In the winter of 2000-2001, millions of California homes went dark. Enron and other energy firms exploited California’s deregulated electricity market to create artificial shortages and jack up prices, resulting in rolling blackouts. The crisis bankrupted a utility and cost the state $40 billion in energy costs.
It also set the stage for a clean energy revolution in California.
State leaders proposed increased investment in new natural gas-fired power plants, but we had a different vision, one with far more clean energy. Working with CALPIRG and others, we made the case that within a decade, California could generate large amounts of energy from wind, solar and other clean, renewable sources.
One of California’s most important clean energy resources was on its rooftops. With the right incentives and targets, the Golden State had the potential to make rooftop solar power a mainstream source of energy, lowering the cost along the way.
Our 2005 report Bringing Solar to Scale: California’s Opportunity to Create a Thriving, Self-Sustaining Residential Solar Market by Dave Algoso and Mary Braun, along with Bernadette Del Chiaro of Environment California Research & Policy Center, argued that by investing in rooftop solar energy for a few years, California could meaningfully reduce costs and help create the foundation of a self-sustaining solar market. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. How we expected the Million Solar Roofs Initiative to work
The Million Solar Roofs Initiative, championed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and supported by our partners at Environment California, became law in 2006, setting a goal of installing 3 gigawatts of rooftop solar – enough to power 1 million homes – throughout the state within a decade.
Within a few years, it was clear that the concept behind the Million Solar Roofs program was sound – costs dropped as the market grew. In 2011, Frontier Group’s Travis Madsen and Environment California Research & Policy Center’s Michelle Kinman and Bernadette Del Chiaro released Building a Brighter Future: California’s Progress Toward a Million Solar Roofs, celebrating the milestone of more than 1,000 megawatts of rooftop solar installations. By that point – after just five years – the Million Solar Roofs program had helped California install more solar electric generation capacity than all but five nations. As predicted, costs had fallen, too: the cost of residential solar energy installations declined by 25% from 2007 levels. (See Figure 2.) A week after the report’s release, Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman noted in his New York Times column that “We are […] on the cusp of an energy transformation, driven by the rapidly falling cost of solar power. That’s right, solar power.”
Figure 2. Costs dropped rapidly after the start of the Million Solar Roofs program (cost per watt)
The Million Solar Roofs Initiative succeeded: California achieved its 3 GW goal in 2015 and the goal of a million roofs with solar panels in 2019. It also helped lower the cost of solar energy and built the state’s capacity to add even more clean energy in the years to come. In California’s Solar Success Story: How the Million Solar Roofs Initiative Transformed the State’s Solar Energy Landscape (2015), we described how “By bringing about economies of scale in the solar energy industry, the Million Solar Roofs Initiative helped create a ‘virtuous cycle’ that will spur further innovation and growth in solar energy.”
That’s good news for all of us who care about our air and our climate. The history of the Million Solar Roofs Initiative reminds us of the power of presenting a strong vision and inspires us to continue to fight for policies that will lead to a clean energy future.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her son.