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A big decision on rooftop solar in California is off the table, for now

California regulators are holding off on considering a proposal that would upend the state’s solar marketplace. KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson says the delay likely means changes to the controversial plan are in the works.

California utility regulators have quietly tabled a controversial plan made public last month that would drastically reduce the benefits provided to homeowners with rooftop solar panels.

A California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) administrative law judge unveiled the proposal, which changes California’s Net Energy Metering rules.

RELATED: California solar supporters energized in fight against proposed new rules

That’s the regulation governing how much owners of rooftop solar arrays are paid by utilities for the energy they produce and how much they have to pay utilities for hooking up to the grid.

The proposal unveiled Dec. 13 sided heavily with the investor-owned utilities and landed with a thud among solar advocates.

RELATED: Solar industry cringes at new rules proposed by California regulators

“It’s so bad,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, the executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association. “We think that the proposed decision, the bones of it, are so rotten, it will not hold.”

A big decision on rooftop solar in California is off the table, for now

Speaker 1: (00:00)

California regulators are holding off on considering a proposal that would upend the state's solar marketplace K PBS environment reporter Eric Anderson says the delay likely means changes to the controversial plan are in the works.

Speaker 2: (00:15)

The California public utilities commission delivered grim news for the state's solar installers last month.

Speaker 3: (00:21)

It's it's so bad.

Speaker 2: (00:23)

Bernadette Del KIRO is the executive director of the California solar in storage association.

Speaker 3: (00:28)

We think the proposed decision, the bones of it are so rotten, uh, that it will not hold the

Speaker 2: (00:34)

Public agency recommended slashing how much homeowners are paid for electricity generated by the rooftop solar panels. It proposed a steep increase in grid access charges for a typical solar customer. About $60 a month. The plan essentially negates the financial incentives for homeowners to pay thousands of dollars to add solar panels to their roofs. Solar industry advocates say that changes could dry up for the green energy option and throw thousands of solar installers out of work. And that got solar workers to a rally in Los Angeles. Last week, The message was aimed at the CPU C's satellite office in LA, the solar workers like revamp energy's owner, J cutting says his brown and black workers need the support of commissioners.

Speaker 4: (01:26)

And we would hate to see all the hard work and, and pro progress we've made, been killed by this, by this bill and this solar tax. So we came to show our support and say, save our jobs,

Speaker 2: (01:38)

But the commission isn't the only target solar and three backers have worked hard to get the attention of governor Gavin Newsom and hints that their campaign is working came when Newsom answered questions about the proposal during the unveiling of his proposed budget. Earlier this month, that draft plan,

Speaker 5: (01:57)

Uh, was recently released. I just had a chance to review, and I'll say this about the plan. We still

Speaker 2: (02:01)

Have some work to do. When asked again later during the event, Newsom was vague, but did suggest the proposal would not survive in its current form. Do I

Speaker 5: (02:10)

Think, uh, that changes need

Speaker 2: (02:12)

To be made? Yes, I do. A recent development suggests change might be coming. The CPU C failed to put the item on its January 27th agenda after planning a vote for more than a year. It is unclear if the issue is just being pushed back a couple of weeks or longer,

Speaker 3: (02:28)

There's no question. The commission needs more time on this

Speaker 2: (02:31)

Solar industry. Backer Bernadette Del Kiara is not ready to call the delay of victory, especially with the commission in flu. The CPU C president has only been in office since the beginning of the year. And another of the Ann's five seats remain unfilled.

Speaker 3: (02:47)

It is unprecedented. The shake up of the, the leadership of this commission, right at the five yard line of one of the biggest decisions they will have made this decade. So there's no question they need more time. And I think the governor

Speaker 6: (02:59)

Recognized that and referenced that

Speaker 2: (03:00)

As well, San Diego gas and electric has remained quiet on the issue. Since early last year, the utility called the process sensitive and told KPBS they would not be commenting until after regulators make their decision. But utility back groups continue to run ads on social media. A

Speaker 7: (03:17)

Flaw in state law is forcing Californians who can't afford rooftop, solar to subsidize wealthier homeowners who can seniors and families

Speaker 2: (03:25)

Struggle. And they have surrogates making their case. Kathy Fairbank runs the utility funded group, affordable energy for all it's

Speaker 6: (03:34)

Unfair. And you know, we understand why the solar industry is objecting to these reforms. It means cuts to their profits. It means cuts to executive salaries and bonuses. It means cuts in their shareholders.

Speaker 2: (03:51)

Meanwhile, solar industry backers say it is utilities that are motivated by greed. Regulators will make the final decision they've into the solar market. Once before making only minor tweaks, after a more sweeping utility friendly proposal was rejected. It remains unclear if that will happen again. Eric Anderson KPBS news.

Jobs at risk

The plan slashes, by about 80%, how much residents get paid for electricity generated by rooftop solar panels and proposes steep grid access charges, about $60 a month for a typical solar customer.

It essentially negates most of the financial incentives for homeowners to pay thousands of dollars to add solar panels to their roofs.

The utilities argue it fixes a cost shift where solar owners do not pay their fair share of grid maintenance costs, which are shifted to non-solar customers.

But the solar industry argues that the changes will likely cause demand for rooftop solar to dry up and throw thousands of solar installers out of work.

“Save solar … Save solar … Save solar …” Is what hundreds of solar workers chanted at a Los Angeles rally earlier this month.

The message was aimed at the CPUC’s satellite office in Los Angeles.

“We would hate to see all the hard work and progress that we’ve made be killed by this bill. This solar tax,” said Jay Cutting, owner of ReVamp Energy, a solar installation company. “We came to show our support and say, save our jobs.”

RELATED: California's solar marketplace could see some major changes soon

California Solar Panels
Rich Pedroncelli / AP
This file photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, shows solar panels on rooftops of a housing development in Folsom, Calif.

Cutting said California’s solar industry is the nation’s largest and provides high paying jobs for the black and brown workers at his company.

Solar industry officials say 1.3 million homes have added rooftop solar arrays since 2006 when then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the million solar roof’s initiative into law. The result was an industry supporting 68,000 jobs.

Newsom response

Solar backers have also worked hard to get the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom both before the proposed decision was released and since.

The governor addressed the issue when he unveiled his proposed budget on Jan. 10.

“That draft plan that was recently released…” Newsom said. “I just had a chance to review and I’ll say this about the plan: We still have some work to do.”

Newsom was careful not to give away details about possible changes, even when reporters asked about the issue a second time.

“I think my answer says at least responds to the later part of your question, do I think that changes need to be made, yes I do,” Newsom said.

RELATED: California solar industry braces for change

The CPUC’s actions hint change might be coming.

The item is not on the commission’s Jan. 27 agenda. That had been the target date for a final decision for close to a year.

It remains unclear if the issue is just being pushed back a couple of weeks or longer.

“There’s no question the commission needs more time on this,” Del Chiaro said.

CPUC turnover

Solar industry backers are not ready to call the delay a victory, especially with the commission in flux.

The CPUC president, Alice Reynolds has only been in office since the beginning of the year and another of the panel’s five seats remains unfilled.

“It is unprecedented, the shakeup of the leadership of this commission right at the five-yard line of one of the biggest decisions they have made this decade,” Del Chiaro said.

San Diego Gas and Electric has remained quiet on the issue since early last year.

After questioning by KPBS, the utility announced they would not be commenting publicly on the issue because the decision is important and the issue is considered too sensitive.

“It’s unfair and we understand why the solar industry is objecting to these reforms. It means cuts to their profits. It means cuts to executive salaries and bonuses. It means cuts to their shareholders.”
Kathy Fairbanks, Affordable Energy for All

That has not stopped utility funded groups from stoking the public debate.

The Fix the Cost Shift group is running ads on social media that push the utility’s narrative.

“A flaw in state law is forcing Californians who can’t afford rooftop solar to subsidize wealthier homeowners who can,” said a Facebook ad. “Seniors and families struggling pay hundreds more each year in higher energy bills. Fix this unfair cost shift.”

And California’s investor-owned utilities have surrogates making their case.

“It’s unfair and we understand why the solar industry is objecting to these reforms,” said Kathy Fairbanks, of the advocacy group Affordable Energy for All. “It means cuts to their profits. It means cuts to executive salaries and bonuses. It means cuts to their shareholders.”

Solar industry backers say it’s the utilities that are motivated by greed.

The CPUC will make the final decision.

Regulators have changed the solar market once before making only minor tweaks after a more sweeping utility friendly proposal was rejected.

What remains unclear is whether that pattern will be followed again.