Only rarely does the California Public Utilities Commission, long known as the least responsive agency in the state government to consumer concerns, return to the drawing board once it proposes a problem solution.
That’s partly because when the utility committee (the PUC) comes up with ideas, it essentially submits them to itself; the five commissioners charged with coming up with ideas are also the ones with the votes to impose them on every affected Californian.
So the new rooftop solar rules proposed by the committee in November are very unusual: an almost completely reworked proposal that hopes to grow rooftop energy but also bring more equity to electricity consumers who don’t be able to pay for rooftop solar or live in apartments, condominiums and apartments. other places are not suitable for it.
The originally proposed new rules, which were offered in late 2021, aimed to cut payments to solar roof owners by 80 percent for excess power their panels generate and send to the state’s general power grid, thereby improving the provision of renewable energy for everyone. They also wanted to charge rooftop solar owners a fee of about $60 a month to connect to the grid, which would allow them to draw power when solar-attached batteries run down.
Since most solar roof owners pay upwards of $20,000 for panels and installation to avoid monthly electric bills, this plan promised to greatly reduce installations. That would jeopardize about 67,000 installer and manufacturing jobs while slowing California’s move to 100 percent renewable electricity.
Consumer groups and sunroof owners cried. Soon Governor Gavin Newsom, who appoints PUC members to six-year staggered terms but cannot fire them once confirmed by the Senate, joined the chorus.
So, in a virtually unprecedented move, the commissioners withdrew their plan from the brink of approval, promising to make a revised proposal.
The new plan would still reduce what solar owners are paid for excess energy, but not by that much. This is their request to utility advocates who cannot afford or install rooftop solar. The new rules would mainly apply to new rooftop solar owners.
Some proponents of off-roof electric customers have complained that they pay monthly to maintain the state’s electric grid, while solar owners connected to that grid for emergencies don’t help with those costs.
At the same time, the new plan eliminates the proposed $60 monthly fee.
So this is a compromise. It doesn’t make anyone very happy, but it was fair enough to avoid the scathing criticism that led Newsom to oppose the previous proposal.
The new plan’s exact reduction of what each solar owner can get for excess power will be based on the state’s “avoided cost” calculator, which calculates how much solar owners save on electricity bills each month.
Proponents of rooftop solar, such as the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity, admit the new plan is an improvement, but oppose the reduction in electricity prices paid to owners.
The cost avoidance calculator, it says, “ignores many benefits of (solar return to the grid) … such as (improved) grid reliability, greenhouse gas and air pollution reductions, and local economic benefits, including job creation.”
That probably won’t convince the commissioners, who seem determined to enforce their new plan at a meeting scheduled for December 16.
And yet the new plan is the first sign in many years that the PUC is occasionally listening to consumers, rather than just utilities. The commission has been widely criticized for more than 50 years for favoring companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric over their customers.
This time, with all three of these companies firmly behind the original version of the new rooftop solar rules because it would have eliminated their payments to small solar owners, the PUC has leaned a bit towards a specific group of consumers , the owners of residential solar energy.
That still leaves the PUC well short of serving the interests of most utilities, as the new responsiveness mainly benefits a group with above-average assets.
This makes the new measurement plan for solar energy an improvement, but it does not dispel serious doubts about the committee’s decisiveness.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]