California’s Rooftop Solar Industry Wins In Head To Head With Utilities

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

A solar panel is installed on the roof of the Old Governor's Mansion State Historic Park in Sacramento, Calif.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday approved an extension to the state’s rooftop solar program, effectively extending the life of the industry and maintaining the thousands of jobs it supports.

The decision was welcomed by the solar industry, which had been concerned about fees and charges that could have decimated solar’s appeal for home and small business owners. Under net metering, customers are given credit on their bills for electricity they put back on the grid, but utilities across the country have pushed hard to add additional fees and charges, or otherwise undermine net metering programs.

“We commend the Commission for upholding net metering and protecting solar choice for Californians,” Bryan Miller, a senior vice president at Sunrun, said in a statement. “While today’s decision is a compromise that will require the solar industry to adapt, it rejects the utilities’ anti-solar proposals and continues California’s renewable energy leadership.”

The new net metering program will phase in time-of-use rates, require customers to pay a $75-$100 interconnection fee, and calculate some electricity fees differently, which will increase the amount solar customers pay towards shared costs. Sunrun estimates the new fees will add about $10 a month to solar customers’ electricity bills.

The PUC vote likely came as a disappointment to the state’s big investor-owned utilities. The commission did not accept the drastic changes the utilities had proposed during the comment period, and instead opted to accept the draft proposal with little changes.

When the draft proposal was released, San Diego Gas & Electric offered the standard complaint that rooftop solar shifts costs to non-solar customers.

“We are disappointed that today’s proposed decision on the rooftop solar subsidy does not address the growing cost burden among our customers,” a statement from the company said at the time. “Workable solutions must be developed to create a future where all customers can receive benefits.”

Yet despite this rhetoric, studies have shown that rooftop solar is actually a net benefit for customers on the grid. Not only is solar a clean, renewable power source, but generating electricity where it is consumed also reduces transmission costs. Solar can also help diminish peak load on the grid during the day.

The PUC had been directed to rethink how net metering would be structured by the California legislature under AB 327. Prior to Thursday, the total number of net metered systems was capped at 5 percent of utilities’ total generation. San Diego Light and Power had estimated it would hit the cap in summer 2016.