Rarely does the California Public Utilities Commission, long known as the least responsive state agency to consumer concerns, go back to the drawing board once it proposes a “solution” to a problem.
In part, this is because when the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) presents ideas, it is essentially proposing them to itself; the five commissioners charged with coming up with the ideas are also the ones with the votes to force them on every affected Californian.
So the new rooftop solar rules the commission proposed in November are highly unusual: An almost completely overhauled proposal that hopes to keep rooftop power expanding but also bring more fairness to electricity consumers who can’t pay for rooftop solar or live in apartments, condominiums and other places that are not suitable for it.
The originally proposed new rules, which were offered in late 2021, sought to reduce payments to solar rooftop owners by 80 percent for the excess electricity their panels generate that is sent to the state’s overall power grid, increasing the supply of renewable energy for everyone. They also aimed to charge rooftop solar owners a fee of about $60 a month to connect to the grid, allowing them to draw power when the solar batteries die.
With most solar rooftop owners paying upwards of $20,000 for panels and installation to avoid monthly electric bills, this plan promised to significantly reduce installations. That would put about 67,000 assembly and manufacturing jobs at risk while slowing California’s march toward 100 percent renewable electricity.
Consumer groups and solar roof owners howled. The chorus was soon joined by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appoints PUC members to six-year terms but cannot fire them once confirmed by the state Senate.
So in a virtually unprecedented move, commissioners pulled their plan from the brink of adoption and promised to produce a revised proposal.
The new plan would still reduce what solar owners pay for excess power, but not by as much. This is their sop to advocate for utility customers who cannot afford or install rooftop solar. The new rules would primarily apply to new owners of rooftop solar installations.
Some advocates for non-rooftop customers have complained that they pay monthly to maintain the state’s grid, while solar owners who connect to the grid for emergency use don’t help with those costs.
The new plan also eliminates the proposed $60 monthly fee.
So it is a compromise. It didn’t please anyone, but it was fair enough to avoid the kind of withering criticism that prompted Newsom to oppose the previous proposal.
The exact reduction in what each solar owner can get for excess electricity under the new plan will be based on the state’s “avoided cost” calculator, which shows how much solar owners save on their electric bills each month.
Advocates of rooftop solar, such as the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity, admit the new plan is an improvement, but oppose reducing the electricity prices paid to homeowners.
The cost-savings calculator, he says, “ignores many of the benefits (of solar back-to-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 commissioners, who appear determined to push through their new plan at a meeting scheduled for Dec. 16.
And yet the new plan is the first sign in years that the PUC may occasionally listen to consumers, not just utilities. The commission has been widely criticized for more than 50 years for favoring companies such as Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric over their customers.
This time, with all three of those companies firmly behind the original version of the new rooftop solar rules because it would have eliminated their payments to small solar owners, the PUC has leaned a bit toward a specific group of consumers, residential solar owners.
This still leaves the PUC far from looking out for the interests of most utility customers, as the new responsiveness primarily benefits the upper-middle-class wealth group.
That said, the new solar metering plan is an improvement, but it doesn’t diminish major doubts about the commission’s responsiveness.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]