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Solar advocates in Fresno urge state to maintain power-sales policy

Solar power advocates speak out

Solar power advocates speak Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Fresno in favor of current solar power rules. Video by Tim Sheehan / tsheehan@fresnobee.com
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Solar power advocates speak Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Fresno in favor of current solar power rules. Video by Tim Sheehan / tsheehan@fresnobee.com

With its abundance of sunshine throughout the year, the San Joaquin Valley is one of the nation’s leading regions in its potential for solar power, according to renewable-energy advocates.

But at a press conference Friday at a solar company’s warehouse in Fresno, they bemoaned policies being considered by the California Public Utilities Commission that they say could grind the growth of solar power for homes, schools and businesses to a halt by the end of next year.

At issue is the excess electricity created by solar panels on residential and business rooftops or parking lots and requirements for utility companies such as Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to buy and distribute that energy.

In a practice called “net energy metering,” utilities are required to pay owners of solar panels the same price for the electricity as what they charge customers for power, said Michelle Kinman, a clean-energy advocate for Environment California.

PG&E and other utilities have made proposals to the Public Utilities Commission that would reduce how much they have to pay to owners of residential or business solar panels. Kinman and others say that would have the effect of significantly diminishing the financial incentives that promote the installation of solar projects, particularly for schools and public agencies.

California has outpaced all other states because of policies that allow increasing numbers of homeowners, businesses, communities and utilities to ‘go solar.’

Environment California report, “Lighting the Way III”

In a report released Friday, Environment California noted that California added more installed solar-power generating capacity last year – about 4,316 megawatts of electricity – than all of the other states in the U.S. combined.

“While California has enough sunshine to meet its annual electricity needs many times over, it’s not the solar potential that has made the difference,” the report states. “Instead, California has outpaced all other states because of policies that allow increasing numbers of homeowners, businesses, communities and utilities to ‘go solar.’”

One megawatt of generating capacity is typically estimated to meet the power needs of about 500 homes.

Russell Freitas, superintendent of the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District in western Fresno and Madera counties, said the installation of a $3 million solar project several years ago has generated enough in savings on the district’s power bills to allow him and the school board to restore extracurricular programs such as music that had been cut because of budget shortfalls.

“We have averaged $180,000 a year in rebates and refunds,” Freitas said. “That has let us bring back critical positions … We’ve been able to add another teacher each and every year.”

Schools have been among the entities that have taken particular advantage of solar power and net metering.

Rick Brown, president of TerraVerde Renewable Partners, advises schools and public agencies on ways that they can save money on their energy bills, from conservation measures to generating their own power through solar and other technologies.

“Particularly for schools, who are shut down for the most part during the summer but built solar to optimize their savings year round, in the summer they’re exporting a lot of power to the grid,” Brown said. “That power is cheap, clean power that the utilities sell to their neighbors.”

Under current net metering rules, “they get compensated at the same price that the utilities sell it to neighbors, and that seems fair,” Brown added. “The rules that are being proposed would reduce how much they get compensated for that electricity.”

We’re not going to advise a school to do solar and then lose money. So (under new proposed rules) most schools would not be able to do it.

Rick Brown, TerraVerde Renewable Partners president

Because the economic benefits would be reduced, “in very few cases would it make financial sense for them to do (solar),” he said. “We’re not going to advise a school to do solar and then lose money. So most schools would not be able to do it.”

Under state law, the Public Utilities Commission is tasked with developing a new net energy metering policy by the end of this year to take effect in 2017. The commission asked utilities to present their suggestions earlier this year. Environment California is urging lobbying efforts and petition drives to encourage the PUC to maintain, rather than weaken, requirements for net metering.

In written statements, PG&E says its Net Metering 2.0 proposal “will better reflect the value of that power to other customers who will use it,” adding that “solar customers would still realize savings of more than 50% on their monthly bill.”

PG&E estimates that the additional cost of its proposed changes would be “about $20 monthly for a typical solar customer planning to install a 3.7 kilowatt solar system.”

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