Our View: PUC shouldn’t blot out new solar power

Did you know a 3-gigawatt electricity facility has been built in California? That’s five times more than Shasta Dam’s turbines produce, 20 times more than Don Pedro’s, three times more power than Turlock’s Walnut Energy Center and 35 times more than at New Exchequer Dam.

Where is this incredible facility? Does it use uranium, natural gas or hydro to produce billions of watts? How much did it cost taxpayers?

Call it “homemade electricity,” being generated from solar panels atop tens of thousands of California homes.

Thousands of Californians who want to either save the planet or save some money, have built mini-power plants on top of their homes. They usually use their own power, meaning when it gets hot there will be more for the rest of us. Last summer, solar generation hit 6.4 gigawatts; of that, an estimated 3.2 gigawatts came from rooftops. Despite the warmest summer on record, there were no rolling brownouts.

Taxpayers provided some early incentives, but they’re nearly phased out now. So why then do big power companies so dislike rooftop solar?

Today, the California Public Utilities Commission will conduct hearings on the relationship between rooftop generators and the utilities. Major investor-owned power companies – Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and others – want to dramatically change the rules in their favor.

First, they will ask for additional charges – monthly use fees, standby fees, application fees, a higher fee to connect to the grid, etc. More importantly, they will ask for changes in the “net energy metering” structure, which would dramatically reduce what they pay for excess rooftop power while leaving intact what they charge for power sold the other direction.

If implemented, these changes would increase the average electricity bill for those with rooftop arrays from $65 per month to $135.

“If you change the economics of going solar, you’ll kill the entire industry,” said Bernadette del Chiaro of the California Solar Energy Industries Association.

Arizona implemented similar changes last year, she noted, and new installations of solar panels fell off the roof, dropping 95 percent from nearly 1,000 a month to single digits. After Turlock Irrigation District implemented similar changes this year, a local company that had installed roughly 50 farm and rooftop projects since 2008 (generating 10 megawatts) now has no new business.

Gov. Jerry Brown, the greenest of governors, had solar incentives written into his clean-energy bill, SB 350, last summer. But none went to rooftop solar; it all went to companies installing huge projects. Worse, there was nothing to protect the interests of homeowners with rooftop arrays from changes sought by the big power companies and their unions.

The rooftop solar industry wants today’s rules left in place for another five years, providing incentives for more homeowners and large-scale residential builders to install rooftop solar systems.

If, instead, the PUC caves in to the demands of PG&E and the others – as it so often does – it will turn out the lights on California’s rooftop solar industry. More than 130,000 people have signed petitions asking the PUC not to do that; we’re asking the same.

We know the state’s subsidies for rooftop solar have mainly benefited middle-class and wealthy Californians (at up to $25,000 for an array, the poor can’t afford panels). But if it becomes more expensive, no one will want to install it.

California has led the nation in harnessing the sun via thousands of tiny, individual power plants. The PUC should encourage rooftop solar, not try to kill it.