Solar panels

By David R. Baker
January 28, 2016
Updated: January 28, 2016 – 3:44pm

The solar industry scored a major victory Thursday when a divided California Public Utilities Commission voted to keep largely intact the system that compensates solar homeowners for excess electricity that they place on the grid.

The vote extends, with minor changes, California’s “net energy metering” system, one of the state’s most important incentives for rooftop solar power. California is both headquarters to the U.S. solar industry as well as its largest market, with more than 450,000 homes sporting solar arrays.

The win caps a hard-fought lobbying campaign that pitted solar companies against traditional utilities, which consider the current system a subsidy that increases costs for their non-solar customers.

The utilities wanted the commission to impose new monthly charges that would apply only to solar customers, an idea the commissioners rejected. The solar companies, in turn, accused the utilities of trying to strangle an industry that threatens their long-standing monopolies.

Thursday’s vote was close, with President Michael Picker and commissioners Carla Peterman and Liane Randolph voting in favor of the extension, while commissioners Mike Florio and Catherine Sandoval opposed it.

“Our course is not for the rooftop solar industry, or for the utilities,” Picker said. “Our decision today is a big step forward toward giving California consumers more choice, more control and more responsibility for their energy choices. It’s a big step, but only one of many.”

Both Florio and Sandoval objected for the same reason — a last-minute change that exempted solar homeowners from paying a specific charge related to electricity transmission.

That one detail, the commissioners complained, would unfairly shift the burden of paying the transmission charge onto non-solar utility customers. And both insisted that the solar industry doesn’t need the extra incentive, particularly after Congress in December unexpectedly renewed a 30 percent tax credit for solar installations.

“Any system which benefits the few at a cost to the many can only be sustained for so long,” Florio said. “That is always true.”

The decision continues to pay solar homeowners the full retail rate for their excess electricity — about 17 to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers.

New solar customers, however, will have to pay a one-time fee, estimated at $75 to $150, to connect their system to the grid. They also will face increased monthly charges to pay for costs shared by most utility customers, such as subsidizing electricity bills for low-income households and paying off the lingering costs of California’s 2000-01 energy crisis. Those increased charges will add about $5 to a typical solar homeowner’s monthly bill.

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