Is The California Solar Dream Fading Fast?

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California has more rooftops with solar panels than any other state and continues to be a leader in new installations. It is also first in terms of the percentage of the state’s electricity coming from solar, and third for solar power capacity per capita. However, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has expressed concerns that California solar — once the model for other US states — is on a precipice. In an opinion piece for the New York Times this week, Schwarzenegger has unpacked a new California Public Utilities Commission proposal which, if approved, would discourage progress being made in the transition to clean energy and grid resilience.

What’s the problem, then? The California Public Utilities Commission is threatening solar progress. But this “hard-earned and vitally important accomplishment” may succumb as the Commission considers a plan that has the potential to make California solar too costly for its citizens.

His position? “It should be stopped in its tracks.” Schwarzenegger insists that adding a tax and removing incentives will hurt the solar market and fail to help society’s most vulnerable.

What did Schwarzenegger do for California solar when he was governor? The state set out to put solar panels on one million roofs across the state. That goal was achieved.

How many solar rooftops does California currently have? The state now has 1.3 million solar rooftops generating roughly 10,000 megawatts of electricity — enough to power three million homes. And more are being added every week. Roughly two-thirds of those rooftops are on houses and businesses; the rest are on government buildings.

What’s good about the plan? Schwarzenegger allows that the plan has some good features, like creating funds to encourage homeowners and businesses with solar to add batteries for storage and to help bring solar power to poor and polluted communities.

What’s scary about the plan? There’s a solar tax attached to it.  The plan would include a new monthly “grid participation charge” that would average an estimated $57 a month for solar customers. (Psst: People who power their homes with fossil fuels wouldn’t pay this.)

Does the solar tax affect any other element of the California solar picture? This solar tax would apply to customers who invested in batteries to store solar energy. It would cut credits to new solar customers (and some older ones) as much as 80% for the electricity they don’t use and send to the grid under the net metering program.

How long would it take solar customers to make back their upfront investments if the new plan is passed? Data from the Berkeley Laboratory calculate a 19-year payback for Edison customers and 16 years for PG&E customers. That’s far short of the 10 years the commission said it is targeting (except for an estimated 9-year payback in SDG&E territory). For low-income homes, paybacks would be 11 or 12 years regardless of utility. For comparison, payback periods currently hover around 5 years.

What are critics of rooftop California solar incentives saying? Mostly investor-owned utilities argue that net metering leads to higher electricity rates for California homeowners who can’t afford to install solar and for apartment dwellers by shifting the costs of operating and maintaining the power grid to them. Some say that a focus on incentivizing battery storage should be the priority.

Instead, what does Schwarzenegger say the government should do to promote solar? Schwarzenegger argues that California should do more to incentivize clean energy in lower-income areas. Plus, in order to “truly democratize energy,” the state should be promoting the installation of a million batteries to store the energy that the solar panels capture. He outlines how installing panels on roofs is one of the fastest ways to produce renewable energy, as they don’t include complicated permitting or land fights, and they produce immediate reductions in dirty and dangerous emissions.

What does the Save California Solar coalition say about the new utility company plan? Save California Solar argues that utilities are unable to get us to the future we deserve fast enough. Utility scale solar is often locally controversial and in conflict with California’s conservation. And more dangerous transmission lines are not what Californians have in mind for our energy future anyways. They say that California needs clean, local energy and cannot move backwards on solar at a time when our reliable energy and climate needs demand we go forward.

Are other advocacy groups in California also concerned? The Sierra Club isn’t happy. Neither are the Climate Center, Coalition for Community Solar Access, Environment California, Environmental Working Group and Vote Solar, all of which issued news releases slamming the proposed decision, according to the LA Times.

Does data support this position? So far, only the electric power sectors have seen dramatic reductions in emissions since 2000: 37.1% for in-state generation and more than half (-52.8%) for imports. Electric power emissions are down 1.5% from their 2017 levels after rising in 2018.

What can the current governor of California do? Governor Gavin Newsom has the potential to sustain the state’s record of environmental success. He can keep California moving forward with policies that lead to 100% clean energy. Because Newsom has appointed 4/5 utilities’ commissioners, his vision should carry weight; Schwarzenegger implores Newsom and his commission to stand up to the monopolistic utilities and protect California’s solar power programs — for the state’s future and the planet’s.

Why is rooftop solar so important for California? Record droughts and catastrophic wildfires in California demonstrate the effects of the climate crisis. Rooftop solar helps protect open space by generating electricity in places that are already built up. Schwarzenegger points out that every home, apartment building, school, farm, and business that installs solar panels makes the air cleaner, reduces the need for costly investments in the grid, and helps communities keep the lights on in the face of wildfires and blackouts. It also gives people a sense of self-sufficiency and independence from the grid.

Is California on track to meet its climate goals? California is behind projections for its 2030 climate goals and is unlikely to hit them until 2063. The state, if it continues on current paths, will reach their 2050 goals only by 2111.

A decision could come as soon as January 27.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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