Rarely does the California Public Utilities Commission, long known as the least responsive to consumer concerns in the state government, return to the drawing board when it proposes a “solution” to a problem.
That’s partly because the Utilities Committee (PUC) essentially proposes ideas to itself; The five commissioners tasked with coming up with ideas are also the ones who have the votes to impose them on every affected Californian.
Therefore, the new rules for rooftop solar systems proposed by the Commission in November are very unusual: an almost completely revised proposal that aims to further expand rooftop energy, but also to provide more justice for electricity consumers who are not in are able to pay for rooftop solar panels or living in apartments, condominiums and apartments other places are not suitable for this.
The originally proposed new rules, offered in late 2021, aimed to slash payments to solar rooftop owners by 80 percent for excess electricity their panels generate, which is fed into the entire state grid and thus the supply with renewable energy for all. They also aimed to charge rooftop solar system owners a fee of about $60 per month to connect to the grid, which allows them to draw power when the solar-coupled storage batteries are depleted.
With most solar rooftop owners paying upwards of $20,000 for panels and installation to avoid monthly utility bills, this plan promised to significantly reduce installations. That would put about 67,000 plumbing and manufacturing jobs at risk while slowing California’s march toward 100 percent renewable energy.
Consumer associations and solar roof owners howled. Governor Gavin Newsom soon joined the chorus, which appoints PUC members to staggered six-year terms but cannot fire them once they have been confirmed by the state Senate.
In a virtually unprecedented move, the commissioners withdrew their plan just before adoption and vowed to produce a revised proposal.
The new plan would still cut what solar owners are paid for excess energy, but not by as much. This is their consolation for advocates for utility customers who cannot afford or install rooftop solar power. The new rules would mainly apply to new rooftop solar owners.
Some advocates of off-roof electricity customers have complained that they pay monthly to maintain the state grid, while solar owners who connect 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 that’s a compromise. It doesn’t make anyone very happy, but was fair enough to avoid the kind of scathing criticism that led Newsom to oppose the previous proposal.
The new plan’s exact cut of what each solar owner can get for excess electricity will be based on the government’s “avoided costs” calculator, which calculates how much solar owners save on utility bills each month.
Advocates of rooftop solar systems like the Oakland-based Center for Biodiversity concede the new plan is an improvement, but oppose the reduction in electricity prices paid to owners.
The avoided costs calculator, it says, “ignores many benefits of (solar energy fed back into the grid) … such as (improved) grid reliability, reductions in greenhouse gases and air pollution, and local economic benefits, including job creation.”
That is unlikely to convince the commissioners, who seem keen to push through 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, not just utility companies. 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 around, with all three of these companies standing firmly behind the original version of the new rooftop solar rules because they would have eliminated their payments to small solar owners, the PUC has flexed a little towards a specific group of consumers, the residential solar owners.
The PUC is still a long way from looking after the interests of most utility customers, as the new responsiveness will primarily benefit a group with above-average wealth.
This makes the new solar measurement plan an improvement, but does not alleviate the serious doubts about the Commission’s ability to react.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]