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Shadow falls on San Francisco solar rebates

Funding is on hold for what was meant to become the largest solar incentives for homeowners offered by a U.S. city.

A plan designed to help make San Francisco the nation's solar power capital hit a budget snag last week.

The largest residential solar rebates from a U.S. city would have offered up to $5,000 to homeowners who install photovoltaic panels. But the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has halted launching the solar program, pending the S.F. Board of Supervisors' decision to review funding. Supervisor Jake McGoldrick introduced a proposal Tuesday to freeze $3 million needed for the rebates.

"It's troubling that what appears to be a political debate has gotten in the way of what would help San Francisco maintain its status as a very attractive place for green businesses," said Nat Kreamer, president of Sun Run, which launched last fall in San Francisco as the country's first residential solar-energy provider.

The San Francisco solar incentive was designed to provide $3,000 to $4,000 in rebates to homeowners, plus another $1,000 for those in low-income neighborhoods, as well as up to $10,000 to businesses installing solar power.

Landlords can also apply for discounts through the California Solar Initiative as well as receive a 30 percent federal tax credit.

Adding solar panels to a single-family home usually costs close to $30,000.

Sun Run had projected that the city's rebate program, dubbed GoSolarSF, would potentially double its number of solar installations, Kreamer said. San Francisco counts just 744 sets of solar panels out of 195,000 rooftops.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission aims for 15,000 rooftops to be solar-equipped by 2010.

"The incentive levels the playing field for people to do residential installations in the city," Kreamer said. "Definitely there's a lot of support from consumers and people in the industry."

If necessary, Mayor Gavin Newsom hopes to re-introduce solar rebates on the ballot for June and expects overwhelming support from the public, according to his office.

Newsom has been heavily touting the potential to reduce San Francisco's carbon footprint and dependence on foreign oil by expanding renewable energy from solar, wind, and wave and tidal sources.

He accuses politicians of "playing in the margins" with efforts to slow global warming. City supervisors and newspaper writers, meanwhile, have pounced on Newsom for allegedly bloating the budget with climate-change programs.

Although San Francisco's solar rebates may have suffered a local political setback, elsewhere in California efforts have accelerated supporting the state's mandate to derive 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

On Thursday Southern California Edison launched an $875 million plan to build a virtual, 250-megawatt, inland power "plant" of thousands of solar panels across the rooftops of businesses. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backs the effort.

Last year, demand for help with installing solar power via the California Solar Incentives outstripped the state's current number of solar installations, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.