A Fight Over Rooftop Solar Threatens California’s Climate Goals

Jan 24, 2022 | In the News, Wildfire

Source: The New York Times  |  By Ivan Penn

California has led the nation in setting ambitious climate change goals and policies. But the state’s progress is threatened by a nasty fight between rival camps in the energy industry that both consider themselves proponents of renewable energy.

The dispute is about who will get to build the green energy economy — utilities or smaller companies that install solar panels and batteries at homes — and reap billions of dollars in profits from those investments. At stake is whether the state can reach its goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

For years, the rooftop solar business was ascendant in California, growing as much as 62 percent a year. That angered utilities and their labor unions, which long controlled the production, sale and distribution of electricity, and they lobbied state leaders to rein in the rooftop solar business — an effort that is on the cusp of success.

The infighting couldn’t come at a worse time, some energy experts said. President Biden’s main legislative effort to move the country toward clean energy and electric cars has stalled in Congress even as natural disasters and heat waves linked to a warming planet are becoming more common. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which fell sharply in 2020 because of the pandemic, jumped 6.2 percent last year.

In addition to having about 12 percent of the U.S. population, California is widely considered a leader in energy and climate policy. Its decisions matter far beyond its territory because other states and the federal government often copy them.

The California Public Utilities Commission plans to vote in the next few weeks to reduce the growth of solar energy in the state, which has added more of it than any other. The commission has proposed slashing the incentives homeowners receive to install rooftop solar systems. Officials argue that the changes would help reduce utility bills for lower-income residents about $10 a month by forcing rooftop solar users to pay higher fees to support the electric grid.

Analysts with Bank of America Global Research say the proposal would lead to a 20 percent annual drop in new rooftop solar systems in California next year before they would begin to recover. Representatives of the solar business expect a decline of up to 80 percent.

The proposal would force California to rely more on large power installations, including solar and wind farms, and long-distance transmission lines operated by utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. Every watt of electricity not produced on the rooftop of a home will be produced and transmitted by a utility or wholesale power companies.

“You can understand why utilities don’t like distributive resources,” said David Feldman, a senior energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, using an industry term for small energy systems. “The more electricity they sell, the more money they make.”

Some energy experts say utilities would not be able to produce or buy enough renewable energy to replace what would be lost from the decline in rooftop solar panels — which supplied 9 percent of the state’s electricity in 2020, more than nuclear and coal put together. California would need to set aside about a quarter of its land for renewable energy to meet its climate goals without expanding rooftop solar, said Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental energy at Stanford. As a result, utilities would have to turn to natural gas and other fossil fuels.

“The only thing this is going to do is reduce rooftop solar,” Professor Jacobson said. “That will mean there will be more natural gas in the system. Every rooftop should have solar on it. You should be encouraging more of it.”

People who install solar panels on their roofs or property are still connected to the electrical grid, but they receive credit on their bills for power they produce beyond what they use. California’s proposal would cut the value of those credits, which are roughly equivalent to retail electricity rates, by about 87 percent. In addition, the measure would impose a new monthly fee on solar homeowners — about $56 for the typical rooftop system.

The monthly cost of solar and electricity for homeowners with an average rooftop system who are served by PG&E, the state’s largest utility, would jump to $215, from $133, according to the California Solar and Storage Association.

An intense campaign is underway to sway regulators. Rooftop solar companies, homeowners and activists on one side and utilities and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on the other are lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom to intervene. While the commission is independent of Mr. Newsom, he wields enormous influence. The governor recently told reporters that the regulators should change their proposal but didn’t specify how.

The electrical workers union, which did not respond to requests for comment, is playing a central role. It represents linemen, electricians and other utility employees, who usually earn more than the mostly nonunion workers who install rooftop systems. Many union members, an important constituency for Democrats, fear being left behind in the transition to green energy.

Other states are also targeting rooftop solar. Florida is considering legislation to roll back compensation to homeowners for the excess energy their panels produce, a benefit known as net energy metering.

No government, though, has adopted as big a change as California has proposed. The Solar Energy Industries Association said that if regulators approved the measure, the state would slide to last place for rooftop solar incentives from near the top of the group’s rankings.

“The design of this proposal has been, ‘Let’s get solar out of the way,’” said Vikram Aggarwal, the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, a rooftop-solar comparison shopping site. “This proposal just doesn’t feel fair from any perspective.”

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