Editorials

Editorial: PUC shouldn’t blot out rooftop solar

A screen shot of a central Fresno neighborhood showing Google’s estimate of solar potential for a marked rooftop. The major utilities are asking the state PUC for changes that could dramatically reduce the appeal of rooftop solar panels.
A screen shot of a central Fresno neighborhood showing Google’s estimate of solar potential for a marked rooftop. The major utilities are asking the state PUC for changes that could dramatically reduce the appeal of rooftop solar panels. THE FRESNO BEE

Did you know a 3-gigawatt electricity facility has been built in California? That’s five times more than Shasta Dam’s turbines produce and 100 times more than the powerhouses at Friant Dam.

Where is this incredible facility? All over our state, actually. It’s “homemade electricity” from solar panels atop tens of thousands of California homes.

Californians who want to either save the planet or save money have built tiny power plants atop their homes. They usually use their own power, meaning when it gets hot there will be more for the rest of us. Last summer, solar generation hit 6.4 gigawatts; of that, an estimated 3.2 gigawatts came from rooftops. Despite the warmest summer on record, there were no rolling brownouts.

Taxpayers provided early incentives, but they’re nearly phased out now. So why then do big power companies so dislike rooftop solar?

The California Public Utilities Commission is conducting hearings on the relationship between rooftop generators and the utilities. Major investor-owned power companies – PG&E, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and others – want to dramatically tilt the rules in their favor.

First, they will ask for additional charges – monthly use fees, standby fees, application fees, a higher fee to connect to the grid, etc. More importantly, they will ask for changes in the “net energy metering” structure, which would dramatically reduce what they pay for excess rooftop power while leaving intact what they charge for power sold the other direction.

If implemented, these changes would increase the average electricity bill for those with rooftop arrays from $65 per month to $135.

“If you change the economics of going solar, you’ll kill the entire industry,” said Bernadette del Chiaro of the California Solar Energy Industries Association.

Arizona implemented similar changes last year, she noted, and new installations of solar panels dropped 95 percent from nearly 1,000 a month to single digits. After Turlock Irrigation District implemented similar changes this year, a north Valley company that installed roughly 50 farm and rooftop projects since 2008 (generating 10 megawatts) now has no new business.

Gov. Jerry Brown had solar incentives written into his clean-energy bill, SB 350, last summer. But none went to rooftop solar; it all went to companies installing huge projects. Worse, there was nothing to protect the interests of homeowners with rooftop arrays from changes sought by the big power companies and their unions.

The rooftop solar industry wants today’s rules left in place for another five years, providing incentives for more homeowners and large-scale residential builders to install rooftop solar systems.

If, instead, the PUC caves in to the demands of PG&E and the others – as it so often does – it will turn out the lights on California’s rooftop solar industry. More than 130,000 people have signed petitions asking the PUC not to do that; we’re asking the same.

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