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Climate and Environment

Regulators Will Re-Open Public Comment On How Much Money Can Go Toward Solar Power Users

Three men wearing masks and hard hats hold a blue sign with white and orange lettering that says "Save Green Jobs, Stop the Solar Tax!"
Solar workers rally in downtown L.A. on Jan. 13, 2022 to protest the California Public Utilities Commission's proposal to increase the cost of rooftop solar.
(Erin Stone
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State utility regulators have been weighing a proposal that would make getting and keeping solar panels on rooftops more expensive. A vote on that proposal was quietly postponed in December, but opponents are still working to prevent that proposal from becoming enacted.

After major public outcry (and presiding commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves leaving for a new role at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is reconsidering its plan and reopening public comment until June 24.

The initial proposal would have drastically cut the amount of money new rooftop solar owners get for the energy they don’t use at home and instead send back to the electric grid. The proposal also adds a monthly fee that would have been the highest such charge in the country.

But last week the commission issued a ruling to reopen public comment on certain aspects of that proposal, including the cut to the solar use credit. The ruling doesn't request feedback on one big additional charge: a monthly fee that could add as much as $60 per month for a typical rooftop system, according to trade group California Solar & Storage Association.

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The ruling comes at a time when state officials are concerned about summer energy shortfalls and higher power bills as energy providers deal with high natural gas costs and fortifying and building new power lines amid wildfire risk.

The solar industry, environmentalists and social justice advocates say that lowering the credit by as much as 80%, as initially proposed, would slow the growth of the solar industry and overburden low-income communities who already have less access to solar.

Southern California Edison and other utility companies aligned with the commission say the current solar credit is too high since solar has grown so much and gotten cheaper in the last 15 years. They say current solar customers, who tend to be white and wealthier, are pushing costs onto non-solar, low-income customers because of that credit. (You can read more on the details of the proposal here).

In a surprising alliance, environmental non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) agreed with lowering the solar credit, though they are seeking a less dramatic cut to incentives, said Mohit Chhabra of NRDC’s Climate and Clean Energy program.

“We think that any policy should continue to advance rooftop solar and storage, but it needs to better balance with the costs that get could get pushed onto, and do get pushed onto, all the renters and other lower-income people in California that won't be able to afford rooftop solar,” Chhabra told LAist in January. “So our position is that the Public Utilities Commission needs to achieve a balance between paying the right amount and making sure people without solar aren't overpaying.”

The sides are still far from agreement, though.

“We certainly support a lot more investment to help low-income communities access solar and storage and then underlying that, you need a tariff, you need the mechanism that provides the bills savings,” said Steve Campbell, senior policy manager for GRID Alternatives, a non-profit that installs solar panels in low-income homes. “So how those two things come together to provide the greatest benefit is what we push for. I'm not looking for a middle ground.”

Changes to the solar credit over time—or the “glide path” —can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, Campbell added.

“Lower-income communities need a different glide path than non-low-income communities,” he said. “So essentially we're saying … more monthly bill savings or a quicker yearly payback period.”

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In addition to keeping the solar credit as is, Campbell and other groups are pushing for a $1 billion dollar solar investment in Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget revision, which is expected to be finalized in June. In the current revision, Newsom is proposing $970 million for residential solar and battery storage initiatives.

The governor reiterated his opposition to the initial proposal during a press conference on the budget on Friday.

You can submit public comments on the proposal here and read more about the process here.

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