IT’S COMPLICATED, CONTROVERSIAL and, some say, imprudent. On January 12, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) did something the California Legislature, mired in last fall’s special-election politicking, could not: In a 3-1 vote, the commissioners instigated a far-reaching, capital-intensive plan to make California the country’s leader in renewable energy. It was, PUC President Mike Peevey announced, “the time to be bold.”

The California Solar Initiative, a near-copy of what was once Schwarzenegger’s grandly touted “Million Solar Roofs” bill, or SB1, adds $2.9 billion to the $300 million already allocated for the installation of photovoltaic panels on California rooftops; its goal is to raise the state’s solar-generation capacity to 3,000 megawatts by 2017. It could ease the burden of green-minded homeowners converting to solar, encourage the development of technology to better capture and convert the sun’s rays and help California wean itself off the dirty business of other states’ coal — which still supplies one half of the state’s energy.

Or it could do none of the above, and remain just another great idea insufficiently thought through by big thinkers more concerned with appearances than political reality. “It looks to me like we’re blindly running down the path of throwing money at a solar program, and that’s not a good thing,” says Van Nuys Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, a renewable-energy advocate who joined another Democrat, state Senator Kevin Murray, as one of SB1’s co-authors. The PUC moved fast in its rule-making in part because it wasn’t subject to the political finagling of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers or investor-owned utilities. But as a non-legislating body it also lacks the authority to do at least two things that may be essential to a successful statewide renewable-energy program: Force utilities to buy back more electricity from wind- and solar-equipped consumers — also known as “lifting the cap on net metering” — and require new home builders to, as Environment California’s Bernadette Del Chiaro puts it, “offer solar panels as an option to buyers right along with the marble countertops.”

“They got the part about the pot of money that was always at the heart of SB1,” says Del Chiaro, a clean-energy advocate who was instrumental in drafting the Legislature’s version. “But there are a few other complementary policies we need to enact for the whole vision to take off — and these are things the PUC can’t do.”

Even with the missing pieces, Del Chiaro applauds the PUC’s decision, which removed from the equation the entity many advocates blame for the failure of SB1: the IBEW, which not only wanted prevailing-wage provisions written into the bill, but also demanded that only solar installations completed by C-10 licensed contractors — the kind most likely to be unionized — qualify for rebate. And while Del Chiaro admits that the $2.80-per-watt rebate doesn’t seem like much — municipal utility rebates for solar installations usually run closer to $4 a watt — the initiative could still save people $5,000 on a $20,000 system.

“It’s not a windfall for anybody, but it certainly does pay for itself over time,” says Del Chiaro. “I’d like it to be more lucrative so more people can get into it, not just those with huge disposable incomes. But it’s enough.”

LEVINE, DEL CHIARO’S COLLABORATOR until SB1 was dashed against the political shoals, sees the mostly Schwarzenegger-appointed PUC’s move to revive the governor’s solar program less as a jump-start than an end-run around the Legislature that serves Schwarzenegger’s grander purpose: vilifying organized labor and characterizing the legislators as ineffective. “We were accused of playing union politics [when SB1 failed]. We were accused of a lot of things. But we never had the opportunity to sit down and have a good, honest talk with the governor. I’m not going to say he lied, but if you’re trying to craft good public policy and the person who’s going to sign that policy is campaigning in Fresno, it’s hard to have good-faith negotiations.”

Levine worries that a solar-incentive program that doesn’t require installation by licensed contractors will attract “out-of-state and fly-by-night operators” to California to perform tasks that should only be done by a certified electrician. “Are we sure that’s what we want,” he asks, “for highly complicated systems sending power out into the grid?”

Even worse, says Levine, the California Solar Initiative might not reduce California’s dependence on fossil fuels, because it currently rewards solar installations based on capacity, not actual generation. You could install 5,000 watts of photovoltaic panels in the shade at the beach, for instance, and get the same kickback you would if you put them up on a roof in full view of the inland sun. “Three thousand megawatts of capacity that doesn’t actually generate a single megawatt,” says Levine, “is worse than useless.”

Nor does the PUC’s proposal have any authority over municipal utilities like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, whose consumers will pay only a small amount on their bills from Southern California Gas Co. for the program, even though they’re eligible for rebates through the state (the DWP’s own solar rebate program is backed up through 2006). Like lone dissenting Commissioner Geoffrey Brown, who argued that the initiative amounts to a tax on certain electrical bills but not on others, Levine objects that the program has customers of investor-owned utilities paying the bulk of the cost.

Then again, if an increase in the state’s solar power reduces the demand for natural gas, that cost may be offset by lower gas rates in the future.

But even advocates admit there are holes to fill before that future arrives. The PUC has workshops scheduled to examine the issue of capacity versus performance, and Del Chiaro is confident that the Legislature will step up and lift the cap on net metering — currently set at a mere one-half of 1 percent of each utility’s total generation. But labor is likely out of luck. “If the IBEW wanted to see a self-sustaining, mainstream solar program in California, and if they wanted to attach to that standards for wages, they kind of missed the boat by overreaching and killing SB1,” she says. “The PUC did it without any provision the IBEW was lobbying for, and now that chance is lost.”

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