OPINIONATED: Making Solar Affordable in the Golden State

2 Jun 2016

Andrea Deveau

By Andrea Deveau

California, known for its sun-kissed beaches and stark desert beauty, should be leading the way when it comes to the transition away from fossil fuels and toward affordable solar power. But an exorbitant fee that goes directly to the pockets of the state investor-owned utilities is keeping solar out of reach for millions of California businesses and residents.

Most cities in California are fortunate to have more than 250 days a year with sun, so solar power is an attractive, affordable, and environmentally sustainable option for our state. That’s why tens of thousands have made the switch to rooftop solar. Schools are using the sun to redirect funds from energy bills to textbooks. Businesses are going green while improving their bottom line. Homeowners are saving 10-20 percent on their electric bills.

But what about the millions more for whom rooftop solar is not a practical solution. What about those who don’t have a good roof or available land. What about the half of households and businesses that aren’t able to host solar systems? What should we do about the small business in a shopping mall, the renter in an apartment building, or a local government that wants to power its operations with 100 percent renewable energy?

The good news is that there is a program that is supposed to provide a meaningful alternative—it’s called community solar.  Community Solar in California (known not so memorably as The Green Tariff Shared Renewables program) was approved in 2013 and was intended to bring the benefits of community solar to California. However, nearly three years later the program is still struggling to get off the ground.

Under this program, California residents theoretically have the right to sign up for solar power. They receive the same electricity bill every month, but the power actually comes 100 percent from solar-powered generation.

Sounds great, right? But the reality is much different.

Utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, which does not want to lose revenues from customers switching to new electricity providers, have sought and received approval to impose high fees on California ratepayers—such as the Power Charge Indifference Adjustment—that makes the program expensive and therefore out of reach. According to the San Francisco Business Journal, a household opting into PG&E’s community solar program could pay an $18 monthly premium and a medium-sized customer could pay $128. This is on top of four other charges that customers must also pay.

That’s not right.

Recently the commission voted on changes to the program, but unfortunately they don’t go far enough by failing to ensure the program meets three simple principles:

  • All customers should have access to clean energy beyond what the utility buys for them.
  • Customers should enjoy savings, given the low cost of new renewable generation.
  • Projects should get credit for the value they provide to the electric grid by lowering the need for new utility investment.

Given the the reality of global warming and the urgent need to switch away from fossil fuels, the California Public Utilities Commission should have reduced the costs of California’s community solar program by eliminating exorbitant and punitive fees on customers, which essentially amount to a tax on solar power.

California should be leading the way when it comes to solar, whether you can have it on your roof or buy it from across town. Sadly, by saddling community solar with costly fees we’ve left it in the shadows.

Andrea Deveau is the California executive director for TechNet.

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