SACRAMENTO (CN) - Despite California Gov. Jerry Brown's ceaseless tour of publicizing climate change and renewable-energy reforms, regulators are mulling expansive changes to the state's solar-energy policy that critics claim could decimate a booming solar industry.
Ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline, the California Public Utilities Commission is considering proposals from the state's largest utilities that would drastically alter how solar users pay for access to electricity grids. The utilities' proposals could eliminate or weaken a popular state program that reimburses homeowners for their extra solar energy while increasing fees for accessing the grid.
At a rally Thursday at the state capital, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association Bernadette Del Chiaro told a crowd that the utilities are attempting to stifle residential solar systems in California and their proposals are aimed at increasing profits.
"The utilities are threatened by consumers generating their own electricity; it threatens their bottom lines," Del Chiaro said, with dozens of solar-industry representatives clad in teal blue shirts behind her. "They make money off building big expensive infrastructure projects."
At stake is a tariff program known as net metering, which allows homeowners with solar panels to send back excess energy to the electricity grid in exchange for compensation from the utility. Advocates credit net metering with making California the largest solar power producer in the nation and contributing more than 54,000 solar industry jobs statewide.
If the commission sides with the state's investor-owned utilities and abandons net metering, California would become the first of the top solar-producing states to forgo the policy.
The battle against net metering is being led by a coalition of powerful utilities desperate to reign in revenue lost from homeowners who install rooftop solar panels.
Leading the charge is Pacific Gas and Electric, the state's largest utility. PG&E's proposal would cut reimbursement rates for excess electricity generated by solar users and increase access fees.
PG&E claims the changes are necessary to fund the maintenance of the electricity grids and future infrastructure projects, and promises they won't negatively impact the solar industry.
"These proposals, if adopted, will still provide substantial incentives and subsidies to solar customers but will begin the transition to a more sustainable long-term rate structure," the proposal states. "The commission should establish a process to regularly review and modify the tariff beginning in three years or less."
PG&E declined to speak with Courthouse News about the 83-page plan it submitted to the commission in August.
Solar power has taken off in California over the last decade and an estimated 400,000 homes and businesses have installed solar-panel systems. California's largest cities receive more than 250 days of sun per year; downtown Los Angeles gets 292 sunny days on average.
If the commission removes the net metering tariff, it could hurt consumers' wallets and subdue the growth of solar companies like Elon Musk's SolarCity, the nation's largest provider of rooftop solar systems. SolarCity has been valued at more than $5 billion and helped fund Ivanpah, a massive solar power facility in the Mojave Desert.
The commission's decision could also impact another surprising but growing trend - California farmers who are going solar.
Earlier this month, a group of 16 farmers and agriculture businesses sent a letter to the commission in support of extending net metering. Many farmers throughout the state have installed large solar panel systems in order to temper high electricity rates common during peak summer months.
Les Herringer manages MT Ranch in Butte County and produces walnuts, almonds and rice with the help of solar power. He says farmers have an interest in protecting the environment and that solar power has helped prevent rolling blackouts that were common in past summers.
"We're reducing pollution, we're helping control our energy costs and we've even replaced a couple of engines with electric motors," Herringer said. "Farmers in our area are putting a lot of solar in; we want solar to continue."
In September, after months of campaigning and legislative hearings Gov. Brown signed a landmark climate change bill aimed at drastically increasing the state's production of renewable energy. Senate Bill 350 mandates the state get at least 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 in an attempt to "decarbonize California."
While SB 350 addresses electric vehicles and the energy efficiency of state buildings, ironically it doesn't count residential solar production toward its 50 percent goal.
Republican lawmakers, including Assemblyman Brian Jones of Santee, blasted SB 350 for excluding energy produced by residential solar power from its renewable-energy mandate.
"All renewable sources should count toward reaching the 50 percent goal," Jones said in statement. "We should not be excluding the 200,000 Californians who are doing their part to make clean energy a reality."
Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, has implored the commission to release more information regarding the utility companies' net metering requests. In a letter, Block called on the commission to reconsider making "devastating" changes to net metering.
"It is critical that trust in the commission be restored with transparency, information and public input from the citizens and businesses that will be affected by the pending regulatory proceedings," Block wrote.
At Block's request, the utilities commission added an additional public hearing for Oct. 28 in San Diego. It says it has received more than 60 different proposals and that the large response could delay its decision.
Solar advocates reiterated their message Thursday, in several planned rallies statewide. Along with a rally at the statehouse, more than 300 people protested the net metering proposals in Los Angeles.
Proponents asked state regulators to extend net metering and encourage the growth of solar power in the Golden State.
"We need more time," said Mike Wallace, CFO of Crain Walnuts in Tehama County. "PG&E and the other utility companies would love to pull the rug out from underneath us right now and basically stop us from continuing to proliferate solar. We cannot let them do that."
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