I's the Capitol: Audit of Regulators’ Solar Initiative Imminent

By Published On: July 3, 2014

The state Joint Legislative Audit Committee July 1 unanimously approved auditing the California Public Utilities Commission’s administration of the multi-billion dollar California Solar Initiative. “We’ve invested a great deal of our taxpayer money into creating incentives,” Assemblymember Adam Gray (D-Merced) said. “We need to make sure the money we’ve invested has been broadly applied throughout California.” The more-than-$3 billion California Solar Initiative provides incentives for solar system installations by customers of the state’s three investor-owned utilities: Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric. The program provides upfront incentives for solar systems installed on existing residential homes, as well as existing and new commercial, industrial, government, and agricultural properties within the three private utilities’ service territories. Under action agreed to by the joint committee this week, the initiative is slated to be audited along with the state’s “clean air” decals. They are used on vehicles that meet specified emissions standards and are allowed to use high-occupancy vehicle (a.k.a. carpool) lanes on California freeways even with a single occupant. State Auditor Elaine Howle explained that her office would look at the most recent three years of both programs and identify the extent to which their goals and objectives have been achieved. Cost-benefit analyses are set to be conducted, she said. Benefits geographically derived from the program, and by whom, are also set for analysis. The audit is also expected to look at whether the benefits of the initiative have been used “equally and equitably” throughout the state, Howle said. She said it would take about five months to complete the audit. “We want to make sure these programs are benefitting all of California, not just those who would have put solar on their home or bought a specific type of car, even without any incentive in place,” Gray said. Sara Kamins, commission supervisor overseeing the initiative, said most of the data the auditors seek are already available on the commission’s website, with the exception of demographic information, including age, race, gender and income. She also said data show that the program is meeting its statutory goals and objectives and that the program is working. “A recent evaluation of market transformation shows that the [initiative] has transformed the solar market and it’s expected that the market will be self-sufficient without incentives going forward,” she remarked. She added that a key point was that the installed cost of solar energy systems has declined by over 50 percent in the past six years and that the geographic distribution of installed systems has increased. An item that had been scheduled to request an audit of the commission’s policies and practices for disclosing customer complaints was one of four items pulled from the committee’s agenda with no explanation. The committee had been expected to consider a written request by three members of the Senate Energy, Utilities & Communications committee—Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) and Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo)—to authorize an audit to ensure that commission customer complaint data is “valid, reliable and objective” and that the commission has a “transparent, uniformly applied process” for disclosing the data to the Legislature and other policy-makers (Current, June 12, 2014). In a four-page letter signed by the three lawmakers, they wrote there are “significant questions about the commission’s policies and practices for compiling and disclosing informal complaint data and its responsiveness to requests from the Legislature for complaint data.” The audit request is related to customer complaints received by the commission regarding Verizon allegedly refusing to repair copper-wire landlines in order to force customers to migrate over to newer calling technology. It’s possible that the request, which was previously pushed back from the joint committee’s June 4 gathering, could be rescheduled for the August meeting.

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