California is the first state to pass the 1 gigawatt (GW) mark in solar that's generated from the 99% - average homeowners and businesses that have solar on their rooftops.
1.255 GW of solar is being generated by over 122,000 rooftops, and the growth is largely attributable to a big pick-up by low-income and middle-income homeowners.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reports that middle-income projects made possible by the California Solar Initiative (CSI) grew 445% between 2007 and 2011. Those projects represent the majority of applications submitted last year.
CSI-backed investments in low-income markets have also increased dramatically, up 364% since 2007. Approximately 1,500 low-income households have installed panels as a result of California's Single-Family Affordable Homes (SASH) program, CPUC says.
And state incentives for to put solar on apartment buildings and other multi-family affordable housing are also spreading the wealth via "virtual net metering." Tenants can even get credit on their utility bills for sending solar to the grid.
Last year, a record-breaking 311 MW was installed in the utility territories covered under CSI. Activity this year is on pace to surpass that achievement, CPUC says.
"California's solar success is unmatched in the nation," says Michael Peevey, president of the CPUC. "In the first quarter of 2012, there has already been 97 MW of solar installed. This means that the CSI Program is on track to reach 1,000 MW in installations by the end of the year."
The CSI-Thermal Program, which offers rebates for solar water heating systems, is also picking up speed: it has received 704 applications for $4.87 million in incentives.
With an initial budget of $3.3 billion, CSI is the nation's largest solar incentive program covering customers of Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.
CPUC's goal is to bring 3.3 GW of solar capacity online by 2016. Statewide, California Governor Jerry Brown is pushing for solar capacity of 12 GW by 2020.
California already is home to the most installed solar PV in the US. San Diego leads its cities, with 4,507 systems installed through the third quarter of 2011.
Lower prices have surely helped move solar beyond the wealthy. Average installed costs per watt for systems under 10 kilowatts (kW) have dropped 28% since 2007, from $10.69 to $7.75 and systems over 10 kW have dropped from$9.36 to $6.83.
But the game changer are solar leases, enabling people at all income levels to install solar without the big upfront cost of paying for installation and solar panels.
SolarCity, Sungevity and Sunrun lead the industry in providing these systems in exchange for signing a long term contract for monthly payments that are cheaper than paying the utility for electricity.
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