California Continues to Make Big Strides on Solar

Building on a foundation of pioneering green policy, a new bill would make rooftop solar affordable for thousands more Californians. 

By Julian Notaro, The American Prospect

California, the country’s solar energy pioneer, continues to lead the way in protections for solar consumers, thanks to a strong political and public consensus on the importance of renewable energy. A proposal working its way through the California State Assembly would curb the ability of municipal utilities to control net metering, a policy that allows consumers to sell surplus energy generated by rooftop solar systems back to the electric grid at retail rates.

Last year, solar customers in the northern California town of Turlock saw their bills soar after the municipal utility, Turlock Irrigation District Water and Power, eliminated net metering entirely. The change priced some Turlock consumers out of solar altogether; the measure would prohibit these types of changes. The bill passed the State Assembly’s Utilities and Commerce Committee overwhelmingly, 10 to 2. The change would affect nearly 50 of the state’s 81 utilities. Under California law, larger, investor-owned utilities are already required to offer retail rate net metering.

A recent National Renewable Energy Foundation study found that up to 74 percent of California’s total electricity usage could be generated by rooftop solar power. But the state only derives 2.4 percent of its energy from rooftop solar systems. To meet that goal, California would have to implement additional regulatory reforms, such as establishing statewide interconnection standards that allow Californians to connect to the grid no matter where they live, and clarifying the solar system installation permitting process to eliminate hidden fees. 

Pro-solar environmental advocacy groups like Vote Solar, a nonprofit grassroots group with offices in California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, has joined with other advocacy groups like the California Solar Energy Industries Association, a statewide coalition of contractors, manufacturers, distributors, and others to exert considerable influence on California energy policy. Their aim is to increase renewable energy sources in California’s energy mix, in part, by making rooftop solar systems more affordable.

California solar proponents have had a series of notable policy wins. In 2008, California allowed individuals and businesses to enter into solar power purchase agreements, a long-term financial arrangement whereby photovoltaic manufacturers design and finance a rooftop solar installation and charge the property owner for power generated. This development helped make rooftop solar systems more affordable for Californians who could not afford to purchase expensive solar equipment outright.

Earlier this year, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to preserve the state net metering program. Vote Solar joined other groups to deliver wheelbarrowsof petitions signed by more than 130,000 residents. The goal, says Vote Solar’s Adam Browning, was to demonstrate public support for a regulatory system that makes solar available to ordinary Californians. “If you want cheap solar, all you have to do is buy it, but in order to do that you have to have a regulatory structure that allows for long-term contracts,” says Browning. After the vote, three major utilities filed applications urging the commission to vacate or modify the ruling.

California’s solar dominance has bipartisan roots.

California’s solar dominance has bipartisan roots. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the first Republicans to buck the national GOP’s stances on climate change and clean energy and actively worked to promote renewable energy sources like solar during his tenure in the early 2000s. Under the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, California became the first state to cap greenhouse gas emissions. That same year, Schwarzenegger also signed the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which laid the groundwork for California’s solar infrastructure by setting a 3,000 megawatts goal for rooftop solar installations by 2017. (That initiative also expanded net metering in the state, but stopped short of equalizing rates statewide, which the new bill seeks to do.)

Democratic Governor Jerry Brown picked up the clean energy baton in 2011. Brown ran on a platform that viewed California’s preeminent position in clean energy as an antidote to the disruption sparked by the Great Recession. “Investing in clean energy and increasing [energy] efficiency are central elements of rebuilding our economy,” said Brown. In 2015, Brown signed a climate planinto law that called for half of California’s energy to be generated by renewable energy by 2030.

Solar power enjoys widespread public support in California. A July 2015 poll found that 88 percent of Californians support the construction of large scale solar power plants, while 78 percent of state residents support additional tax incentives and financial benefits for the construction of rooftop solar panels. Solar energy is also important to the state’s economy: There are more than 2,300 solar companies in California and the industry employs over 75,000 residents.

The fight over net metering is far from over, but political and public support for solar in California serves as a check on the power of traditional utility companies, a regulatory environment that few other states have been able to duplicate. “It starts with political leadership, we have leadership that treats global warming seriously, as the crisis that it is,” says Adam C. Schultz, program manager at the Energy Institute of the University of California, Davis.