Solar power in California

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Photovoltaic (foreground) and Solar water heating (rear) panels located on rooftops in Berkeley, California. Note the low tilt of the photovoltaic panels, optimized for summer, and the high tilt of the water heating panels, optimized for winter.
Solar arrays in California, taken from the International Space Station

Solar power in California includes utility-scale solar power plants as well as local distributed generation, mostly from rooftop photovoltaics. It has been growing rapidly because of high insolation, community support, declining solar costs, and a Renewable Portfolio Standard which requires that 33% of California's electricity come from renewable resources by 2020, and 50% by 2030.[1] Much of this is expected to come from solar power via photovoltaic facilities or concentrated solar power facilities.

In 2017, California reported a total of 24,331 GWh in solar electricity generation, approximately 11.79% of all electricity produced. This represented 44.4% of the state's non-hydro renewable energy generation.[2] At the end of 2017, California had a total installed solar capacity of 11,229.9 MW, making it the highest solar power generating state in the nation.[3] SEIA currently estimates that California's solar capacity powers 4,885,000 homes in the state, and employs 100,050.

It is estimated that the state will add an additional 13,670 MW of capacity over a period between 2017 and 2021.


Utility-Scale Solar Power Plants in California. Gold marks denote PV power plants, while red marks represent solar thermal power plants. Size is proportional to total installed capacity.

Over the last 20 years, California has been home to a number of world's largest solar facilities, many of which are located in the Mojave Desert. In 1991, the 354 MW Solar Energy Generating Systems plant (located in San Bernardino County, California) held the title until being bested by the 392 MW Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a solar thermal plant located in San Bernardino County near the Nevada border.

The early to mid 2010s saw the sharpest increase in solar development.[4] By the end of 2013, California had 490 MW of concentrated solar power and 5,183 MW of photovoltaics capacity in operation.[5]

In 2014, the 550 MW Topaz Solar Farm became the new "world's largest operational" solar facility and went online in San Luis Obispo County, California. A second 550 MW facility, Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, also went online in Riverside County in 2014 and was constructed by First Solar. Both these were superseded, however, by the Solar Star photovoltaic project that went online with 579 MW in June 2015 in Antelope Valley, California, which is located in southern Kern County.[6] While California hosted the three largest photovoltaic facilities in the world (as of July 2015), there are yet several proposals for even larger facilities seeking regulatory approval in California, such as the 2.7 GW Westlands Solar Park.

In December 2017, the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. The program will allocate one billion dollars from the state's greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program over the following decade to incentivize owners of affordable, multi-family buildings to install solar, with a goal of adding 300MW of capacity.[7]

California also leads the nation in the number of homes which have solar panels installed, totaling over 230,000.[8] Many were installed because of the Million Solar Roof Initiative.[9]

In May 2018, the 5 commissioners of the California Energy Commission (CEC) voted unanimously to require that nearly all new homes in the state be built with solar panels.[10] Starting in January 2020, all new homes under 4 stories will have photovoltaic solar panels installed.[11] The size of the systems to be installed is to be somewhat limited and is intended to perform a supplementary role. Builders will be able to decrease the size of the system further if they incorporate power storage into the home. The justification for the smaller size of the systems is due to the high amount of clean energy in the grid during the day, much of which is attributable to California's extensive use of utility grade solar systems. This overlap would devalue a more powerful home solar system, as the energy it would displace from the grid would be largely solar generated.[12]

Housing affordability is also a concern with this measure. The requirement of photovoltaic panels on new homes is expected to make them less affordable, an area where California already struggles greatly - with the only state less affordable being Hawaii.[13] The CEC released data showing that the system would more than pay for itself, however charitable organizations such as Habitat for Humanity have expressed their concerns as this will require the organization to receive additional donations in order to pay for the photovoltaic panels that the group would be required to install on every house it builds.[14]


In 2011, California's goal to install 3,000 MW of distributed generation by 2016 was expanded to 12,000 MW by 2020.[15] California has more photovoltaics installed than any other federal state, and 48% of the U.S. total in 2010. For the first time in 2008 the installed photovoltaics exceeded the state's 354 MW of solar thermal (CSP).[16][17][18] There are plans to build over 15,000 MW of utility scale photovoltaic plants in California.[19] At the end of 2012, small systems of less than 10 kWp were averaging $5.39/W, and large systems of over 500 kWp were averaging $2.77/W.[20]

California has the technical potential to install 128.9 GW of rooftop solar panels, which would generate 194,000 GWh/year, about 74% of the total electricity used in California in 2013. This is environmentally desirable because it would conserve large swaths of desert by placing panels atop preexisting structures instead. 128 GW, though, is three to four times as much electricity as is used at once, which requires that most of the noon output will need to be stored or exported on a sunny day.[21]

Source: NREL[22]


Under construction[edit]


Part of the 354 MW SEGS solar complex in northern San Bernardino County, California.

Solar thermal power[edit]

Parabolic reflector for the SEGS power plant

California has several large concentrated solar power plants.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (392 MW), located 40 miles (60 km) southwest of Las Vegas and developed by BrightSource Energy and Bechtel, is the world's largest solar thermal power project.[34][35] The project has received a $1.375 billion loan guarantee from the United States Department of Energy. It deploys 347,000 heliostat mirrors focusing solar energy on boilers located on centralized solar power towers.[34]

The Genesis Solar Energy Project is an operational 250 MW solar thermal power station located in Riverside County, California. It features a parabolic trough design and is run by NextEra Energy Resources.[36]


  • The Solar Energy Generating Systems, is a 361 MW (was 394 MW until 2014) parabolic trough concentrated solar power station located in the Mojave Desert completed in 1990.
  • The Genesis Solar Energy Project, is a 280 MW parabolic trough concentrated solar power station located in the Mojave Desert completed in 2013.
  • The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, is a 392 MW solar power tower concentrated solar power station located in the Mojave Desert completed in 2014.
  • The Mojave Solar Project, is a 280 MW parabolic trough concentrated solar power station located in the Mojave Desert completed in 2014.

Total operational installed gross power is 1,313 MW (1346 MW until 2014). Production in 2015 was 2,309 GWh, 71.2% of U.S. total solar thermal generation.[37]


South Belridge Oil Field, near Bakersfield, California, a solar EOR facility that is projected to eliminate 376,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. It was announced in November 2017 as a joint venture between GlassPoint Solar and Aera Energy.[38]

In 2012, the Bureau of Land Management gave priority status to 5 solar project proposals in California.[28] The 750 MW McCoy Solar Energy Project was proposed by NextEra, though only 1/3 of that wattage was ever installed. The remaining development of the project is currently on hold. The 100 MW Desert Harvest project has been proposed by enXco. The 664 MW Calico Solar Energy Project was redesigned by K Power but later abandoned.[39]


Utility-scale California solar electric generation according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA)[40][41] [42]

2017 CA Solar Energy Generation Profile
2015 Monthly Solar Energy Profile for CA
Year Generation
(% of CA total)
(% of USA Solar)
2010 769 0.4% 63.5%
2011 889 0.4% 48.2%
2012 1,382 0.7% 31.9%
2013 3,814 1.9% 42.8%
2014 9,932 5.0% 54.0%
2015 14,814 7.53% 59.5%
2016 18,807 9.5% 52.2%
2017 24,353 11.8% 45.7%
2018* 26,951 13.7% 40.5%

(*) Preliminary data from Electric Power Monthly.

Beginning with the 2014 data year, Energy Information Administration has estimated distributed solar photovoltaic generation and distributed solar photovoltaic capacity. These non-utility scale estimates project that, California, generated the following additional solar energy.

Estimated Distributed Solar Electric Generation in California[43][44][45]
Year Summer Capacity
Electric energy
2014 2350 3,862
2015 3391.4 6,014
2016 5257.9 8,230
2017 6617.8 10,900
2018 7879.5 13,401


On May 13, 2017, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) reported that the state had broken a new renewable energy record, with non-hydro renewables providing 67.2% of the total electricity on the ISO's grid, with another 13.5% being provided by hydro. The ISO reported that solar was providing approximately 17.2% of the total electricity.

On March 5, 2018, at around 1 PM, utility grade solar energy met 50% of California's total electrical power demand for the first time.[46]

Government support[edit]

Renewable Portfolio Standard[edit]

Solar power in California has been growing rapidly. The most recent Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), SB 100 effective January 1, 2019, requires that 60% of California's electricity come from renewable resources by 2030, and 100% by 2045.[47] Much of this is expected to come from solar power.

According to a recent report by the California Public Utilities Commission, California failed to meet the 20% renewables by 2010 target. Pacific Gas and Electric Company and Southern California Edison were the closest to meeting the goal. PG&E generated 17.7% of the electricity it sold in 2010 from renewable sources while SCE was the closest to hitting the RPS goal by producing 19.4% of its electricity from renewable sources in 2010. San Diego Gas & Electric, on the other hand, generated only 11.9% of its electricity from renewable sources in 2010.[48]

As of July 2014, California had 7,808 MW[49] of solar and 5,830 MW[50] of wind farms. California adopted feed-in tariffs, a tool similar to what Europe has been using, to encourage the solar power industry. Proposals were raised aiming to create a small-scale solar market in California that brings the benefits of the German market, such as distributed generation, which avoids the need for transmission because power is generated close to where it is used, and avoid the drawbacks such as excessively high payments that could become a burden on utility customers.[51]

California Solar Initiative[edit]

The California Solar Initiative is a 2006 initiative to install 3,000 MW of additional solar power by 2016. Included in it is the Million Solar Roof Initiative.[52] In 2011, this goal was expanded to 12,000 MW by 2020.[53] As part of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Million Solar Roofs Program, California has set a goal to create 1,940 megawatts[54] of new, solar-produced electricity by 2016 — moving the state toward a cleaner energy future and helping lower the cost of solar systems for consumers. The California Solar Initiative has "a total budget of $2.167 billion between 2007 and 2016 and a goal to install approximately 1,940 MW of new solar generation capacity." [55] Many of the homes, schools and businesses which have installed solar panels can be monitored online on the Internet.[56][57]

According to the CPUC, homeowners, businesses, and local governments installed 158 MW of solar photovoltaics (PV) in 2008, doubling the 78 MW installed in 2007, giving California a cumulative total of 441 MW of distributed solar PV systems, the highest in the country.[58] As of August 2016, 4,216 MW have been installed in 537,647 projects. The average cost of systems less than 10 kW is $5.33/watt and $4.38/watt for systems over 10 kW.[59] Of these, 3,391 MW were rooftop solar in 2015.[60]

The CSI initially offered cash incentives on solar PV systems of up to $2.50 per AC watt. These incentives, combined with federal tax incentives, could cover up to 50% of the total cost of a solar system. The incentive program was designed so that the incentives would reduce in steps based on the amount of solar installed in each of 6 categories. There are separate steps for residential and non-residential customers in the territories of each of the State's 3 investor-owned utilities. As of July 2012, the rebates range from $0.20 to $0.35 per AC watt for residential and commercial systems and from $0.70 to $1.10 for systems for non-profits and government entities.[55]

There are many financial incentives to support the use of renewable energy in other US states.[61] CSI provides more than $2 billion worth of incentives to customers for installing photovoltaic,[62] and electricity displacing solar thermal[63] systems in the three California Investor-Owned Utilities service territories.

The program was authorized by the California Public Utilities Commission and by the Senate Bill 1 (SB 1):

  • Decision (D.) 06-01-024, in collaboration with the California Energy Commission, with the goal of installing 3,000 MW of new solar facilities in California's homes and businesses by 2017.
  • On August 21, 2006, the Governor signed SB1, which directs the CPUC and the CEC to implement the CSI program consistent with specific requirements and budget limits set forth in legislation.

Responsibility for administration of the CSI Program is shared by Investor-Owned Utilities:

  • Pacific Gas and Electric Company – PG&E customers;
  • Southern California Edison Company – SCE customers;
  • California Center for Sustainable Energy – SDG&E customers.

Residential installation starts in early 2007 fell off sharply in SCE territory because of the disincentives inherent in SB1, requiring time-of-use (TOU) tariffs, with the result that homeowners who install panels may find their electric bill increasing rather than decreasing. The governor and legislature moved quickly to pass AB1714 (June 2007) to delay the implementation of this rule until 2009.

Net metering[edit]

California has a favorable net metering law, being one of five states to receive an A in 2007, while five states received an F, in an evaluation of the 38 states plus Washington D.C. with net metering.[64] IREC best practices, based on experience, recommends no limits to net metering, individual or aggregate, and perpetual roll over of kWh credits.[65] As California was rapidly approaching the 5% aggregate limit, a May 24, 2012 ruling by the CPUC clarified the calculation of the limit, and requested a report on the cost of net metering.[66][67] California subsequently uncapped the net metering program.[68] Typically states have raised or eliminated their aggregate limits before they were reached.[69] By 2011, 16 states including California received an A for net metering.[70]

Hourly graphs of total electric load (blue), solar power (grey) and the difference (red) which is known as the duck curve. Wind barely included. Note duck curve's steep rise from 17:00 to 18:00 as the sun sets, requiring some 5 gigawatt of generating capacity to come on line within one hour.

The California solar deployment has increased its duck curve (power demand for traditional power plants) to the point where large power plants are turned down to minimum during the day, while requiring large and fast power ramping by load following and peaker plants to supply peak demand in the evening when the sun has gone down. Several methods are being developed to cope with the change.[71] Time-of-use pricing is being rolled out, and has been effective in Hawaii.[72]

Mandatory solar power in new homes[edit]

In March 2008, Culver City established the first in the nation mandatory solar photovoltaic requirement, which requires an installation of 1 KW of solar photovoltaic power per 10,000 square feet (930 m2) of new or major remodeled commercial building area.[73]

In March 2013, Lancaster, California became the first U.S. city to mandate the inclusion of solar panels on new homes, requiring that "every new housing development must average 1 kilowatt per house."[74] In May 2013, Sebastopol followed suit, requiring new buildings include either 2 W/sq ft (21.7 W/m2) of insulated building space of photovoltaics, or enough to provide 75% of the expected annual electricity use.[75]

Since January 1, 2014 California law requires all new buildings less than ten stories tall be "solar ready".[76]

In April 2016, San Francisco mandated that all new buildings less than ten stories tall include solar panels or solar water heating covering at least 15% of the roof, beginning January 1, 2017.[77]

In 2018, the State of California Building Standards Commission approved solar installation requirements for all new residential buildings with three stories or fewer. This requirement takes effect in 2020.[78]

Streamlined permitting[edit]

California governor Jerry Brown signed a streamlined permitting bill (AB 2188) for residential solar systems on September 22, 2014. AB 2188 has four major provisions designed to reduce red-tape associated with local solar permits and requires that, by the end of September 2015, all California cities and counties must "adopt an ordinance that creates an expedited, streamlined permitting process for residential rooftop solar energy systems of less than 10 kilowatts in size."[79] Research and industry reports project the bill could reduce the cost of installing a typical residential solar system in the state by over $1,000.[80]

Alameda County solar financing[edit]

Using a 20-year property assessment known as PACE financing, the city of Berkeley had a successful pilot program from 2008 to 2009 as the first city in the country to allow residents to obtain solar power without any initial payment. In the plan, property owners paid as much in increased property taxes as they save in energy costs, allowing them to install the panels for free at no cost to the city. Thirty eight projects are being installed for the pilot stage of the program.[81] PACE financing has spread to 28 states, but is on hold in many due to objections by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, including in Berkeley (which has not continued the pilot as a result). Legislation has been introduced to require acceptance of PACE financing.[82]

City of Los Angeles feed-in tariff[edit]

The City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power initiated a program on January 11, 2013 to pay up to 17 cents/kWh for electricity generated by up to 100 MW of solar power in a feed-in tariff program. 20 MW is reserved for small projects of less than 150 kW each. The program could be expanded to 150 MW in March.[83][84]

Year Available
2013 40 MW
2014 40 MW
2015 20 MW
Tier Available Small systems Feed in tariff
1 10 MW 2 MW 17 cents/kWh
2 25 MW 5 MW 16 cents/kWh
3 50 MW 10 MW 15 cents/kWh
4 75 MW 15 MW 14 cents/kWh
5 100 MW 20 MW 13 cents/kWh

State challenges with solar power[edit]

Energy storage is becoming a more prominent issue because photovoltaic solar panels can only generate electricity during daylight hours and thermal solar installations can only store energy for up to 10 hours, leaving a window in which the state's energy production must be generated from other sources (natural gas, coal, and nuclear). To remedy this, different sorts of power storage solutions have been proposed such as batteries, compressed air, and ice generation.[85]

In April 2018, The San Diego Union Tribune reported that Recurrent Energy (a subsidiary of Canadian Solar) had proposed a large battery, a 350 MW system, to be installed alongside the proposed Crimson Solar Project. The battery will match the proposed facility's nameplate capacity, and is several times larger than the 130 MW Hornsdale Power Reserve, the largest lithium battery in existence, which was created by Tesla and is located in South Australia.[86]

Another issue is overproduction which is most common during the summer months. California's solar production was so vast that by 2017, California had to pay Arizona and other states in the region to accept some of its electricity during peak production hours in order to provide relief to its grid.[87]

California also has aggressive goals when it comes to zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs), and the most prominent type is the electric car, which relies on grid power to charge its battery. Plug-in hybrid cars are also very popular in the state. These types of vehicles add to the demand and burden placed on the electrical grid, which was not designed to support the larger electrical loads required by electric vehicles.[88] One potential solution is to bypass most of the grid with the installation of rooftop solar panels for daytime charging and making use of home energy storage at night. Some electric companies will also provide discounted rates for car owners who charge their vehicles at night when demand is lower. Some cars can be programmed to stagger their charging cycle thought the night. This leads to a steady rate of charging instead of a large spike in the early evening when most commuters return home.[89]

Public opinion[edit]

The majority of Californians in desert country support large-scale solar development, according to a 2012 survey conducted on behalf of BrightSource Energy. The survey of more than 1,000 people was conducted throughout Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Riverside, San Bernardino counties in California, where many utility-scale solar projects are underway or planned. Survey results showed that nearly four out of five (almost 80 percent) of people strongly supported development of solar power in their communities. The survey also found that the majority of people were concerned with climate change. It also found that two-thirds of respondents think renewable energy is important to California's future and that the state and federal government should help provide incentives for renewable energy projects.[90]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]