More commercial projects in the Golden State will be eligible for solar rebates as a result of recent modifications to the California Solar Initiative Thermal Program, experts believe. The changes to the program, which started paying rebates last year, include a dedicated budget for pool and spa solar systems, a cap on reimbursed amounts, and changes to the method for calculating them. The modifications were requested by the California Solar Energy Industries Association and the program administrators.

A separate budget has been established solely for the solar pool heating system sub-program. Thirty percent of the thermal sub-program’s remaining funds will be dedicated to pool systems, totaling $50,078,180, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

The program now also caps the cashback per project at 50 percent of the total system cost. This change, which went into effect Jan. 30, will impact future clients the most. Stakeholders requested the adjustment because it will allow more projects in the state to be completed while spreading the funds out further.

“We all knew that at some point in time, the program was going to change, and the industry got together and suggested that we put a cap on these rebates,” said Roy Heine, founder of Suntrek Industries in Irvine, Calif.

Without the cap, 2014 rebates were larger than expected. Some projects saw reimbursements of 90 to 100 percent of the cost associated with the solar systems, reported manufacturers and contractors. The cap will mean smaller per-project rewards.

“For a period of time, some pool owners got lucky with what CALSEIA would consider to be an improper rollout of the program by the utilities,” said Brad Heavner, policy director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association.

One such project was Viewpoint School in Calabass, Calif., which last year received a $59,024 rebate on a $60,001 project installed by Catersolar of Woodland Hills, Calif.

In addition to implementation of the cap, the calculator for figuring project rebates was changed, with per-therm rates reduced at certain steps of the program (see table). While some of the numbers have gone down, an increased calculation for wind speed factor offsets that difference. The intent still is to reward those who purchase and install the energy-saving equipment earlier in the rebate cycle.

“Prospective customers should pay attention to that and make sure they make their decisions in time to get the higher rebate level,” Heavner said.

Due to the timing of the changes, projects with confirmed rebate reservations as of Dec. 12, 2014, can receive an uncapped rebate using the former calculator for therm savings, according to CALSEIA. Installations that have a confirmed rebate reservation as of Jan. 30, can get an uncapped rebate with the new calculation. The cap and new calculation will be applied to those requesting rebates since Jan. 30. Rebate reservations are good for 1.5 years.

To date, the program has paid rebates of $2.19 million for 157 projects. But people's experiences so far have been mixed. Some dealers are seeing an increase in business because of the rebate program, but they find potential customers who are hesitant to move forward because of cumbersome guidelines imposed in certain areas.

And the program has had challenges since it went into effect in January 2013. With the hiccups, the rebates weren’t available until January 2014. For the little more than a year that rebate applications have been accepted, these recently announced changes have been under way.

Solar professionals say the shifts have impacted the program’s effectiveness. They are ready for the terms to stabilize.

“Instead of stimulating the commercial market in California, many would argue it’s actually stunted it by preventing people from moving forward with a program that’s somewhat in flux,” said Dan Sizelove, marketing coordinator for Lakewood, N.J.-based Aquatherm Industries Inc., which manufactures solar panels. “Everybody was waiting to see what might happen — if the rebate was going to go up or down or how it might change.”

Some Aquatherm dealers have experienced a bottleneck with projects they bid on because facilities wanted to wait and see if their rebates might increase.

“We’ve never really been a proponent of rebates,” Sizelove said. “Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens: You get various entities involved and it tends to slow things down.”

Despite the hurdles, stakeholders are optimistic about the program moving forward. Since solar pool heating systems have been included in the program, Suntrek has secured more than $1 million in rebates for clients, mostly homeowners associations, country clubs and a few hotels. Some institutions that stalled last year, primarily public schools and municipalities, are beginning to show interest, Heine said.

Even with the changes, the rebates are a good deal, they said. “The economics for a pool heating system are still very strong with the new rules,” Heavner said.