In summary

The addition of a community solar program can help drive the most efficient grid for all, while meeting climate goals.

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By Jeff Cramer, Special to CalMatters

Jeff Cramer is executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access.

Important issues central to economic and environmental justice are at stake as the Public Utility Commission debates the future of rooftop solar in California. 

Equal access to solar energy and equity in the clean energy economy for everyone must be the goal, as well as a cost-structure that is fair to all ratepayers. 

Community solar can help achieve solar access and equity goals and an updated program for California is being embraced by solar companies, ratepayer advocates and environmental justice groups.

California has long been a leader in rooftop solar, a popular form of “distributed” energy or energy that is generated on site or closer to end users. But not everyone can access rooftop solar.

We need community solar in the mix for California now because 80% of American households don’t have access to local solar power, including some of California’s most disadvantaged communities. That’s partly why, this fall the California Environmental Justice Alliance issued a statement encouraging the state to pursue community solar as a way to close the solar gap between those living inside and outside of disadvantaged communities. 

Community solar projects are small-scale solar installations typically built on landfills, former industrial sites or small parcels of private land. Multiple customers can subscribe and receive a credit on their utility bill for their share of the power that is produced, just as if the panels were on their own roof.

However, despite being a leader in solar, California is severely lagging behind in community solar. Our organization has submitted a proposal to the CPUC that would help fix community solar in California by crediting community solar projects based on the direct value the energy brings to the grid. That results in a compensation structure that is cost-effective and fair for all ratepayers. And it means producing clean energy during the hours it’s needed most: summer evenings when California’s energy is dirty and the state has suffered from blackouts.

A group of legislators and other advocates have been trying to fix community solar in the state for years, and recently sent a letter to the PUC in support of the Net Value Billing Tariff, noting it would help ensure that “disadvantaged communities and low-income residents are able to directly participate in and benefit from the transition to renewable energy.”

It’s this rationale that was recently embraced by the U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm when announcing the agency’s goal of enabling enough community solar by 2025 to power 5 million homes and save $1 billion in energy costs.

Supporters of the community solar proposal are many of the same groups that have voiced concern for other solar programs in the state. The California Building Industry Association has also advocated for community solar because it will be difficult for builders to meet the now required solar energy mandates for residential construction without a community solar program in place.

Beyond expanding solar access to all communities, community solar can also help California achieve its climate goals on a faster timeline, while saving the state money. By enabling the continued growth of distributed solar like rooftop and community solar and battery storage, California can save $120 billion by 2050

There are new paths to consider in the future for solar energy in California. The addition of a robust community solar program, along with other forms of clean energy, can help drive the lowest-cost, most efficient grid for all, while creating economic opportunity, saving money and meeting climate goals. Expanding access to solar for all Californians is something we should agree is a worthy goal.

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