Rooftop solar is under attack

solar rooftopThe solar-energy industry has been an engine of growth for California over the last decade, and now the investor-owned utilities (IOUs) want to boost their profits by throttling back that engine. Of course, the rapid expansion of solar power has been an environmental boon as well—and the IOUs' latest rate proposals, if enacted, will ensure that fewer solar panels are installed and more greenhouse gases are emitted. Not a good idea.

The three major corporate IOUs—Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric—have, to one degree or another, been relatively welcoming to solar energy in the past. They have mostly gone along with the green initiatives of the legislature and the Air Resources Control Board. In 2014, for example, they built several very large solar plants, adding 1,900 megawatts of generation, and the state is now producing five percent of its electricity from utility-scale solar.

Rooftop solar good!

Rooftop solar, too—small-scale photovoltaic (PV) installations by homeowners and businesses—has been a welcome addition for the IOUs, since the added capacity has been funded mostly without their direct investment. As a result, these corporate utilities have been able to meet increasing demand while building fewer fossil fuel plants. In fact, some inefficient plants have been removed from service.

The IOUs have fought back only at the margins for increased rates or limitations on time-of-use pricing, and net-energy-metering rules have allowed rooftop-solar customers to bank their excess electricity by sending it to the grid. When the sun shines, during the day and during the summer, the utility gets electricity from rooftop PV, often at the very times there is highest demand, such as for air conditioning. Then, at night and during the winter, the solar customer gets electricity from the grid; and billing is adjusted annually with a small charge or, sometimes, a check.

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Brown signs SB 185: Divest coal!

Governor Jerry BrownGovernor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 185 last week. Our two state pension funds are now required to purge their portfolios of that most pernicious of fossil fuels, coal. It's time to celebrate!

The enactment of SB 185 is an enormous step forward for the divestment movement—in fact, for the entire climate movement—because CalSTRS and CalPERS are the largest state pension funds in the country, larger than any public funds worldwide other than a handful at the national level. It's an inspiring example, and we can expect other institutions and organizations to follow, beginning with New York and Massachusetts. California is again clearing the path for more reluctant states and nations in the struggle for a habitable planet.

Next we must divest the rest. Oil and gas companies are bad investments too: bad for human health, bad for the environment, and bad for the portfolio. There is no reason for our state funds to continue holding Chevron and Exxon and Shell stocks and bonds. The emissions from these companies' products are killing people and exacerbating the dangerous rise in global temperatures. We must move to a non-carbon, renewable energy economy as soon as possible, and complete divestment from fossil fuels is one important strategy in that transition.

Many thanks

So as we celebrate we want to thank all our allies, the many people involved in this triumph. Thanks to President pro Tempore Kevin de León of Los Angles for introducing SB 185 in the California Senate and pushing it through to passage, along with the other bills in this year's historic climate package. Thanks to Assembly Member Rob Bonta of Alameda for shepherding the bill through the Assembly, and all the other legislators who cosponsored and voted aye.

And thanks to Governor Jerry Brown for signing SB 185 into law, taking strong action to build on his signing SB 350 Wednesday and to back up his recent warnings on climate change. Speaking at the Vatican in July, Brown said:

There are tipping points, feedback loops. This is not some linear set of problems that we can predict. We have to take measures against an uncertain future which may well be something no one ever wants. We are talking about extinction. We are talking about climate regimes that have not been seen for tens of millions of years. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way.

We're also on our way to doing the right thing. Tipping points and feedback loops can move the world in a beneficial direction, too. And each person and organization working to pass SB 185 has put a little more weight on the green side of the balance.

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