Don’t let the solar lights go out in California


Leading the way on cutting carbon dioxide from electric utilities and automobile tailpipes, California has for years provided financial incentives that make clean energy options like electric vehicles and rooftop solar affordable for millions of working- and middle-class families. These families represent by far the largest block of the million-plus California households that installed rooftop solar, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

But it could soon be lights out for California’s long, consequential record, which has made the state the nation’s leader in fighting the climate crisis with smart, economically savvy policies. State regulators are proposing to undermine the wildly popular solar program. 

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a proposal last month that would slash by a whopping 75% the credits any new solar customers would get for surplus energy their rooftop panels generate and sell back to the grid. The credits are the core of the solar program, which helps budget-conscious families keep their monthly electric bills low and defray the upfront costs of installing solar.

As captive California ratepayers see their bills soar, there’s never been a more important time to promote the climate and economic benefits of rooftop solar. If finalized, the credit cut would put solar financially out of reach for those who are hardest hit by high bills.

Nevada regulators adopted a similar plan in 2015, and the state’s once-flourishing rooftop solar market evaporated almost overnight, as detailed in the Environment California report, Rooftop Solar at Risk.

Allowing the solar market in California to tank too would be a disaster for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ambitious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle the worst catastrophes of the climate crisis. We’re already seeing them play out in costly and deadly wildfires often sparked by damaged utility transmission lines and historic drought.

Since the state initiated the residential solar program, annual growth has soared by as much as 62% a year. This is a problem for monopoly utilities, which see their profits threatened as more families and small businesses take advantage of the incentives and install solar, the only source of competition the utilities face.

Pacific Gas & Electric and California’s other two investor-owned power companies are behind the proposal to decimate the solar program, which has helped to install more than 1.5 million homes, small businesses, churches, and schools with solar. The clean energy source makes up about 10% of the state’s electricity generation.

The utilities’ efforts to undermine rooftop solar began a decade ago, when the Edison Electric Institute, the main trade and lobby group for the power sector, delivered a presentation before utility executives warning that increased rooftop solar will lead to “declining retail sales,” and a “loss of customers” and could spell “potential obsolescence” for profit-driven utilities. “Industry must prepare an action plan to address the challenges,” it said.

Restricting rooftop solar and its critical role in helping California fight the climate crisis just to boost utilities’ profits would almost certainly lead to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because the power companies would need to expand the use of polluting natural gas to make up for the electricity lost with a plunging solar sector.

California has committed to achieving 60% renewable electricity by 2030, 90% zero carbon energy by 2035 and 100% renewable, zero-carbon by 2045. Its own modeling shows roughly the same amount of rooftop solar must be added each year to meet those goals. Other experts believe far more rooftop solar arrays on homes, schools, businesses, and other structures will be needed to meet those emissions reduction targets.

If Governor Newsom wants to protect his pioneering climate legacy, it’s time for him to flex his political power and demand his hand-picked utility commissioners scrap the solar proposal. Instead, they should start over by identifying ways to make it even easier for struggling California households to reap the benefits of the clean energy source. Let’s keep rooftop solar growing and ensure California’s bright environmental leadership shines on. 

Ken Cook is president of Environmental Working Group and Laura Deehan is executive director for Environment California.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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