Frustration builds in wait for California’s next rooftop solar proposal
It’s been over a month and a half since state regulators pressed “pause” on a controversial scheme that would drastically shift the financial underpinnings for consumer solar power installations.
For those invested in the outcome, trying to forecast what happens next has been like an exercise in reading tea leaves.
Predictions vary widely as to when the California Public Utilities Commission and its new president will make their next proposal public, as well as how recognizable it might be. Some say they hear an announcement could come in another month or so; others, later this year or even next.
“Everybody’s waiting,” said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for Affordable Clean Energy for All, a coalition funded by California’s major electrical providers. “Nobody knows anything.”
Alice Busching Reynolds, former senior energy adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appointed her to take lead at the CPUC beginning Dec. 31, remains publicly silent on the issue while attending a flurry of meetings and reviewing the “voluminous record” on the matter.
Reynolds made no comment Thursday, when about 224 opponents of the now-shelved proposal commandeered the phone lines for 4½ hours of the commission’s virtual meeting for back-to-back, one-minute critiques of the plan.
Pressed to give a timeline for the her next move at a March 2 meeting of the California State Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee, Reynolds only noted that the complex issue required consideration of affordability and equity in addition to a legislative mandate to “ensure that customer sited renewable generation continues to grow sustainably.”
“The decision is complicated, as you know,” Reynolds told Assembly members. “It has to do with many elements of the way that rooftop solar customers are compensated, the way that they pay for the grid that they use for their systems — both to receive energy and to export energy — and we are trying to move very quickly in continuing our valuation.”
In the meantime, both sides are hoping for an overhaul of the now-tabled proposal, which was made public Dec. 13, though with different goals in mind.
Some want to see the CPUC further gut the financial inducements introduced almost three decades ago to spur early solar adoption.
Those individuals say the wider public should no longer be subsidizing solar systems installed disproportionately by people of means.
“We want them to bring more equity to the program,” Fairbanks said
On the other side are those who call a proposed new fee for solar users a “solar tax” that burdens them with costs they shouldn’t have to bear. They say a move to slash the credit solar users get for surplus power they generate and send back to the grid by about 80% is a killer for the industry and future rooftop solar adoption.
“People should be able to generate their own electricity from the sun without the utility penalizing them, clawing back what they think is theirs,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar & Storage Association. “It really crushes solar and storage.”
Like other critics, she argues the very future of distributed solar power and progress toward the state’s renewable energy goals are at stake, even as increasing numbers of lower and middle-income households move into the market.
They say solar adoption would slow precipitously right when the transition to clean energy should be speeding up. They say it would gut the rooftop solar industry, jeopardize California’s decarbonization goals and play into the hands of investor-owned utilities that favor a centralized energy grid.
“Part of the reason why the Dec. 13 (proposed) decision was so extreme,” said Woody Hastings, energy program manager at the Santa Rosa-based Climate Center, “is precisely because it’s been just in the last few years that solar has really started to ramp up with moderate to middle to lower income folks in the state, and that’s ringing alarm bells in the entrenched status quo that, ‘Hey, this is really getting under our skin, and it’s a real challenge to our business model, and we have to crush it.’ ”
Opponents also say they anticipated some early incentives would continue to be phased out, they didn’t expect them to be nearly eliminated as solar was becoming so widely adopted by people in all income groups.
“Everyone I talk to who says, ‘Please don’t do this. This was a mistake,’ acknowledges that some update is needed,” Hastings said. “We’re saying, ‘Yes, some adjustments are needed. Just don’t make it capricious. Don’t make it abrupt, and don’t make it draconian to the degree that it will clearly hobble small-scale solar going forward.’ ”