact policies that will expand the use of decentralized renewable generation.

Such policies include improvements to state net metering programs and introduction of feed-in tariffs. Enacted in 1978, PURPA encourages increased energy efficiency and alternative forms of energy production; states are responsible for implementation.

Federal Government

Strengthen net-metering programs by requiring states to allow utilities to meet a greater percentage of their peak load from renewable distributed generation and to increase the size limits of eligible renewable energy sources.

Some net metering programs, like California, contain caps on the total amount of renewable energy generation that the program will cover and on the size of the sources providing the renewable energy. The federal government should require states to remove these limits in order to expand decentralized generation opportunities.

Federal Government

Clarify that states are not preempted from establishing feed-in tariffs.

The extent of states’ authority to set feed in tariffs under the Federal Power Act is not entirely clear and some have claimed that feed-in tariffs are preempted by federal law. Congress should remove the legal uncertainty by clarifying that states are free to develop a feed-in tariff without fear of preemption.

Federal Government

Require FERC to consider decentralized renewable energy generation as an alternative or as a complement to siting new transmission lines for renewable energy projects.

FERC should make the expansion of decentralized generation a policy goal that is identified as a preferred alternative to siting new transmission lines for large central-station projects when decentralized generation is demonstrated to be the more cost-effective alternative.

State Government

Improve the net metering program by increasing the size limits on eligible sources and the utility load percentage that can be met through decentralized generation.

Net metering in California caps the size of eligible sources of renewable energy generation and the total amount of generation allowed as a percentage of each utility’s load. These limitations must be increased or eliminated.

State Government

Expand California’s Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) process to include decentralized renewable energy generation as a preferred alternative to new and large transmission-dependent renewable energy projects.

RETI has focused exclusively on facilitating large central-station projects. The state should ensure that decentralized generation alternatives are accorded preferred weight in the RETI process.

State Government

Modify the California Solar Initiative to provide rebates for PPAs when the electricity generated is used off-site.

Currently, the CSI only offers rebates to PPAs where the energy is consumed on-site. Allowing rebates for PPAs with off-site consumption would provide greater incentives for these financing arrangements and therefore greater deployment of renewables.

State Government

Require utilities that lease commercial rooftop space for renewable energy installations to offer the property owners an option to share some of the costs and benefits.

More commercial property owners may be willing to lease their roof space to utilities for renewable energy production if they could use some of the electricity for their on-site needs or could earn renewable energy credits (REC) from the renewable energy produced. The CPUC should consider requiring utilities to present these options to potential lessees.

Local Government

Simplify the permitting process for renewable energy technology, including wind and solar, to create a “one-stop shopping” permit.

Many business and agencies have limited resources to navigate the complex permitting requirements. A simplified process with easy-to-use brochures and checklists would solve this problem.

Local Government

Share best practices for permitting and siting with other local governments.

Local governments that have been at the forefront of siting renewable energy technology should help other local governments learn from their experiences.

Improving Education and Outreach.

Educate Business Owners and Policymakers about Benefits and Opportunities for Decentralized Renewable Energy Generation.

State & Federal Government

Instruct state and federal agencies to utilize, when possible, public buildings, including structures along rights-of-way, large offices, and other sizeable facilities for renewable energy generation.

Without a clear directive in their organizational mission, an agency is unlikely to capitalize on the renewable energy potential of its assets.

State & Federal Government

Modify applicable procurement rules to encourage federal agencies to invest in renewable energy.

Agencies should be allowed and encouraged to capitalize on these technologies due to their long term cost-effectiveness and overall utility to the environment.

Local Government

Direct planners to consider renewable energy potential when they devise local codes and ordinances.

This process could include zoning and building height rules that maximize sun exposure to increase the solar potential for buildings, as well as zoning and building codes designed to harness the potential of wind energy as it travels through municipalities.

Local Government

Designate preferred areas for renewable energy development as part of the general plan update process.

General plans represent the blueprint for how a city or county will develop, and the zoning and other building and infrastructure requirements must conform to this document. By highlighting areas where local renewable energy generation facilities could be effectively located, general plans can facilitate the construction of these facilities.

Industry Leaders

Educate company salespeople, large building owners, and policy makers about the potential for siting large renewable energy arrays on their properties.

Renewable energy suppliers will need an organized marketing campaign to inform companies and agencies about their decentralized generation opportunities.

Industry Leaders

Educate businesses about the time-limited nature of existing federal and state tax credits to encourage immediate investment in renewable technology.

The sales and marketing departments at renewable energy companies will have to address the perception among customers that they will benefit financially by waiting to purchase.

Addressing Landlord/Tenant Split Incentives.

Improve the Energy Payment and Rebate Policies for Landlords and Tenants.

State Government and Municipal Utilities

Devise a feed-in tariff program that will allow the renewable energy investor/ property owner to receive payments directly for the energy generated on the property.

Under this program, the landlord/investor receives payments directly from the utility for the electricity generated on the property and fed into the grid, rather than having that energy reduce the tenant’s electricity bill (as with net metering) with no savings or financial benefits for the owner.

State Government

Expand “virtual net metering” to allow multiple tenants in a single building to receive proportional credit on their electricity bills for the renewable energy generated on-site.

Under this program, a landlord can install a renewable system on a building and use the electricity credits to offset the energy use from the building’s common areas (such as hallways and community facilities), with the remaining credits offsetting each tenant’s electricity bill according to a pre-determined proportion.

“We have existing buildings with multiple tenants and meters. It’s too much work to feasibly make renewables happen. It should be much easer.”

Roby Uptegraff, The Irvine Company