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.

Rooftop solar bad?

But that genial relationship to rooftop solar is now fraying as it becomes more than just a statistical blip. With 200,000 installed projects in the state, producing almost 1,700 megawatts, the IOUs are now concerned that they're not making enough money. They are paying full high-rate retail price for electricity, then selling it back non-peak for a lower rate. They have to reconfigure the grid and adjust their traditional methods of managing it, as well as installing newer control mechanisms for existing fossil fuel plants, to adapt to the increased solar input.

Therefore, the IOUs claim, unless they start charging solar customers more, their non-solar customers will suffer. Their new rate proposals to the California Public Utility Commission (PUC) reflect this shift. They propose that customers' excess electricity would be paid at lower, production-only rates. And new solar customers' usage would cost more, with expanded peak and partial-peak hours, with additional grid-connection fees, and with billing adjustments occurring monthly rather than annually.

Keep solar cheap

But the question is not whether some non-solar customers might suffer from higher bills (bills that actually would reflect the real cost of carbon-generated electricity, including negative externalities). The real question is whether all Californians might suffer from policies that fail to encourage rapid, full-scale adoption of renewable energy. For everyone's sake, rooftop solar should continue to be a good deal. If it's cheap enough, more people will adopt it. And if more people adopt it, it will become even cheaper.

The consulting firm Crossborder Energy, working with the Sierra Club, has quantified reduced impacts on the climate from additional rooftop solar generation. For each additional kilowatt-hour, they estimate, the societal and environmental benefits will be about 10 cents:

  • 3 cents for reduced climate impacts
  • 2 cents for cleaner air
  • 1 cent for conserved water
  • 2 cents for preserved open space
  • 2 cents for a more resilient energy system

And, as the Sierra Club sums up: priceless for a better future for California. Since the non-peak retail price for California electricity is often less than 10 cents, it appears that much of the time we could ensure a better future for the state at no real cost, if we prioritize the common good rather than corporate profits. Priceless, and nearly costless too.

Here's what you can do

Divestment of fossil fuels is one arrow in our quiver of carbon-cutting actions. Another is to ensure that renewable energy is inexpensive and easy to implement. The PUC is now considering the rate proposals from PG&E and the other IOUs, and they need pushback.

Here are two things you can do:

Let the sun shine in.

Cross-posted from Fosssil Free California.

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