San Francisco GoSolar program's future remains uncertain 

Luminalt workers prepare to install solar panels at a Twin Peaks home. The company’s clients can take advantage of incentives — ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 — from the GoSolar program. - ANNA LATINO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Anna Latino/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Luminalt workers prepare to install solar panels at a Twin Peaks home. The company’s clients can take advantage of incentives — ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 — from the GoSolar program.

Finding herself “directionless” and apart from her child, Western Addition resident Melissa McDermott underwent 14 weeks of training on solar installations through the Asian Neighborhood Design nonprofit. She was then connected to the founder of solar installer Luminalt, who hired her.

McDermott is still working there and is now living with her 10-year-old child. The 35-year-old credits the city-operated GoSolar program for turning her life around.

But while GoSolar has led to thousands of solar installations for businesses and homeowners and created dozens of jobs, the program’s staunch advocates say funding cuts are threatening its continued success.

Since the program began in 2008 under the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, $17.1 million has been provided for 2,158 applicants. GoSolar has been celebrated for creating jobs and boosting San Francisco’s green energy portfolio.

But in recent years, the SFPUC has reduced the program’s funding, which comes from the sale of electricity
produced by its Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric system. Funding has decreased from $5 million to an all-time low of
$2 million this fiscal year.

The agency says the reduction was needed so that the funds could “pay for critical maintenance” of the Hetch Hetchy system, but program advocates worry the cut is more about the agency’s lack of commitment to
GoSolar’s success.

The advocacy group Brightline Defense Project, which has long fought for the program, decried the cuts in a Feb. 12 letter to the agency, saying they “threaten” the program and stop its “momentum,” adding that, “the Assessor-Recorder’s Office has reported calls from upset customers unable to access these incentives.”

Demand is exceeding the incentives, the SFPUC confirmed.

For example, last quarter, the agency received 199 applications for solar incentives and only had enough funding for 61; the cost of those installations totaled $416,000. The installation of a solar system can cost a homeowners between  $12,000 to $15,000.

Incentives vary and include $2,000 for a homeowner and up to $7,000 for a low-income home. Businesses can receive an incentive of up to $10,000. There also is a federal tax credit for solar installations.

GoSolar, Brightline noted, has led to the creation of 5.3 megawatts of new solar power in San Francisco and the hiring of more than 80 low-income residents, which is a requirement for solar installers to benefit from the program.

Jeanine Cotter, who started Luminalt with her husband in 2004 out of a garage in their Sunset district home, has grown the business to 20 employees today and operates on Potrero Avenue.

Cotter said more investment in GoSolar would lead to an optimal result: more installations, more local hires and more solar power.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful; it’s been a great program,” Cotter said. But “the biggest issue right now is the fact that we can’t with any certainty say to somebody you’re going to get” the incentives.

Harlan Kelly, recently appointed new head of the SFPUC after the retirement of Ed Harrington, said during a commission hearing in early February that he wanted to have a public debate about the program’s future.

Kelly also said he planned to add $1 million to the program, but a week later, agency spokesman Charles Sheehan said the additional funding was not guaranteed and may be needed instead to buy energy to offset a lack of Hetch Hetchy energy output in the coming months.

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