Customers who get their electricity from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E;) will soon have the option of getting up to 100 percent of their electricity from community solar, under a new program announced last week.
Under the program, which PG&E; calls its green option, the utility will purchase energy produced by solar facilities within its service area, which covers about two-thirds of California. Customers can then buy into that energy, paying for enough solar to power either 50 or 100 percent of their energy use. The option will carry an extra cost of about 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, which PG&E; says will “likely fall over time” as the cost of solar continue to fall.
“This program offers a great opportunity for PG&E; customers who want to reduce carbon pollution and buy 100 percent clean energy,” Peter Miller, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement for PG&E.; “PG&E;’s green option is a big win for Californians and the environment.”
PG&E; said in the statement that the community solar option will benefit those customers with rooftops that aren’t in optimal locations for solar — houses whose roofs are shaded most of the day, for instance. It cited a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that found that only a quarter of residential rooftops around the country are suited for solar, due to problems with shading or house structure, and due limitations on installing solar on rented buildings. A community solar option is a chance for these households and businesses to buy into a solar farm that’s situated in a high-sun location.
Utilities have grappled in recent years over how to adapt to the rise in solar installations in the U.S. In Arizona, a utility wants to charge customers who use solar $50 or more a month, a move that the utility says would make it possible for solar users to pay their fair share of grid maintenance. New Mexico’s largest utility wants to take a similar route, charging solar customers up to $30 a month. These proposals to charge solar customers have drawn outrage from solar advocates, who have said the charges could destroy the cost-effectiveness of solar in their states.
But some utilities, such as PG&E;, have taken steps to support renewable energy. As of 2012, PG&E; got 19 percent of its energy from renewable sources, such as wind, solar, biomass and small-scale hydroelectric, and also got 11 percent of its energy from large-scale hydroelectric sources. PG&E; was also among a group of 70 of the country’s largest utilities to announce last year that they would be spending $250 million over the next five years on plug-in fleet technology.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory ranked the country’s best utilities for renewable energy programs, based on data from 2013. It found that Austin Energy charged the smallest premium on renewable energy — the premium was actually negative — followed by Oklahoma Gas & Electric, which charged 4 cents per kilowatt-hour. And other utilities have adopted community solar options, too: last year, Washington-based Inland Power and Light Co. launched a community solar option for its customers, starting with a pilot project that will provide enough solar power for three or four homes.