CPUC vote expected to keep California community solar from reaching its full potential


As expected, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted on changes to its utility-backed community solar program despite strong opposition from industry groups, community solar developers and even Assemblymember Chris Ward who introduced the original version of the bill (AB 2316).

Community solar enables small businesses and residents who are renters or who otherwise cannot put solar on their roof to subscribe to a portion of an off-site solar facility, receiving a utility bill credit for the power it generates. In California, approximately 45% of California households are renters who don’t own their roofs and, therefore, can’t install a solar system.

The Community Renewable Energy Act (AB 2316) put forth by Assemblymember Ward was sponsored by the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA), and supported by the Solar Industries Energy Association, GRID Alternatives, Vote Solar, the Sierra Club, and more. Notably, investor-owned utilities, which serve over 75% of the electricity usage in the state, opposed the bill.

Riding on the tail of the CPUC’s net metering change, which dealt a serious blow to the residential solar industry, developers and other industry experts expect this new legislation will stall the buildout of community solar in California.

California was previously the leading state in solar energy; however, the tide is turning. Aaron Halimi, founder and president of Renewable Properties, a community solar developer, said that this recent decision by the CPUC will prevent California from being a leader in community solar. An increasing number of states are implementing pro-active community solar policies just as the market is starting take off.

Calling the new rules a “misguided decision”, Halimi said it’s unlikely the industry will invest in building community solar and energy storage projects in California.

“The CPUC’s decision primarily benefits the financial interests of utilities and does not support the State’s climate goals or the aim of reducing electric bills for low-income Californians, which was the purpose of AB 2316,” said Halimi.

Derek Chernow, Western regional director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA) released a statement saying that the ruling “ignored the will of the California Legislature and the broad coalition of ratepayer, equity, environmental, labor, agricultural, and business groups who have demanded a functional community solar program for more than a decade”.

The legislation passed with a 3-1 vote, and CCSA thanked the lone dissenter, Commissioner Darcie Houck, for her vote and remarks for how this Decision will fail to reach community solar’s full potential.

The CCSA characterized the CPUC’s choice to accept the utilities’ proposal as doubling down on failed programs that “have not — and will not — establish a viable community solar market that would provide affordable energy to Californians that need relief the most”.

“It’s also further evidence that California’s utilities are doing everything they can to stifle distributed energy generation in order to tighten their grip on the state’s electricity grid. The vote solidifies California’s place near the bottom of community solar markets nationwide, ceding leadership to other states to truly democratize solar energy and fulfill national energy equity goals,” said CCSA.

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