Like all renewables, solar power faces a number of obstacles in its quest for mainstream growth. Overcoming those obstacles demands creativity, innovation and an open mind—and not just on the level of engineering and science.


In California, a combination of incentives and creative metering arrangements have helped spur the growth of the solar industry and, in the process, have aided the state to get much closer to reaching its long-term goals.


Launched by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in 2007, the California Solar Initiative (CSI) has a goal to install 1,940 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity by the end of 2016. According to a recent report, the CSI program had installed 66 percent of its goal as of March 31, 2013. Another 19 percent of that goal is lined up in pending projects.


The “California Solar Initiative Annual Program Assessment,” released by the CPUC in June of this year, identifies a number of factors that have helped the state install more solar capacity. One of these is a combination of incentives and metering arrangements that are designed to make solar power accessible to low-income residents in apartment buildings.


In 2008, the CPUC established the Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) program. The MASH program provides fixed, upfront incentives based on the capacity of PV systems installed on qualifying affordable, multifamily dwellings.


To make the installation of solar on low-income apartments even more attractive, the CPUC also adopted a metering arrangement known as virtual net metering (VNM). VNM allows MASH participants to install a single solar-power system to cover the electricity load of common and tenant areas, instead of separate systems for each dwelling unit. Building owners and tenants share the benefits equally in the form of reduced bills.


Together the two approaches have been catching on. In the Annual Program Assessment, the CPUC reports that 287 projects had been completed under MASH. Their combined generating capacity totals 18.4 MW. An additional 83 MASH projects are also underway for an additional capacity of 11.3 MW.


The VNM arrangements are also popular, and they were expanded to the general market in 2011. The CPUC reports 24 non-MASH projects with a combined 916-kilowatt capacity have been installed operating under the VNM tariff.