CPUC Narrowly Approves Protections for Rooftop Solar Owners

By Published On: September 23, 2021

On an unusual 3-2 vote, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to better protect struggling, elderly and non-English speaking ratepayers ripped off by unscrupulous solar installers.

The decision was written by Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves, who has fought to protect vulnerable ratepayers victimized by fraud, misrepresentation, and shoddy and incomplete work by solar rooftop installers. Her original decision was significantly revised after the Contractors State License Board recently created a $5 million fund to compensate wronged solar rooftop customers.

Last year, a coalition of 13 nonprofits that provide free legal help, the California Low-Income Consumer Coalition, told the CPUC that the last several years they had seen “an influx of vulnerable homeowners trapped in clean energy financing and/or solar lease agreements that they do not understand and cannot afford.” These customers were often tricked into signing these agreements that were grossly misrepresented, they said. Other organizations reported the same abuses in the solar industry in parts of Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey, Orange, and San Diego counties.

The bad actors threaten the state’s solar program, Guzman Aceves warned last year, making it more difficult for disadvantaged communities to benefit from rooftop solar.

She seeks to watchdog the program at the licensing board. Her decision also calls for workshops to explore avenues to continuously fund the program for aggrieved ratepayers.

CPUC president Marybel Batjer opposed the decision, saying the Commission was encroaching on another agency’s turf. She argued the fund at the state licensing board, which regulates solar installers, makes CPUC action unnecessary, and in any case, it is beyond its authority. Commissioner Darcie Houck agreed with Batjer.

Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen sided with Guzman Aceves. He said the CPUC has the authority to create a compensation fund, and action by the CPUC is not preempted. He said the legislature was surely well aware of the CPUC’s efforts in this area. In addition, the narrow proposal does not bind the commission to act, but only hold workshops.

Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma also voted to adopt Guzman Aceves’ proposed decision.

Earlier, Guzman Aceves called for adding $12 to each new solar interconnection to fund a $1.6 million net energy metering recovery fund annually. The investor-owned utility current average connection cost is $100. There was wide consensus on the need to protect ratepayers who were the victims of bad contractors. But there was much disagreement over who should pay for a victim compensation fund—ratepayers or contractors installing solar rooftops. This year, lawmakers included $5 million in the state budget to fund a protection program at the state licensing board.

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