Solar panel farm on a sunny day

Learn About the Awesome History of California Solar Power

California is a big state filled with big ideas and great people. Here in the Golden State, we’re not afraid to take the lead in tackling thorny problems or try innovative solutions. You could say that our “sunny” disposition inspires us to embrace new ideas.

So it’s no surprise that we were one of the first states to recognize the potential of solar energy to combat climate change, or that we’re recognized as #1 on SEIA’s Top 10 Solar States list, producing more megawatts (MWs) of solar power than the next nine states combined!

In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of California solar power. How did our state become the leader in producing and utilizing solar energy, and what does the future have in store?

Power from the Sun

If you were to take a helicopter tour over any major city in California, you would notice the sheer number of solar panels dotting the roofs of homes and businesses. Where did these panels come from? The history of California solar starts in 1839, when French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, demonstrating that a solar cell could convert sunlight into electricity.  

A few decades later, American inventor Charles Fritts designed the world’s first solar array, but it would still be a long time before solar panels landed on any roofs.

Bell Labs patented the first silicon-based solar cells in 1954, and Hoffman Electronics-Semiconductor Division developed the first commercial solar panel the next year. This baby boasted a measly 2% efficiency rate! Just to compare, today’s top-rated solar panels can give you a 17% to 20% efficiency rate depending what brand you use.

In these early days, solar panels were mostly just an idea stuck on a drawing board. It would take a major world event and open-minded politicians to truly spark the California solar energy movement.

Oil and Blood

The 1970s saw great unrest in the Middle East, which led to the Iran hostage crisis and the Arab oil embargo. At home, oil prices soared, and images of long lines of cars waiting at gas stations splashed the front pages of newspapers.

In response, President Jimmy Carter made energy policy a hallmark of his administration. In 1978, Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), which was designed to promote energy conservation and laid the groundwork for net metering. As part of the act, PURPA allowed independent power producers the ability to interconnect with their local utility.

In the same year, Congress also passed the Energy Tax Act, which offered the very first tax credits to consumers who invested in renewable energy for their homes. Carter even famously installed solar panels at the White House. Even though the solar panels came down and the tax incentives were phased out by Ronald Reagan, these early laws woke Americans up to the possibility of solar energy. They also helped encourage the creation of wind and solar energy companies, which found a very friendly reception in California. (Interesting to note: solar panels were eventually installed once again at the White House, this time under President Barack Obama.)

California Sun

More than any other state, California embraced the potential of solar power even in the industry’s nascent beginnings. In 1979, ARCO Solar broke ground on the world’s largest photovoltaic facility in Camarillo, California. 

ARCO’s project was soon followed by others, including a 6 MW facility in central California, the construction of solar towers, and an attempt to build the world’s largest solar thermal electricity facility in the Mojave Desert, known as the LUZ Solar Energy Generating Stations.

Not all of these projects were a success. Some ran out of money and others were eventually closed down due to disappointing results. Some observers believed that solar would never be more than a fringe power source, just another big California dream that went nowhere. However, these early stumbles didn’t deter California. Producers learned from each trial, and as solar technology improved and costs decreased, more ambitious solar projects got underway.

As of this writing, California is home to a variety of big solar projects, including the Desert Solar Farm in the Mojave Desert, the California Valley Solar Ranch in the Carrizo Plain, the Mount Signal Solar project near Calexico, and the Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, which was the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant when it was completed in 2014. While ARCO’s original solar facility in 1979 produced just 1 MW a year, these facilities produce between 260 to 550 MW per year!

California can also brag about being home to the world’s largest solar thermal power project, the Invanpah Solar Power Facility, which was completed in 2014. It resides in the Mojave Desert and produces 392 MW per year. The Mojave Desert is also home to the Solar Energy Generating Systems, the Genesis Solar Energy Project, and the Mojave Solar Project, which together produced 71.2% of all solar thermal generation in the United States in 2015.

None of these projects would have been possible if California hadn’t aggressively supported investment in renewable energy and forged a path toward a carbon-neutral future.

Taking the Lead

California was once known for the debilitating smog that choked its cities and its people. These days, it’s earned a new reputation as a state that has passed some of the most ambitious and progressive energy laws in the country.

It may have started in 1996 with the Electric Utility Industry Restructuring Act (Assembly Bill 1890) signed by Governor Pete Wilson, which deregulated the state’s utility companies and incentivized them to adopt net metering policies. Without net metering, which allows homes and businesses to feed excess solar energy into the grid, solar panels in California would likely never have taken off. AB 1890 also created state rebates to reduce the cost of this expensive new technology.

Perhaps the biggest boost to California solar energy came in 2006, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the California Solar Initiative, which offered rebates to residents who invested in solar energy technology. The goal of the initiative was to install 1,940 MW of new solar generation capacity by 2016. It worked out so well that the state exhausted its incentives two years early, and the program surpassed its production target. (Don’t worry, there are still plenty of ways to save on solar panels in California.)

The California Solar Initiative was followed in 2015 by the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act (Senate Bill 350) signed by Governor Jerry Brown. SB 350 stipulates that California must produce half of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

This is an incredibly ambitious goal, but if anyone can do it, we know California can. Our state produced 18,296 MW of electricity in 2016, which was enough energy to power more than 4.7 million homes in our state. As solar panels in California continue to become more efficient and more affordable, we know these numbers will keep going up!

The Future of California Solar Power

What’s in store for California’s solar future? Will we produce half our power from renewable resources by 2030 and meet the mandate of the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act?

Currently, several big photovoltaic solar farms are in production, including the Blythe Solar Power Project in Riverside County and the California Flats Solar Project in the Cholame Hills, which will produce even more solar energy for our state. As for Sacramento, we won’t be surprised if our state sets more aggressive goals for renewable energy output. In 2017, senate leader Kevin de León introduced the 100 Percent Clean Energy Act, which set the target for California to receive all its energy from clean energy sources by 2045. The bill was dropped at the last minute, but many assume the bill will be presented again during this year’s legislative session.

Here at Semper Solaris, we are proud to help California meet its renewable energy goals. We can learn a lot from our state’s history, but we’re also excited to see what the future of California solar power brings. Help us make that future by scheduling a free energy audit today.  

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