California solar supporters energized in fight against proposed new rules
The solar energy and environmental groups fight to keep new rules from gutting the state's active solar energy industry.
California solar supporters are putting more attention on the state’s top officials as they work to keep a proposed California Public Utilities Commission decision that will significantly raise the price of owning or leasing rooftop solar panels.
The coalition against the changes wants Gov. Gavin Newsom to flex his political influence in an intervention before California regulators meet next month.
The solar power backers were shocked last week when state regulators unveiled a plan to restructure how residents get paid for investing thousands of dollars in rooftop solar panels.
“Yeah, it’s a disaster,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association.
She worries the proposed changes will crush the state’s largest in the nation solar power industry and imperil the jobs of 68,000 people who work in the industry.
“It is an anti-solar, and anti-storage,” Chiaro said. “This is an anti-clean energy, anti-solar business, this is the opposite direction California should be going.”
The CPUC proposal slashes the price rooftop solar owners get for electricity sold back to the grid cutting the value of that electricity by 80%, while the retail price the utilities charge is unchanged.
The 204-page proposal also calls for steep monthly grid connection fees for residents with rooftop solar. A typical San Diego household would pay about $64 a month, and then pay existing retail rates for power they buy after the sun sets.
The proposal also creates a fund for the state’s low income residents to install solar exempting them from those flat monthly connection fees.
“This outcome is very unfortunate and very much on the side of investor-owned utilities,” said Matt Vasilakis, co-director of policy at the San Diego based Climate Action Campaign.
His organization welcomes the help the proposal provides to install solar for low income residents. They would get financial help installing solar panels and they would avoid the steep grid fees.
“It is an anti-solar, and anti-storage, This is an anti-clean energy, anti-solar business, this is the opposite direction California should be going.”
But he said the plan doesn’t work for anyone else.
California’s previous Net Energy Metering plans got it right, according to Vasilakis, because that program allowed the solar industry to exceed expectations for growth in the state.
That is a major boost for California’s efforts to have a net zero carbon economy by 2045.
California’s energy office says solar currently generates about 15% of the state’s power.
“It’s very important for us to understand that that subsidy has resulted in over 1 million rooftop solar installations in our communities,” Vasilakis said. “Which is helping us build climate resilient clean energy systems that can withstand ever more frequent climate disasters.”
Utility funded groups like Affordable Solar for All hailed the CPUC ruling saying it does not burden utility customers without solar power with the cost of the solar subsidy.
San Diego Gas & Electric has remained quiet on the issue. A company spokesman told KPBS the utility will not comment on the issue before the CPUC makes a decision because they say the issue is too sensitive.
That is not the case for pro-solar groups who delivered a huge stack of public comments to state officials in Sacramento earlier this month.
More than 100,000 Californians asked state officials to protect the existing system which lets solar energy grow.
The Solar Rights Alliance’s Dave Rosenfeld says there is still time to reach out because the rules have not yet been finalized.
“There’s over 600 nonprofit organizations nonprofit organizations and community leaders and elected officials and school districts and entire municipalities that have written letters and passed resolutions and sent that to the CPUC,” Rosenfeld said. “Keep rooftop solar growing, don’t penalize anyone for putting solar panels on their rooftops. In this case the CPUC clearly didn’t listen to that.”
The lobbying effort is complicated by the fact that the CPUC is in flux. The regulators have a new president, Alice Reynolds who served as the governor’s advisor on energy issues. Her appointment came after the surprise retirement of Marybel Batjer.
And another member, Martha Guzman, is leaving after the Biden Administration appointed her to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 9 office.
That’s why solar advocates are focusing their lobbying energy on Newsom.
“Even though this is a decision by the CPUC,” Rosenfeld said, “this is a governor who has said that he is very concerned about rate hikes, about blackouts, about air pollution and climate change and this directly will hamper all of our efforts to address those things.”
The CPUC is scheduled to vote on the proposed rules in late January.
There is a chance the panel could alter the final proposal, or even offer an alternative. They could also postpone the vote if the commission is not fully staffed. If the panel passes the measure, it would take effect in May.