Monday, June 27, 2005

Solar Plan burns up opponents

Governor Schwarzenegger had a simple plan--install a million solar panels across California in order to help save the environment. But in Sacramento, nothing is ever so easy:

Schwarzenegger is thinking big: He wants to increase the state's total solar output from about 101 megawatts to 3,000 megawatts by 2018. That's enough nonpolluting power to run about 2.25 million homes and eliminate the need to build six large natural gas-fired generating plants.

The governor isn't the only Hollywood star backing sun power. Actors Edward Norton and Ed Begley Jr., both well-known environmental activists, spoke at a recent media event in South Central Los Angeles in support of SB 1.

But the bill, despite such high-profile backing and a bipartisan 30-5 vote in the state Senate, is facing potential difficulties in the Assembly. Opposition from business lobbies, utilities, unions and even consumer groups is setting the stage for what could be a close vote. The first hint of how the bill will fare in the Assembly is expected to come today when it faces its first hearing in the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee.

Most of the complaints about the governor's solar program center on its estimated 10-year, $2-billion-to-$3-billion price tag. Much of that would be paid by power users in the form of surcharges imposed by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Proponents estimate that the annual rate hike would be about $15 per residential customer. But business groups — usually among Schwarzenegger's staunchest supporters — complain that increases for large power users such as big-box retailers and industrial operations would be much higher — a key point in a state that already has the highest electricity rates in the continental United States.