CHICO — More energy customers are switching to solar every year in Butte County, and numbers are especially high this year in Chico after the Camp Fire, according to PG&E and local solar companies.
More customers had already made the switch by June than in the last two years. The increase reflects the push for solar and the growth of the market nationwide.
The U.S. Burea of Labor Census reported that by 2026, employment for solar installers is expected to grow 105% — much faster than the average for most other occupations. The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies reported that 2.5 gigawatts of solar capacity were installed in the first quarter of 2018, an annual growth of 13% and accounting for 55% of all new U.S. electricity capacity for the period, according to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Although solar installs are nothing new across the state, the numbers have seen especially impressive jumps in Chico in the last decade.
Paul Moreno, spokesman for PG&E, reported that the number of households using solar energy plans in Chico increased every year by nearly 1,500% since 2010. That year, 271 installations took place in Chico. That number rose to 2,198 just five years later in 2015, and by 2018, a total of 4,126 installations took place.
Why the increase in interest and investment? There are several factors at work in Chico, the largest city in Butte County, especially after the Camp Fire.
New demand for solar
Laura Thayne, sales administrator at Royal Heating and Aire, believes there are several factors for why solar systems are selling better than ever in Chico in particular. Thayne estimated that proposals and sales have nearly doubled since a year ago.
Why? For one thing, the process to apply for a solar permit is much easier in Chico and in Butte County than in the city of Oroville. Chico allows online applications for permits while the county offers simple over-the-counter permits. Thayne called this a very “solar-friendly” policy.
Another major factor is that “tons of customers are calling to say they’re fed up with PG&E,” Thayne said.
After the Camp Fire, sales have undeniably increased, to the point that through June, overall addresses reported by PG&E were already higher than the total installed in 2018.
“The fire exacerbated everything,” Thayne said.
People are also concerned about power shutoffs by PG&E resulting in increased sales of “solar batteries.” The most popular of these is the Tesla power wall, the purpose of which is to store solar power away in case of shutoffs, reducing stress on the grid and allowing people to keep their solar local, according to Jim Miklef of Alternative Heating and Air.
The company also experienced record sales and “unprecedented demand for solar,” which Miklef partially attributed to the Camp Fire and PG&E bankruptcy.
“That’s new this year,” he said.
Saving money after fire
Decreasing costs before PG&E increases rates may also be a factor. Where one fits in the PG&E tiered system will often determine whether it is worth purchasing solar panels.
A “tier 1” PG&E customer is often in a small home or rental and would not typically save money. It’s the “tier 2” and high usage surplus customers, who face high bills in extreme months especially in Chico’s hot summers, who have the most interest in making the transition — especially if they’re homeowners, Thayne said.