I was pleased when I got my PG&E bill last week. No, I am not a candidate for the psych ward. I am the owner of a 3-kilowatt rooftop solar system. Like most solar system owners, I use less than half of the electricity my panels produce during the day. The rest goes onto the grid, to be used by my neighbors. It’s a great deal for me, but a lousy one for everyone else.
Last month my bill was almost zero, because PG&E paid me 33 cents per kilowatt-hour for my “net peak usage” of 79 kilowatt-hours, the amount I exported to the grid during the afternoon and early evenings, which are peak times. I paid PG&E a mere 13 cents per kwh for the electricity I used that month, a total of 279 kilowatt hours.
You may think that given such a great deal, I would be a huge booster of the existing net energy metering policies, which mandate that I am paid the full retail rate for my exports as long as my total production does not exceed my usage over the course of a year. However, as a professional consumer advocate and an environmentalist, I am pushing for fundamental changes to this system.
The main problem is that it is simply unfair for other customers to be paying me 32 cents per kilowatt-hour for the solar power I generate at home. Because California is blessed with amazing solar and wind resources, PG&E can easily purchase electricity from large solar farms for far less.
True, there are benefits to having solar generation in our neighborhoods, such as reducing losses when electricity is shipped long distances and decreasing the need for new transmission lines. And building on roofs avoids disturbing habitats in pristine areas.
But these benefits don’t make my solar generation worth three to four times as much as renewable energy from large solar or wind projects. If we want to maximize our use of renewables to prevent climate disaster, it makes little sense to pay extra for my rooftop power, especially for customers who do not own homes or cannot afford their own solar panels.
The current net metering scheme that pays consumers like me top dollar for the power I generate should be changed. But not the way utilities want, with high fixed charges of up to $50 per month, no matter how much electricity they use. High charges hurt everyone. The path to a sustainable and fair future is to pay me a fair price for the solar energy I generate.
The Utility Reform Network has proposed to the State Public Utilities Commission a method that would pay each solar customer a fair price plus an add-on to ensure system costs are recoverable within 10 years. At the same time, the customers would pay their utility the normal retail rate for all of their consumption, without netting out the solar generation.
This would reduce the incentive for the utilities to seek high fixed charges and to continue to try to manipulate retail rates to thwart solar systems.
I can’t deny that I am glad to get the large bill credits from my solar panels. But I would feel far better if California continued to promote renewable energy in a way that serves as a model to the country and to the world. That requires us to change the net metering system to divorce it from retail rates and instead pay a fair price for rooftop solar, promoting renewable power without harming other ratepayers.
Published in the San Jose Mercury News Dec. 1, 2015