My colleague installed solar panels on his roof last year. In place of a monthly electricity charge on his utility bill, Bill Kelly now gets a credit. I\u2019m not so lucky. Installing photovoltaic panels on the top of my house is a no-go because a neighboring pine tree shades most of the roof. Trees may have standing but listening to Bill brag about his meter running backwards tempts me to pull out the chain saw. If I was covered in that tree\u2019s sawdust, I, too, could change the direction of my meter and pay virtually zippo for the distribution portion of electricity the utility sends into my and other like-homes when the sun isn\u2019t out. Owners of rooftop renewables get a \u201cnet metering\u201d rate for the power they feed into utility lines. When that retail rate is estimated over the life of the solar project it sweetens the hefty upfront cost. It reflects the time needed to recoup the investment and start saving money. But, it excludes the cost of utility distributed juice. Like the dense pine cones from the bothersome tree, it lands on other ratepayers\u2019 heads. When I pointed out the shifted liability, my colleague noted the heavy sum he paid to Southern California Edison to get his solar system hooked into utility power lines. The substantial fee to Edison to let others tap into his clean power may rival his former distribution charges or my current ones. Yet, even if it that weren\u2019t the case, I really wouldn\u2019t have panel envy. I get the satisfaction of knowing installations by Bill and others have resulted in 1,400 MW of solar power across California Although lacking solar bragging rights, I also know the local renewable energy production means less dirty fossil-generated electricity, fewer greenhouse gases, and high voltage line losses. It also reduces the amount of renewable resources utilities must buy because the distributed solar gets counted towards the utility\u2019s 33 percent renewable portfolio obligation. The amount of solar in California is expected to continue to grow. It could be more than 5,200 MW in investor-owned utility territories. But, the amount and pace of growth hinges on how much owners of residential solar power retrofits are paid for the power they send into the grid. Net metering\u2019s favorable retail rate\u2014versus a lower wholesale rate\u2014is a key driver of in-state solar, including nearly reaching the California Solar Initiative\u2019s half-way point. That initiative, which strives to incent 3,000 MW of sun power by 2016, began with more than a $3 billion subsidy. That installation subsidy has dropped significantly over time and is largely insufficient to overcome resistance to expensive solar installations. Step in net metering. \tUnder net metering, the panel output is averaged over a year, meaning many owners get bill credits. A photovoltaic owner can kick back in the summer with plenty of excess kWhs going back into the utility system, and chill in the winter when the roof isn\u2019t making enough electricity to keep the dwelling warm. But, any excess bill credit at the end of 12 months isn\u2019t carried over and disappears. Since its initiation in California, the net metering rate has been hotly debated. Opponents include utilities because the more rooftop solar the lower their power sales. Big residential energy users lacking panels also object because they pick up much of the residential rooftop distribution charges. But just what the distribution charge amounts to is unclear and contentious. So, too, is how it\u2019s calculated. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric senior vice president Tom Bottorff said the shifted distribution cost is \u201csignificant.\u201d A report released last January by Crossborder Energy said utilities\u2019 concerns about cost shifting are \u201cunfounded.\u201d In an attempt to resolve the matter, the California Public Utilities Commission is updating a net metering cost-benefit analysis. Expected to be released this spring, the report aims to help regulators better align costs between solar haves and have nots. Also expected to impact the net metering rate is the CPUC\u2019s residential rate proceeding, where it is just one of many issues. In addition, regulators are to separately look at the net metering rate. If they don\u2019t touch it, net metering disappears by 2014. That outcome is unlikely. Solar advocates say they fear for their future because of the cost uncertainty for photovoltaics. But, the state is unlikely to reverse course given its long push to advance renewables. That includes the California Solar Initiative, the 33 percent renewable portfolio mandate, and climate protection law, AB 32. Also in the mix is the CPUC rejection of investor-owned utilities\u2019 lower calculations for determining the revised net metering cap. It was doubled by legislation to 5 percent of \u201caggregate demand.\u201d Regulators opted for solar advocates\u2019 number of 5,265 MW, more than double the utilities\u2019 calculation of 2,432 MW. The net metering rate may be lowered to reflect the cost of distribution, or a fixed price added in for distribution to solar array owners, but don\u2019t expect it to disappear. That is not to say that controversy won\u2019t continue over the cost\/benefit outcome. Whether the number is positive or negative depends on what costs and benefits are included and how they\u2019re measured. In addition to Crossborder\u2019s study, two earlier ones were released in 2009 and 2010. They came up with different net metering cost estimates. Crossborder concluded that statewide net metering produces a benefit. It and the earlier reports agree that the bulk of net metering costs fall on PG&E ratepayers. The reason is attributed to high costs in PG&E\u2019s upper residential rate tiers. Crossborder estimated an average 0.013\/kWh for PG&E ratepayers, or 11 cents\/month in excess charges if the 5,200 MW cap is reached. At the same time, net benefits were estimated for Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, an average of $0.007\/kWh and 0.028\/kWh benefit, respectively. The cost would drop and benefits grow, if residential time-of-use were in place, concluded Crossborder. The various numbers\u2014like utility-estimated savings from energy efficiency\u2014will continue to be debated ad nauseam. Regulators can realign rates so the costs are more equitably shared. That includes lowering the kWh charges for the upper tiers or reducing the tiers. Also on the table is adding in a fixed distribution charge for residential solar rooftop owners\u2014although agreeing on the amount surely would be contentious. Even if the rate stays virtually the same, it really isn\u2019t worth the investment in hot air. The state\u2019s admirable efforts to increase non-fossil energy resources should not be thwarted and subsidies, including far more inequitable ones, are a way of life\u2014be it utilities\u2019 stranded costs, healthcare, or highway maintenance. That is not so say, however, that I won\u2019t pressure Bill to contribute to my investment in a chain saw silencer.