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Sunny California gets behind bright idea

State launches solar power plan

SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Public Utilities Commission yesterday approved a $2.9 billion program to make California one of the world's largest producers of solar power.

The California Solar Initiative, backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, aims to add 3,000 megawatts of solar energy over 11 years through the installation of 1 million rooftop solar energy systems on homes, businesses, farms, schools, and public buildings.

That amount of electricity would be equivalent to about six new power stations. The measure was approved on a 3-1 vote with one commissioner recusing himself because of a possible conflict of interest.

Michael Peevey, president of the commission, said the effort ''is designed to create a sustainable solar industry" and to demonstrate California's leadership in moving to reduce dependence on fossil fuels to produce energy.

If the program is fully implemented, California would become the world's third-largest solar generator behind Japan and Germany. The state currently produces about 100 megawatts of solar electricity.

The program will offer rebates for adding solar power systems. It is also expected to give a big boost to manufacturers of solar power generating cells and panels.

An industry official said the commission's decision will give investors more certainty about the future of solar electricity.

''This is a phenomenal decision. The regulatory environment has been the number one uncertainty for the investment community. This long-term program provides the certainty we have been sorely lacking," said Howard Wenger, executive vice president of privately held PowerLight Corp., a Berkeley-based solar systems developer.

The money for the program will come from funds already earmarked for solar energy and gas and electric utility rates.

The average residential utility bill would go up 65 cents a month, according to Environment California, a solar power supporter.

Solar spending could save California utility customers an estimated $9 billion from a reduced need to build power plants and purchase electricity supplies during high-demand days in the summer, according to a commission report.

Schwarzenegger pushed a solar energy bill in the state Legislature last year, but it stalled amid policy disputes and amendments.

The Republican governor's energy goals call for making renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, 20 percent of California's electricity resources by 2017.

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