In summary

The California Public Utilities Commission vote against rooftop solar favors utilities over consumers and derails efforts to meet the state’s climate change goals.

By Laura Neish, Special to CalMatters

Laura Neish is the executive director of 350 Bay Area, laura@350BayArea.org.

Rooftop and other small solar projects are an important part of the state’s future energy grid, not just benefiting their owners, but providing stability, resilience and key services to everyone. Given rooftop solar’s importance to us all, it is extremely disappointing that the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted last month to significantly reduce the value small-solar owners are credited for their energy contributions to the grid. 

The decision will discourage — or even destroy the market for — rooftop solar on existing roofs. It also raises the question of whether it will keep the state’s electric grid from reaching its goal of distributing 100% clean (nonfossil fuel) energy by 2045, as required by law. 

The commission maintains an incentive structure that pays Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to do the wrong thing. The commission needs to rethink what is best for California and encourage more rooftop installations, which provide essential benefits, such as keeping energy flowing locally during outages. They are the fastest route to 100% clean energy in the state. 

These millions of rooftop systems can act in concert to supply energy during peak demand, eliminating the need to power up or build new, inefficient, “peaker” electric generation plants. Less dramatically, rooftop systems allow solar owners to reduce their own grid use during high electric demand. 

Apartment complexes count on their systems to keep costs low for tenants; nonprofits rely on reduced energy costs to help fund their missions, and new homeowners rely on reduced costs from their mandated systems to offset the increased cost of their homes. Schools and local governments likewise depend on small solar systems to reduce energy costs and keep essential services running during power outages.

Big utilities’ main compensation comes from generous guaranteed returns on investment in large transmission and distribution projects. Utilities claim that rooftop solar owners aren’t paying their share of running the electric grid and are costing them money. This is inaccurate when grid services aren’t adequately valued. These utilities have every reason to fight rooftop and other small solar projects. And fight they do.

Commissioners are appointed by the governor, and the public has very little leverage on their decision-making. The commission does take public comments during its proceedings; in last month’s meeting, commenters were given one minute to speak, and the majority of the 40 people who spoke were against the change to the calculator. But these unelected commissioners apparently aren’t swayed by public input. The interests of the  investor-owned utilities are well represented, while the public has less access. Additionally, they are shielded politically by being appointees. 

California ratepayers and residents deserve better representation, particularly now, when the state is at the crossroads between a reliable, safe, resilient and affordable grid and a more-of-the-same approach that has led to expensive power, firestorms and exponentially increasing climate disasters such as drought, high winds and excessive heat.

Get involved with securing a clean, resilient and affordable energy future. Follow this link to add to the many voices calling for the grid of the future.

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Claire Broome, Sahm White and Ken Jones, members of 350 Bay Area’s Clean Energy Team, contributed to this commentary.

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