The California State Assembly is voting on new legislations (AB 1139) that will modify how energy generated by small to midsize solar projects is priced. According to local installers and the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors this will jeopardize the future of rooftop solar installs.
The new policy driving this odd opposition to renewables is driven by a concern over social equity, with proponents suggesting that Net Energy Metering (credit for solar power added to the grid) is a subsidy for homeowners who have installed solar, paid for by those without solar. Before we address this policy challenge, lets reflect on how we got here.
California has been a global leader in driving the low carbon future and has been in front on electrification of its transportation infrastructure, improved efficiency of its buildings and rapid expansion of renewable energy. These switches toward a sustainable low carbon future come with challenges that play out differently for different parts of the state’s population and businesses.
Until lately, there was little concern that existing business models, policies, laws and governance were outdated and failed to follow with the changing times. Now that distributed solar (roof top systems rather than large solar farms in our deserts) makes up close to 10% of residence, existing electric pricing and distribution infrastructure are feeling the pain of our “Phase I” solar buildout.
We got to this point because like many infrastructure programs, we subsidized solar through preferential pricing. We credit those who have made a significant investment in renewable generation through time of use rates for energy put into the grid during the day (sunlight!) and then charge lower rates for energy used at night when solar is not generating. This net energy metering strategy is simple and has worked well to get us to use our own money to invest in a low carbon future. That is what government incentives are for and demonstrates an excellent use of market forces to achieve State environmental policy. Yay!
But now the energy industry is taking notice; distributed generation is no longer a boutique industry but a real force for change that is impowering individual home owners to put their money where the governor’s mouth is. Getting the state to carbon neutral by 2050 (Biden plan) needs all of us to contribute, so why is the state reducing our ability to participate. For several reasons including antiquated electric grid and generation infrastructure that does a bad job of integrating inconsistent renewable contributions. Similarly, energy companies (PG&E, Southern California Edison, Central Coast Community Energy) make money by selling power to customers, be it carbon rich or carbon free.
The problem is local generation messes with both existing infrastructure and existing business models. The solution proposed by industry and being voted on by state law makers is to eliminate completive pricing and add additional fees to those who have installed local solar to reclaim costs from lost revenue (because we generate our own energy).
Social equity in state energy pricing is an important issue but the solution being recommended is counter to state climate policy and is missing the point. Shouldn’t we be finding ways to incentivize (subsidize) installation on low cost housing and change policy that disincentivizes landlords from installing solar on rental property. Shouldn’t our local energy district find ways to encourage local generation and work on strategic purchasing and storage of grid power that accounts for the fact that Central Coast residences want to invest in local solar jobs and empower the public (who got us into this “mess”) to continue their successful actions to address climate change. We can do better than a reverse course once we show progress. If you agree, sign a petition to Save Central Coast Solar at Change.org.
Ross Clark is the director of the Central Coast Wetlands Group at Moss Landing Marine Labs. He’s also a member of the Santa Cruz County Commission on the Environment and the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Research Activity Panel. Contact him at Rossclarkiv@gmail.com.