What’s the Real Value of Solar in California?

Determining the exact cost — and worth — of rooftop solar panels should be getting much easier. However, it seems like the technology has yet to meet up with the precise need for utilities and solar companies alike. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that last year, the California Public Utilities Commission used a computer model to analyze the cost-effectiveness of new solar policy proposals, but the answers it produced looked strange and slow.

California’s Solar Computing

California wants to provide a solution that will replace the tax credit homeowners and businesses have earned for installing rooftop solar panels. To figure that out, they’re looking to computer models that can compute this effectiveness.

But the California Public Utilities Commission, along with consultant agency Energy + Environmental Economics (E3), say the recent test run has produced unreliable results because some data fields were filled out with hypothetical numbers as a placeholder.

“We have this very complicated modeling exercise that is built into Excel and takes four-and-a-half hours to run,” said Alison Seel of the Sierra Club. “It doesn’t matter how big your computer is. They’ve kind of created this whole universe in Excel.”

With that in mind — a computer model build on an Excel platform to allow an easy view of data — this is the model that the state is running to obtain an unbiased evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of solar. The Union-Tribune cites that the solar industry has described the tool as “complex, difficult to understand and time-consuming,” with one industry attorney writing they are “skeptical” the computer can really analyze the issues.

What’s at Stake with California’s Solar?

Considering that California is the nation’s largest solar market, it’s imperative that solar policy changes assist homeowners, solar companies, and utility-scale solar, not hurt. That’s why this model needs to work — and fast. Tax credits are set to expire at the end of 2015, both federally and statewide.

The Sierra Club argues that this final computer model may underestimate the value of things like home batteries that can be paired with solar or how solar will reduce greenhouse gases. These economic and societal benefits could make a difference in the final numbers.

Meanwhile, California utilities haven’t provided formal proposals about the cost and benefits of solar energy or rooftop solar panels. And in Sacramento this December, the commission will consider both utilities and customers in figuring out how much solar users need to pay to maintain the grid.

So with six months left to determine solar pricing in a fair and equitable way, will E3’s computer model serve up the right numbers? Who’s going to really win out in this situation, utility companies or solar customers? And how will this impact solar in California on the whole? Only time will tell.

What do you think of the state’s solar computer model? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

Image Credit: Pixabay under a Creative Commons license

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