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Progressives Won't Let California Kill The Rooftop Solar Industry

Ruth Luevanos is a community activist and a member of the Simi Valley City Council. She's running for congress now and has been endorsed by Blue America. Last night she told me that she's "advocating against this 'solar panel tax' for those who have been doing their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower our dependence on fossil fuels. The CPUC (the California Public Utilities Commission) needs to remember that it is a 'public' entity that serves the people, not the fossil fuel industry. If the CPUC and other elected officials are concerned with helping low income residents who want to install solar panels then they will fund programs that allow low income residents to finance solar panels including giving tax credits, they will require all new and upgraded buildings in the state to require solar panels, and they will help subsidize low income residents who want to opt into 100% renewable energy. The Clean Power Alliance, of which I am a board member, has the PowerShare program that allows low income residents to opt into 100% renewable energy while offering a discount for customers that don't otherwise have access to renewable energy sources."

A former Blue America-endorsee, now a progressive member of Congress putting much of her energy into environmental and Climate policy, Nanette Barragan, has been actively pushing in the same direction as Ruth. She told me she's disappointed that the CPUC proposal that they claim will promote equity in fact "would make it harder for residents, businesses, houses of worship and other establishments to afford rooftop solar [and] would dramatically weaken the state’s popular net energy metering program, cutting the credits on electric bills for the excess power generated by rooftop solar systems by up to 80%. It would also require solar owners in many communities to pay utilities a monthly 'grid participation charge' averaging $48, which would be the highest such fees in the nation."

Rep. Barragan said that she shares the state’s concerns about rising electricity bills, "caused largely by huge increases in transmission and grid expenses and ballooning costs associated with wildfires. Both factors are likely to escalate with the climate crisis. Pacific Gas & Electric, for example, announced it will invest billions to prevent transmission lines from sparking wildfires, as heat waves and record droughts push our power grid to the brink every summer. Rooftop solar helps to reduce the need for expensive transmission lines, and, when paired with batteries that store solar energy for use at night, it can keep the lights on during grid failures, which are increasingly common thanks to extreme weather. Low-income communities and communities of color continue to bear the brunt of the climate crisis and fossil fuel pollution, paying with our health and far too often our lives. Rooftop solar installations in urban areas can reduce air pollution and provide economic opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses, as well as jobs for local residents. More than 600 California organizations, community leaders and mayors are calling on the CPUC to maintain a net metering program that promotes rooftop solar."

In Congress she's been dedicated to ending environmental racism and promoting community-led climate solutions. The new plan would undermine those goals. "One climate solution, for example, is deploying solar panels and batteries to disadvantaged communities to reduce pollution. While the new proposal would offer a rebate for energy storage through battery use, consumers won’t buy batteries if the overall financial return for solar and storage isn’t there. In the name of equity, economic opportunity and environmental justice, California must continue to expand rooftop solar in our communities, not constrain it with the most punitive solar policies in the nation."

Writing for The Hill yesterday, Rachel Frazin and Sharon Udasin reported that the CPUC proposal-- now postponed indefinately-- is "fracturing its environmental movement." I don't know... Everyone I spoke to active in the environmental movement, like Luevanos and Barragan, are united against the proposal. And even people claiming to be environmentally-friendly but who everyone hates (Elon Musk) opposes it. Schwarzenegger (R) penned a recent New York Times op-ed warning that "California is about to take a big step backward."

“I don't think the commission appreciated the firestorm that their proposal was going to ignite,” Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, told The Hill.
That firestorm, he explained, resulted from “the convergence of the public's deep frustration with the big utilities” and what they felt would be a disruption to “one of the most successful elements of energy policy in the state.”
The plans are so contentious, the CPUC removed a scheduled vote on the decision from its Jan. 27 meeting agenda. And on Thursday, the commission’s administrative law judge sent an email to a designated service list indicating that the proposed decision “will not appear on the Commission’s voting meeting agenda until further notice.”
...The move could sharply curtail solar in the state. An analysis from Wood Mackenzie found that by 2024, it could cut the state’s residential solar market in half.
Laura Deehan, state director of the group Environment California, referred to a similar cutback in Nevada as a cautionary tale.
“We saw, very quickly, solar adoption just plummeted,” Deehan said. “And I am very concerned that the same thing will happen if the California Public Utilities Commission adopts anything close to what has been proposed.”
Whatever proposal ends up being adopted, Deehan said that there must be “no solar penalty fees,” as such charges would penalize people for fulfilling state energy goals.
...Deehan argued that rooftop solar has the potential to save money for everyone because when people produce their own electricity, they may not need what’s already on the grid, cutting demand.
“I'm instead creating my own electricity, sharing it with my neighbors,” she said. “The utility isn't profiting from that but it's essentially canceling out that demand.”
This situation, she conceded, could pose a problem “if there was suddenly no use for that extra energy” and therefore everyone ended up paying more.
But Deehan explained that this is “just not a problem we’re seeing,” as the “demand for electricity is surging” in California-- particularly as people purchase electric vehicles that require charging.
“In fact, it's projected that we're going to need somewhere between 150 percent and 200 percent of our current electricity needs,” she said.
...Cook, from the Environmental Working Group, emphasized the importance of democratizing clean electricity generation through policy that puts lower-income or working-class families “at the front of the line” for solar adoption.
“Let's ask the Public Utility Commission to start there-- not with the approach they've taken, which is to basically make solar more expensive for everybody,” Cook said.
Cook stressed that the CPUC needs “to start from scratch and ask the question, how do we deal with the fact that low-income families are paying too much for power, and they don’t have access to solar?”
“I don't think it's by crushing the rooftop solar industry,” he added. “That's exactly backwards. And I think that's a better starting point.”

Several Blue America-backed California candidates wrote letters to Alice Reynolds, president of the CPUC. For example, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, now a candidate for Congress and pretty much recognized as the most committed member of the legislature when it comes to environmental justice, wrote almost a month ago that she had 3 core objections to the proposal:

1) The Market Transition Credit program is weak and offers too little incentive for new low-income solar customers and does not fix the structural issue of CARE and FERA customers receiving no NEM credits when non-CARE and FERA customers do. 2) The proposal provides absolutely no plan for consumer protection and education programs, which is an issue of deep concern for many in the environmental justice community.
3) The proposal fails to recognize that NEM credits are strong incentives for the customers, outside of the CARE and FERA categories, that we would consider middle and working class by California standards. The current plan has no real regard for this sub population which is where we should be growing access to rooftop solar.
While I realize these issues are for you as CPUC commissioners to fix, I do offer the following solutions to consider:
1) Tier the NEM credit in a way that offers the most to incentivize frontline communities to install onsite solar on their homes. 2) Create a robust NEM credit for schools, churches, nonprofit microgrids and virtual Net Metering projects on multi-family buildings.
3) Increase outreach and education in frontline communities by partnering with local CBO’s across the state in multiple languages.

When now-Congressman Ted Lieu was still in the state Senate, he told me that the main reason he was running for Congress was because of Climate. Last night, when I asked him about this proposal he sent me the letter he sent to the CPUC.

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