Trying to pin down funding for solar energy in the District is like wrestling a slippery fish: You think you have it, and then it jumps out of your hands again, forcing another round of pursuit.
Along with incentives from the federal government, a $3-per-kilowatt subsidy has brought rooftop solar energy systems within the reach of rank-and-file homeowners who couldn’t otherwise afford the up-front installation cost. But this last round of budget gap-closing measures was the third time funding has slipped out of the hands of advocates who’ve been trying to assure people that the District government will underwrite their decision to go solar. The $2 million promised for solar rebates in fiscal year 2011 was cut to $1.1 million, leaving 56 people who’ve already been approved for rebates—many of whom have already contracted for installations—unsure of whether the money will ever come through.
Constantly cutting funding for solar rebates is different than cutting funding for other programs. Above all else, fostering a green energy economy requires predictability: The absolute knowledge that if you go into the business of helping people put solar panels on their roofs, the government support that sustains consumer demand will be there for a while. Solar advocates thought they had accomplished this by creating a dedicated trust fund supplied with a small percentage of Pepco bills. (You may remember another dedicated funding stream, the bag tax, which was restored to Anacostia river cleanup after those who fought for it raised a ruckus when then-mayor Adrian Fenty tried to use it for something else). In such desperate fiscal times, however, the District’s general fund is a voracious thing.
On Wednesday, solar advocates and installers gathered for a meeting with the District Department of the Environment to get some clarity on what was going to happen with the rebate program—none of the applicants had even been notified that their subsidies were in danger (a majority have said that they can’t foot the entire bill themselves). They learned that DDOE was planning on introducing legislation to reprogram some $800,000 to re-supply the fund, which is expected to get support from Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh. Even then, the subsidy could be cut from $3 per kilowatt to as low as 50 cents. But there are no promises, and the group left still disappointed.
“From the point of view of solar, there’s been no sign of any vision or leadership, whatsoever,” said solar advocate Anya Schoolman, of DDOE director Christophe Tulou. “It’s frustrating, because i felt like we were just on the verge of being able to tell that success story. And now we’re starting from scratch.”
P.S. Neighborhood coops aren’t the only solar boosters who’ve been let down in D.C. lately. Solar decathlon contestants have been agitating to get their event restored to the National Mall, with over 4,000 letters and emails signed so far.