Feed-in Tariff Conference Rallies Audience in San Francisco

By Paul Gipe


  • Germany Headed for 50% of Electricity from Renewables by 2020
  • Germany has 20% of PV on home rooftops; 57% on farmers’ barns
  • Europe Requiring 40% Renewables in Electricity by 2020
  • RPS Failing in California-Former CEC Commissioner Urges FITs
  • 60,000 MW of Distributed PV Possible in California
  • Follow-up Workshop Examines Feed-in Tariff Prices


200 people packed into the art deco City Club in San Francisco’s financial district on July 12, 2010 to hear world leaders in the movement for feed-in tariffs for renewable energy. With speakers composing a who’s who of feed-in tariff experts, the event exceeded organizers’ expectations.

Drawing largely from California, the audience included a sizable contingent from Oregon, and some from as far away as Colorado and Michigan.

The conference was led off by the Sierra Club’s dynamic new executive director Michael Brune, who acknowledged the environmental group’s support of a policy that’s shown dramatic results in Europe. This was welcome news to the many Sierra Club activists in the room.

Brune was followed by Hans-Josef Fell, a member of the German parliament. Fell, who wrote the first draft of Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Act, challenged Americans to set ambitious targets and work towards achieving them.

In 2000, Germany set what some thought at the time was an unattainable renewable energy target of 12% of the electricity supply in 2010, Fell explained. Yet in 2009, Germany blew past the target and reached more than 16% of supply. At the current pace, said Fell, Germany will produce 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, and possibly 100% by 2030.

Fell said that despite the program’s €4.6 billion cost, it has saved Germans €6.4 billion in fuel that would otherwise have been burned.

This year, Fell said, solar panels will deliver 2% of Germany’s electricity, and 3% of conservative Bavaria’s supply.

Former UC Berkeley professor Eicke Weber continued the theme by explaining that feed-in tariffs are designed simply to offer a “fair rate” for the electricity delivered to the grid.

Weber, now the executive director of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy, pointed out that 20% of Germany’s 9,000 MW of solar photovoltaic panels (PV) have been installed by homeowners. Thus homeowners in Germany have installed more solar PV–1,800 MW–than has been installed in North America. Farmers have installed another 57%, said Weber, one of the world’s foremost authorities on solar PV.

French renewable energy expert Bernard Chabot described how European feed-in tariff programs are likely to be strengthened across the continent rather than be cut back. The new Europe-wide renewable energy policy, said Chabot, requires European Union members to meet 20 % of European energy consumption with renewable energy. Such a target requires EU members to meet up to 40% of their electricity with renewables by 2020.

The Center for American Progress’ Richard Caperton explained why feed-in tariffs have been so successful at developing renewable energy. Feed-in tariffs, he said, “knock out” two barriers to renewable development: financing and market demand. With access to the grid and long-term contracts, feed-in tariffs give banks the comfort they need to finance projects. By providing grid access and a fair return, feed-in tariffs create a demand for renewable energy.

Former member of the California Energy Commission (CEC) John Geesman brought everyone back down to reality. The CEC called on the Public Utility Commission to offer feed-in tariffs in California because the state is missing its renewable targets, said Geesman. Since 2002, when the state’s much-vaunted Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) was implemented, California installed only 1,000 MW of new renewable capacity. Though thousands of megawatts have been promised under the RPS, said Geesman, the “real test is what gets built,” not what is promised. California has “substituted rhetoric for action,” Geesman charged. Worse yet, said Geesman, is the “complete absence of transparency” in California’s RPS program.

Engineer Bill Powers provided the scale of what California could do if it were serious about developing its renewable potential. Powers pointed out that as much as 20,000 MW of distributed solar PV could be connected without any system upgrades. That’s enough to whet the appetite of a solar developer anywhere.

Ever provocative, Angelina Galiteva called activists to action and urged them not to accept timid targets. Galiteva, one of the co-founders of Renewables 100 Policy Institute, called for nothing less than 100% renewables. As a former executive director of Strategic Planning for City of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power, Galiteva knows how fast a market can grow when given a chance.

The test now is whether the enthusiasm generated by the conference can be translated into something concrete.

The conference, dubbed “A Time for Real Action on Renewable Energy,” was the first of two events on feed-in tariffs in San Francisco.

Determining what prices are necessary to drive the renewables market in California was the subject of a follow-up workshop on July 13, 2010 at the Sierra Club’s national headquarters. Three-dozen hard-core number crunchers spent the day studying a simple method for calculating the tariffs needed for wind and solar energy in California and Oregon. The workshop was led by Bernard Chabot, who developed the technique while at the French renewable energy agency.

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