by Sammy Roth
The Imperial Irrigation District quietly reopened its rebate program for rooftop solar installations this week, telling local solar installers that nearly $3 million in funding is still available.
The district took heat from solar installers earlier this year after lowering its rebates for small systems from $1.55 per watt to $1 per watt, and then to 50 cents per watt. The move was meant to open up more funding and allow more customers to secure rebates, but some solar installers said the changes would cause customers who had already applied for loans to drop their projects.
Vincent Battaglia, CEO of Renova Solar in Palm Desert, said his installation company lost all 24 of its rooftop solar applicants when the rebate dropped from $1 per watt to 50 cents per watt.
“Fifty cents is abysmal. The amount of money in their program is inadequate,” Battaglia said. “They have 120,000 ratepayers, and maybe 100 of them will be able to go solar this year with the rebate.”
Kirk Weiss, regional sales manager for Planet Solar in Palm Desert, said about half of his company’s applicants dropped their projects after the rebates fell. He added, though, that he now has about a dozen customers looking to apply for funding, all of whom submitted their applications knowing the rebate would be lower.
“If they drop it (the rebate) again, that might change things,” Weiss said.
Sabrina Barber, the Imperial Irrigation District’s assistant energy manager, said she does not believe the lowered rebates have caused many applicants to drop their projects. Of the 232 approved applications, she said, only 15 have been canceled, while 140 are “in process.”
“Although there have been a few cancellations as a direct result of the reduced incentive, the impact has been minimal and, in fact, more customers are receiving benefits through participation in the program,” Barber said in an email.
Battaglia disputed those figures. Residential solar applicants who are approved for rebates, he said, have six months to “pull the trigger” on their rooftop installations, during which time their applications are considered “in process.” Battaglia believes that many applicants who have chosen not to go forward with rooftop solar because of the lowered rebates — including some of his own customers — haven’t officially notified the district of their intent to cancel.
“Until someone cancels, they’re just figuring that the person is just going to hold on to the rebate. And that’s not true,” Battaglia said.
Champion, though, said the district is only waiting for customer action on 12 or 13 percent of the 140 “in process” applications. While there’s no way to be sure how many of those projects will be completed, Champion said all 140 applicants “have done something beyond just making the reservation.”
The district will accept new applications for rooftop solar funding Aug. 15 through Aug. 29. For commercial installations of 30 kilowatts or more, the rebate will be 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, down from an original rate of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The district chose to lower the rebates upon realizing that it was not on track to meet its state-mandated goal of installing 44 megawatts of rooftop solar by the end of 2016. With only 13 MW installed as of March, the district needed many more customers to go solar to meet that goal.
Solar installers were notified about the new application period on Monday, but the district didn’t make a public announcement. It updated a page on its website with the information, but Champion said a “big advertising blitz” wasn’t necessary.
Solar installers “have got qualified lists and people who are waiting to go with their projects,” Champion said. “It’s a short window, but we believe we should be fully subscribed again rather quickly.”
For at least a few weeks, though, the district had a different plan. Earlier this month, it issued a request for proposals that surprised some solar installers, seeking the services of a company that could administer the solar rebate program and install all of the resulting solar panels.
“IID is seeking responses from qualified companies who are capable of meeting the remaining SB1 installation goal on-time and on-budget,” the request read, referring to Senate Bill 1, which provided the basis for the district’s 44-megawatt goal. “The Respondent shall set up, launch, and market the SB1 Solar Rebate Program, oversee the installation of the remaining SB1 DG interconnection goal, and report program progress.”
The company would also “provide cost-effective solar electric systems to IID customers in the residential, commercial, government, non-profit, and low-income sectors,” and, “ensure installations are of the highest quality and conform to SB1 standards.”
Last week, though, the district changed course, canceling the request with no explanation. Battaglia called it “shocking” that the irrigation district considered that plan.
“I understand asking the third party to become the administrator … but they were also having that same administrator be the one and only installer,” he said. “You’re going to tell your ratepayers you can’t install a system with another installer?”
Champion said in an email that several factors, including “an upcoming cost of service study and potential distributive generation impact on the system” caused staff to pull the proposal. She added that while the proposal could be rereleased, it might be broken up into several pieces, with one company handling administration of the rebate program and several others being given installation contracts.