Late last year, San Diego Gas & Electric asked state regulators to charge solar customers for the energy they provide to the grid with what was called a “network use charge.” This fee quickly became a lightning rod for proponents of solar power. The utility’s effort was met with a chorus of dissent from many sectors of the population in San Diego, including school districts, water districts, and solar contractors. Soon after, the Public Utilities Commission rejected the proposal.
Mission accomplished for the state’s job-creating solar industry? Not quite. The utility is back at the CPUC proposing to change the way it charges schools, water districts, cities and commercial properties that have solar. It also is expected to file statewide legislation to accomplish the same goal.
As a result, the local schools that produce their own power could see costs increase by more than $1 million annually. Equally drastic are the impacts to government agencies (read: taxpayers) that have invested millions upon millions of dollars in solar projects.
At the heart of this fight is a policy called “net energy metering.” Also known as the program that lets a customer’s electric meter “spin backward,” net metering is a simple billing arrangement that ensures solar customers receive fair credit for the electricity their systems generate during daytime hours. It operates like rollover minutes on a cellphone; when a facility doesn’t use all the power its solar panels are producing at a given time, the extra energy goes to the property’s neighbors and the owner gets a credit on his or her electric bill.
In place since 1995, net-metering is one of the most effective state-level policy tools to avail solar energy to thousands California residents and independently owned businesses. Forty-three other states have adopted the policy.
Largely due to this policy, California’s solar market continues to grow exponentially – at a pace of up to 40 percent per year, far faster than the general economy. According to the Solar Foundation’s job census our state’s solar industry employs more than 25,000 Californians. Equally important, the majority of people working in the solar industry are from working- class communities. These are jobs that reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels and cannot be outsourced to China and other nations.
Who is driving the growth of Californians rooftop solar sector? Families in median income zip codes looking to save money now comprise the majority of the Golden State’s new residential solar customers, thanks to the growing popularity of solar finance models where customers can lease the panels rather than making a big-ticket purchase.
Despite the setback SDG&E just received from regulators, we know that the utilities are continuing to make a concerted effort to change the rules of net metering and accelerate limitations on the program. Such efforts – call it a “solar tax” – threaten one of the few growing sectors in our state’s economy and could also penalize existing solar generators by increasing their bills. That creates uncertainty in the market and will stall job growth.
While our elected government can set the nation’s leading energy policies, it does no good if the utilities are able to undermine our state’s energy goals by changing billing structures on solar producers. Our lawmakers must step up to protect net metering, expand the jobs of our fastest growing industry and defend the interests of the thousands of homeowners, schools, water districts, and cities who have invested in a sustainable future.
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