LOS ANGELES — A joint study released by researchers from USC and UCLA identified a huge potential for solar power infrastructure and jobs in the Southern California region, a void Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment is helping local residents and businesses fill.

The report, presented by the Los Angeles Business Council, takes aim at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which has lagged far behind other utilities in the amount of solar cells installed per customer.

It’s a loss to the whole region, and prevents trained members of the solar workforce, like those graduating from the Santa Monica College Sustainable Technologies Program, from finding work in an area begging for jobs.

“The UCLA Luskin Center has determined that a robust solar energy program in Los Angeles has the potential to create $2 billion in local investment and 16,000 job-years with minimal impact on ratepayers,” the report reads.

The regional winner, Southern California Edison, provides power to 35,078 square miles of Southern California, including Santa Monica.

Its work installing solar panels on the roofs of 40 sprawling warehouses has led the utility to provide 20 percent of its power through renewables, said Gil Alexander, a spokesperson for SoCal Edison.

The combined power generation of those cells hits 500 million watts.

“It’s like having a solar power plant in your neighborhood, connected to your home and business,” Alexander said.

SoCal Edison also has the responsibility of plugging residents and businesses into state rebate programs that incentivize individuals to take on the expensive task of outfitting their homes with photovoltaic cells, a process which cuts into the amount of power that a customer would need to purchase from the utility giant.

The paperwork and bureaucracy to get a foot in the door can be intimidating, said Dean Kubani, director of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, and that’s where his Solar Santa Monica staff comes in.

Solar Santa Monica staff deploy to homes and businesses to do an on-site inspection. They measure it, pencil out the electricity bills and give the home or business owner the information before they ever get a bid for solar cells.

They then navigate the tricky waters of SoCal Edison to get the individual the benefits they’re entitled to.

“Basically, the city isn’t giving an incentive, but it’s doing a lot of hand holding and helping people do this,” Kubani said. “A number of businesses have taken us up on that.”

At one point, City Hall had intentions to get behind an aggressive solar program. In 2005, it conducted a study that identified that if the city pushed forward with solar as well as other sustainability measures, Santa Monica could be electrically self-sufficient by 2020.

The City Council never officially authorized the goal, and it has since been pushed back as a result of tight budgets.

That hasn’t stopped Kubani’s office from laying the groundwork needed to launch a massive solar program when funds become available.

According to Kubani, the main impediment to businesses or homes installing solar power cells is the upfront cost.

Optimistically, it will take seven years for a homeowner to recoup the cost of solar installation through savings in electrical costs, but some architects estimate the true time is closer to 10 years or more.

To help bridge the capital gap, Kubani’s office has begun work creating a Solar Fund, which would allow private investors to provide loans to residents looking to install solar panels.

The residents would get fast cash to install solar; investors would earn interest on their investment and get tax benefits and credits.

“If we can raise $50 million or $100 million, that’s a lot of solar on roofs,” Kubani said.

Institutions like the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District pursued a different route. Rather than paying for the cells, the district engaged in a contract called a “power purchase.”

For the full cost for installation, and the district pays a constant electricity cost over the course of 20 years.

“No out of pocket costs, and they get solar power,” Kubani summed up.

Installing solar panels may save a home or business money in the long run, but learning to install them is a career.

With that in mind, City Hall offers courses for solar installation through the City Yards using money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), better known as the stimulus bill.

The road is paved for solar here on the Westside, it just needs some money to get the ball rolling.

“We are poised, ready and looking for every opportunity to rapidly expand the amount of solar we have here,” Kubani said. “The only thing that’s holding us back is a source of attractive funding.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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