California Nibbles a Bit at Solar-Power Money

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – The California Public Utilities Commission voted Thursday to preserve the state’s net-metering program for rooftop solar owners, but make them pay more for it.
     The commission voted 3-2 to require Pacific Gas & Electric and other utilities to keep paying solar-powered homeowners and businesses full retail rates for the excess electricity they generate.
     The new program will, however, increase solar costs as it phases in time-of-use rates and requires customers to pay a onetime fee ranging from $75 to $150 to tie into the grid.
     Rooftop solar customers also will pay a fee estimated at 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity used from utility companies, regardless of how much power their solar systems generate. It will likely amount to $6 more a month for the average solar user.
     Solar owners will continue to receive retail value from utilities companies for the electricity they produce in excess of what they use.
     The decision came as a disappointment to the state’s big investor-owned utility companies, which claims that solar customers are not paying their fair share to keep the electric grid running and that nonsolar customers are increasingly shouldering higher costs as a result.
     San Diego Gas & Electric blasted the commission’s decision.
     “Today, the California Public Utilities Commission ignored state law and the clear direction from the state Legislature, which called for them to reform Net Energy Metering to ensure the benefits are balanced with the costs of the program,” SDG&E said in a statement.
     It added: “While we are still evaluating the decision, it appears to largely maintain the current program, penalizing the 95 percent of our customers who don’t have solar by adding an extra $300 to their utility bills by 2025.”
     The utility commended Commissioners Catherine Sandoval and Mike Florio, who voted against the new rules.
     “We are encouraged by and applaud the two CPUC commissioners and consumer advocates who recognize that today’s decision is flawed and will only further penalize the majority of our customers and grow the cost shift,” SDG&E said.
     Sandoval and Florio voted No after a last-minute change eliminated a transmission fee that would have made solar owners pay their share of the cost to upkeep transmission lines. They said the late Wednesday afternoon revision favored rooftop solar owners.
     The solar community, which had lobbied hard against the transmission charge, was pleased with new rules.
     “Today will shine bright in California history, bringing cleaner air, more local jobs and a more secure energy future for all Californians,” said Michelle Kinman, clean energy advocate for Environment California Research & Policy Center. “We applaud the CPUC for listening to the outpouring of support from Californians all over the state to protect net metering and uphold Governor Brown’s vision for climate and clean power leadership.”
     More than 450,000 electricity customers in California have installed solar systems. The state’s solar energy industry employs more than 55,000 people in more than 2,000 companies.
     The new net-energy metering program will take effect for new customers after the utilities reach certain participation caps or on July 1, 2017, whichever occurs first.
     Existing owners are exempted from all changes for 20 years from the date that they installed their solar systems and connected to the grid.
     CPUC President Michael Picker said the commission’s course is for the California consumers and “not for the rooftop solar industry or for the utilities or the community clean energy aggregators.”
     He said the Thursday vote was “another big step toward giving California consumers more choice, more control, and more responsibility over energy and climate change issues. It’s a big step, but it’s only one of many.”

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