Dave Rosenfeld is the executive director of the San Diego-based Solar Rights Alliance. He has been a community organizer for more than 20 years and believes people power is the best way to overcome special interests.
On Monday, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) released a proposed decision on the future of rooftop solar that, if unchanged, spells disaster for California’s clean energy progress. It would also be a blow to the millions of middle- and working-class people looking for a way out of skyrocketing energy bills and blackouts.
At issue is net metering, the policy responsible for driving the dramatic expansion of rooftop solar in the state. Net metering has driven the growth of rooftop solar adoption by making rooftop solar more affordable. It does this by crediting solar consumers for the excess energy they produce and sell back to the energy grid. Because of net metering, California reached one million solar roofs faster than ever expected and now is seeing nearly half of new residential solar installations in working- and middle-class neighborhoods.
With more of California’s 1.3 million solar consumers now pairing their systems with battery storage, the Golden State is primed for another market expansion in rooftop adoption. When combined with energy storage batteries, rooftop allows more people to continue the benefits of energy from the sun into the evening while also making for a more reliable grid and reducing the need for dangerous utility transmission lines. This would also put a democratized, clean energy future within reach for California.
But the big utilities like PG&E hate seeing all of that progress. The changes they’ve proposed and that the CPUC is now backing would make it nearly impossible for most businesses and residential customers to recoup the upfront costs of converting to rooftop solar. If these changes are approved, solar adoptions will crater.
Further, while gutting rooftop net-metering and penalizing people for installing solar panels, the CPUC says they wish to shift incentives toward battery storage systems. We are all for helping consumers get solar-powered batteries. Indeed, it is the only serious way to help people avoid increasingly frequent blackouts. But without a rooftop solar system, there’s little point investing in battery storage equipment. The CPUC and utilities also argue the current system must change because most benefits go to wealthier customers. That's bunk; just under half of all new solar is going into middle and working class neighborhoods. What's really happening is that the utilities are taking solar away from working class people just when it has come within reach.
This is why it is so important for Gov. Newsom to step in and stop this proposal that would only halt the spreading adoption of rooftop solar just as it is about to explode.
And this happens just as energy rates continue to spike because utilities in California are allowed to rig the system by pushing up infrastructure and transmission costs in order to generate tremendous profits and payouts to shareholders. In 2020 alone, California electrical customers paid $4.3 billion in transmission costs, up 38% from 2016 statewide and up 66% for PG&E rate payers. Overall, investor-owned utilities charged ratepayers nearly $20 billion in transmission line projects between 2010 and 2019 and collected more than $20 billion in profits over a similar time period.
That’s what big utilities have against rooftop solar consumers and why they are pushing a “profit grab” at the CPUC in order to maintain the need for costly transmission lines, keep consumers stuck in the utility monopoly, continue raising rates and shutting off our power, and profit even more.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of rooftop solar in California, a massive coalition of over 600 diverse organizations and more than 120,000 public comments submitted in support of net metering, the CPUC proposed a giveaway to investor-owned utilities that would boost utility profits at the expense of energy consumers, family-supporting jobs, and California’s clean energy future.
The CPUC proposal would add a $57 per month solar penalty fee for the average residential solar system. Though a $15 per month credit for the first 10 years would partially offset the charge, California would still have the highest solar penalty fees in the country. In addition, the CPUC proposed slashing export credits to approximately 5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) on all solar users, including schools and churches. That amounts to an 80% reduction from the 20-30 cents per kWh credited today for residential customers.
Last spring A.B. 1139 was rejected in the State Assembly after an outcry from solar consumers and supporters all over California. This bill was very similar to the CPUC’s now proposed decision both in detail and motive.
Monday’s CPUC proposal goes even further towards making solar unaffordable than SMUD’s recent anti-net metering policy which is already showing signs of harming the rooftop solar market in the Sacramento area under a similar pro-utility changes SMUD recently enacted over many of its customer’s objections. (As a publicly owned utility, SMUD dos not fall under state PUC authority.)
If enacted, the CPUC’s proposed decision would bring California’s rooftop solar industry to a halt across the state and take us back to a time when solar was a luxury affordable only to the wealthy.
The impacts on California’s economy and environment will be severe if the utilities get their way.
Rooftop solar currently employs 68,000 Californians—more than the state’s five largest utilities combined—in family-supporting jobs and provides paths for diverse workforces into thriving clean energy careers. The CPUC proposal threatens the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of hard working men and women who provide clean, reliable energy for millions of consumers today.
The proposed decision also puts California’s clean energy and climate change progress at risk. State regulators say to meet the goals under Senate Bill 100, California needs at least 28 GW of customer-sited solar by 2045, compared to the 10 GW that are currently online today. Reaching those critical climate goals simply is not possible if California pulls the plug on solar like the CPUC is proposing.
PG&E and the other utility monopolies have gotten their way for far too long. The CPUC’s proposed decision on rooftop solar is yet another example of the stranglehold the utilities have on our state’s – and our individual households’ – decision-making process. It’s time for voters to draw a line in the sand and insist to the person in charge, Gov. Newsom, that California stays a solar state and rejects this utility profit grab.
If this makes you concerned, now is the time to speak up. Please join the tens of thousands of consumers, affordable housing advocates, faith leaders, environmentalists, conservationists, climate activists, solar workers, small businesses and regular Joes and Josephines who are calling, writing and demanding that the CPUC and Gov. Gavin Newsom stop the utility profit grab and keep solar growing in California.
Gov Newsom’s number is 916-445-2841. Call him today. You can also get more information at www.SaveCaliforniaSolar.org and sign our petition to Gov. Newsom.