EDITORIAL: Perea's AB 327 needs tweak to protect solar users

Lawmakers are close to approving a bill that would alter aspects of the pricing structure put in place during the energy crisis of 2000 and 2001, and shift greater authority to the state Public Utilities Commission.

In 2013, no one truly is off the grid. Californians are interconnected, no matter whether they leave their air conditioners running on all day and rack up $600 bills, or have become so energy efficient that their Smart Meters run backward.

Legislation by Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, recognizes that reality. His Assembly Bill 327 seeks to tackle the complex issue of electricity rates, and offers reasonable suggestions. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the measure Friday. It will go to the Senate energy committee and then likely to the Senate floor. Senators ought to approve it, but not without key changes.

No doubt, some customers of PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric would pay more. But The Utility Reform Network, a leading consumer group focused on electricity issues, supports the measure, as do the utilities that TURN battles.

If the measure becomes law, the state PUC would be empowered to impose a flat fee of as much as $10 a month on each private utility customer to cover the cost of the grid. But commissioners also would be expected to use their judgment to impose a lesser amount or find alternative ways of funding maintenance and improvement of the electricity distribution system.

The provision is intended to make sure that rooftop solar customers who have cut their bills dramatically pay something to cover the cost of the grid. The state should encourage the continued expansion of solar energy, but the state also has an interest in ensuring all customers pay their fair share.

According to legislative aides who analyzed the bill, rooftop solar generates 1,173 megawatts in the territory controlled by PG&E, Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. The cost to non-solar customers is roughly $60 million a year. The Legislature has justified the subsidy because it stimulated the solar industry, and helped reduce reliance on traditional sources of electricity.

However, solar energy has gained a hold in California and will continue to expand. Customers who for whatever reason do not install panels on their roofs should not be expected to pay for part of their neighbor's bills in perpetuity.

The California Solar Energy Industries Association, which represents solar manufacturers, distributors, contractors and others, opposes the bill, homing in on a provision that would authorize the state PUC to alter solar customers' contracts.

The trade group and others say solar users could end up paying more than they anticipated, and lenders' investments could be jeopardized. A deal ought to be a deal. The Legislature and commission should address the industry's concern and provide stability.