High-stakes cost-sharing battle ignites solar power industry, rooftop solar adopters

In her written comments to utility regulators, one Santa Rosa woman was emphatic, saying, she “WOULD NOT HAVE PURCHASED ROOFTOP SOLAR WITHOUT THE CURRENT INCENTIVES.”

Another Santa Rosa resident wrote, “We are retired persons who invested in good faith that the state will support and protect forward thinking …”

And a Sebastopol man told the California Public Utilities Commission — the agency typically referred to as CPUC — it is “incredibly incredulous to claim that the CPUC is on the public’s side.”

They and hundreds of other Californians are in fight mode over a proposal introduced in December that would gut the incentives — $180 a month or more for some individual users — that have helped persuade residents and business owners to install nearly 1.3 million rooftop solar systems over the past 15 years.

The plan, which is pending before the commission, would potentially upend the solar power trade and jeopardize progress toward California’s ambitious renewable energy goals, critics say.

It is, one leading solar advocate said, a cynical stab by investor-owned electric utilities at “killing solar in the name of the poor.”

However, supporters of the proposal say reform is needed to ensure everyone connected to the electrical grid pays for the costs of maintaining it. Those costs, they say, are currently shouldered disproportionately by poorer households, fixed-income seniors and others who have been left out of the solar energy revolution.

Rooftop solar power has historically been adopted at higher rates by homeowners in the upper income ranks, excluding many renters and lower-wage earners ― though that’s improving.

Those who obtain their power directly from utilities, the argument goes, are stuck paying an estimated $3.4 billion a year for things like transmission infrastructure, wildfire mitigation and discounted electricity rates offered to those with the lowest incomes.

That means, in effect, that those with less money are subsidizing solar power adopters who are, on average, better off.

‘An equity issue’

Right now, conventional consumers pay about $250 a year toward upkeep of the grid. It is a charge that solar payers do not pay, according to supporters of the plan.

By 2030, those costs are projected to reach $550 a year, according to Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for Affordable Clean Energy for All, a coalition funded by California’s major electrical providers.

“This is an equity issue,” said Fairbanks, who speaks for PG&E and other utilities on the issue.

A decision that could change the equation is in the hands of the five-member CPUC, an appointed, independent panel whose regulatory purview is generally not the stuff of broad public interest.

But this issue has generated more ink and outrage than anyone might have expected.

Hundreds of people have weighed in with the CPUC in recent weeks, including more than 500 who have submitted written comments online. Another 455 were queued up on the phone to make oral comments when the commission started its regular Jan. 27 meeting, though only about 328 were able to hang on long enough to speak by the time the session ended more than seven hours later.

“This proposal is preposterous,” one Mendocino County woman wrote to the commission, echoing the general tone of the comments.

“Citizens have heavily invested in solar energy for the benefit of the planet. Amortizing this cost will take years, and hiking the tariff for solar energy investors is a punch in their face and discourages other potential users.”

Conflicting visions

It is a high-stakes battle.

On one side is the state’s major investor-owned energy utilities, including PG&E, and the large union representing its workers.

On the other are some 60,000 independent solar power installers around the state, many of them working for small, family-run businesses now threatened by the proposal, which was released Dec. 13. It is expected to appear on the commission’s most recent agenda, though it’s been postponed.