Earlier this month, I sadly learned of the death of one of the world's early computer programmers, John Hugh McLeod. I first came to know him as the father of one of my lifelong friends from high school. We kept in touch over the intervening 36 years. McLeod's initial encounter with the computer dated to the era of ENIAC, the world's first fully programmable computer. In the late 1940s, he programmed an ENIAC-era computer used to control missile test flights from Vandenberg Air Force Base. That meant crawling around and changing the arrangement of wires that tied together banks of vacuum tubes that filled a whole room in Oxnard. He found the work challenging and in 1952 founded the Society for Computer Simulation. That enabled him to spend much of the rest of his career modeling large-scale public policy problems from the veranda of his home overlooking the La Jolla shore, when he wasn't traveling the world. Today, more than 20 university computing centers around the world are named after him. During McLeod's 50 years of simulation, the computer came a long way from the days of a room full of vacuum tubes to today?s distributed desktop systems tied together by the Internet. Although taken for granted today, the computer revolutionized the world. Now, solar energy stands to do the same. Once again, the revolution may start here in California. In the weeks ahead, the Legislature will consider final passage of the Million Solar Roofs legislation, SB 1. It has the potential to launch the power industry along the same trajectory the computer has flown?from domination by large centralized systems to the rapid proliferation of small-scale distributed systems. The shift in the energy world could prove just as big as the computer revolution. The legislation will create a huge market for solar energy. To put it in perspective, there were 324 MW of installed photovoltaic panels in the whole nation at the end of 2004 after more than 30 years of efforts by the industry. In a Sacramento moment, lawmakers could enlarge that market tenfold and create a critical mass for photovoltaic technology across the nation. Other states would be sure to follow, and the resulting mass market could dramatically lower the price of photovoltaic systems. Yet some legislators look at 324 MW of photovoltaic capacity after more than 30 years and see a glass half-empty. That's understandable, perhaps, but also shortsighted. After all, ENIAC was first built in 1946, but I did not encounter even a mainframe computer until I took a college engineering class in 1972. I never used one again until I worked for a company with a centralized newspaper computer system as a news reporter and editor in the nation?s capital in the 1980s. In 1987?41 years after ENIAC?I bought my first personal computer for $1,000. It included a dual floppy drive system and was built in a storefront clone shop on a side street in Bethesda, Maryland. Since then, the computer revolution has put unprecedented communications and information power into the hands of individuals. Like personal computers, photovoltaic systems and other emerging energy technologies promise to deliver new power and independence to the multitudes. But whether the Million Solar Roofs bill will actually launch the distributed power revolution remains in doubt. Three provisions cloud the figurative expectations the proposal has raised of a solar panel on every roof, just like a computer on every desk. First, the bill doesn't really require a million solar roofs, but instead allows for the equivalent of 3,000 MW of photovoltaic generation capacity. Second, it opens the way for "electrical corporations" to receive financial awards raised through a surcharge to be set on electricity rates for solar systems. They could use the money to build and operate solar systems as long as the California Energy Commission deems them to be "part of a program to facilitate achieving the goals of the Million Solar Roofs Initiative." Third, solar panels will have to be installed by electrical contractors with full C-10 licenses, a provision insisted upon by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose members work at the state's utilities. At the moment, almost all solar companies use installers who have specialized C-46 licenses. On their face, these measures may seem reasonable. They will make sure that the program remains flexible enough to meet its goals and allow the incentive money to be fully spent should home developers and homeowners fail to take advantage of it. They will also ensure that systems are installed by electricians who have met the highest standards in training and competence. However, another interpretation of those provisions points to a door wide open for continued central domination of the state's power system. First, installers fear that the provision that will require installation of panels by fully licensed electricians will run them out of business, even with the new incentive program. "I'd love to pay my guys $45 an hour, but the market won't take it," said Pat Redgate, vice-president of California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA) and president of AMECO, a solar system installer. To get a C-10 license, Redgate would have to become an apprentice to an electrical contractor for four years, even though he has installed solar systems successfully and safely with a C-46 license for more than 20 years. As currently written, the bill would shift the work from the people who love the technology and its benefit to society to those who are solely in it for the money, solar installers fear. "Finally when we're ready for prime time, we get kicked off the stage," Redgate said. In addition, raising the cost of installations will make individual systems less cost-effective. Meanwhile, existing requirements for individual meters for each housing unit when solar systems are installed on multifamily housing projects will continue to prevent installers from achieving potential economies of scale at apartments, townhouses, and condominiums. Such structures are becoming more prevalent in California as housing prices rise (<i>Circuit<\/i>, Aug, 5, 2005). Combined, these factors are likely to undercut use of the incentives by homeowners and builders, hampering the 3,000 MW goal. Enter the utilities and their IBEW unions to save the day by scooping up the available funds to build centralized solar systems. This might still meet the goal, but would defeat the promise of fostering a distributed energy system in the state that could save money in the long run by cutting the need to build expensive transmission lines and in some cases new peak power plants. CALSEIA believes the provisions will allow the state's utilities to install systems with capacities as big as 1 MW and capture much of the incentive money doing so. Fortunately, there is still time for the Legislature to prevent such a scenario. To do this, lawmakers could continue to allow installers with C-46 licenses to install systems, at least on residences. Large commercial installations?often much more complicated?could be reserved for full electrical contractors. Second, lawmakers should prevent, or at least limit, utilities from being able to obtain incentives under the initiative, which has been sold to the public as a program that will benefit households and small businesses. Finally, in separate legislation, lawmakers should eliminate the existing need for individual metering on multiunit projects with appropriate protections for consumers. The Legislature?s overarching aim should be to make solar installations as simple and economical as possible while protecting consumers and requiring good value. Let's make the Million Solar Roofs initiative a Million Solar Roofs reality, not a pork barrel for utilities and unions. That way, we will all be able to sit on our verandas, patios, or apartment balconies and use our own computers, just like my old friend John McLeod, who helped advance the art of computer simulation, only this time powered by the solar revolution.