California’s community solar bill died in state Assembly Committee late Friday. Intense, “late-session” lobbying by utilities Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE) led to the bill’s failing, according to a San Jose Mercury News report.
The community solar bill, Senate Bill 843 (SB 843), aimed to add another 2 GW of clean, renewable power in California by enabling residents to join forces and collectively buy power from shared solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and small hydro power systems. Geographically, the bill would have covered the service territories of PG&E, SCE, and San Diego Gas & Electric, the state’s three largest utilities.
Solar Power… for Renters
It’s estimated that some 44% of Californians rent as oppose to own homes, one of the lowest rates of home ownership in the country. That excludes them from being able to have solar photovoltaic (PV) systems installed on their rooftops.
Per the bill’s terms, utility customers would have been able to sign contracts with solar and renewable power project developers for the electricity produced. They would receive a credit for their share of the clean, renewable power produced that would have been applied to their utility bills.
“This is the next step in terms of making solar available to the largest number of people possible, including small businesses who lease their buildings, renters and people who live in apartments,” State Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis), the bill’s sponsor, said in an interview. “In a collective and cooperative way, it allows people to take advantage of economies of scale.”
Per SB 843′s terms, the solar power thus purchased wouldn’t qualify and help the utilities meet state Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) quotas. That was one of the main points of contention for the utilities. They also argued that being forced by law to offer low rates to communities and poorer homeowners would have added to the costs borne by electricity customers who have not installed solar power systems.
“PG&E estimates that SB 843 would shift $4 billion in statewide costs from participating to nonparticipating customers over its life – $1.7 billion for PG&E customers,” PG&E senior vice president for energy procurement Fong Wan wrote in an Aug. 30 Sacramento Bee op-ed. “Effectively, this bill would require PG&E to procure power at high renewable prices, but not allow PG&E to count the power toward California’s 33 percent renewable goal.”
The utilities also objected to an item in the bill that would have allowed customers producing their own clean, renewable energy to reduce or even zero-out their utility bills.
“Programs that allow self-generating customers to reduce or zero-out their utility bills allow these customers to rely on an electric system paid for by other customers without contributing their share of the costs necessary for its maintenance,” Fong wrote. “For example, we estimate that our non-solar customers already bear approximately $200 million per year of additional costs, an amount that will grow to $700 million per year in 10 years.”
Finally, the three utilities said that the bill should be applied to all the state’s electricity suppliers, including municipal utilities, not just them, and that it was far too complicated to administer effectively in a cost-efficient way.
For and Against
Some state senators don’t agree, arguing that currently unaccounted for costs of producing power from fossil fuels needs to be accounted for, and that the community solar bill would have opened up the possibility of installing solar power systems for a large, untapped population.
“Unfortunately, PG&E and Southern California Edison control the committee,” San Jose Mercury News’ Dana Hull quoted Sen. Wolk from a statement released late Friday.
“There was an agreement between the Assembly Speaker, the Committee Chair, and me that would have scaled the bill down to a pilot program under the Public Utilities Commission’s guidance and oversight. That agreement wasn’t honored and the bill died in committee, depriving the public of innovative energy policy in line with Governor Brown’s initiatives.”
PG&E spoke out in defense of its position and performance regarding solar and renewable energy. “PG&E has and will continue to support our customers’ desire to access renewable energy,” Fong wrote in his op-ed. “PG&E looks forward to working with the Legislature and other interested parties to develop residential and community renewables projects that are good for the environment and fair for all customers.
“We recently proposed a voluntary program to let customers pay for and receive 100 percent renewable power. We have close to 30 percent of all rooftop solar installations in the country – more than any other utility by far – and are well on our way to meeting California’s 33 percent-by-2020 renewable power goal.”
I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.