California Regulator OKs Solar Farm Alternative to Rooftop Panel Mandate

(CN) – Despite opposition from environmental groups and state lawmakers, California energy officials voted Thursday to approve a Sacramento County utility’s plan to generate energy at solar farms as an alternative to required solar installation on new homes.

More than 1 million homes and businesses in California have installed rooftop solar panels, which renewable energy advocates have described as a milestone in the state’s energy goals.

At a hearing in Sacramento, the California Energy Commission unanimously approved the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) Neighborhood SolarShares proposal, which calls for generating solar energy for communities at solar farms around Sacramento County.

Under the proposal, California home builders and developers can offer to provide residents energy from SolarShares as an alternative to the state’s solar energy requirements, which went into effect Jan. 1.

Alex McDonough of Sunrun, an opponent of the plan, told commissioners SolarShares unfairly locks utility customers into a 20-year so-called community solar plan without the flexibility of being able to add rooftop solar panels if so desired.

Opponents say SolarShares also undermines the goal of increasing solar energy usage in the state.

But SMUD representatives and commissioner Bill Pennington said Thursday the proposal allows residents to add rooftop solar panels if they wish to do so without penalties.

“I don’t see any reason why it would be blocked by the standard,” Pennington said.

Pierre Delforge of the Natural Resources Defense Council spoke in favor of the proposal Thursday, saying that although it’s not perfect, commissioners could improve on the plan once it’s officially adopted by the state.

Staff at the utility, which delivers power to 1.5 million customers in Sacramento County, told commissioners SolarShares is a less expensive and more efficient alternative to rooftop solar panels.

Steve Lins of SMUD said the community-owned, nonprofit utility will also handle maintenance costs for customers.

“We will deliver the same solar energy rain or shine for 20 years,” said Lins, adding that SMUD plans to invest $6.5 billion in infrastructure improvements to help the county reach net-zero carbon output in energy generation by 2040.

Under the plan, which only covers homes in Sacramento County, SMUD says customers will see guaranteed savings of $10 per kilowatt.

Commissioners had previously tabled the vote to approve the plan amid heavy opposition from community groups.

In announcing their support for SolarShares, commissioners said SolarShares would provide savings to renters who pay fluctuating energy costs. They also noted California’s renewable energy goals could face threats from the Trump administration’s restrictive policies on renewable energy and on combating climate change.

Commission executive director Drew Bohan said SMUD’s plan is not an exemption to state mandates but rather an “alternative compliance pathway.” He said SMUD provides an alternative for residents who don’t want solar panels on their rooftop but still need to meet requirements under the state’s renewable energy mandate.

“Again, different strokes for different folks,” Bohan said. “Hopefully history will look back on this in its sum total and see some wisdom in how we approached this.”

Opponents say the vote will set a negative precedent for other utilities in the state that are looking to establish solar farms as an alternative to rooftop solar energy generation.

Commissioner J. Andrew McAllister said the agency saw SMUD’s proposal coming and expects others like it will follow.

“We expected that the marketplace and stakeholders would find solutions appropriate for their communities. SMUD has created a proposal to do that by offering builders 100% solar power at guaranteed savings to their customers. Other community solar proposals will look different. Openness to diverse cost-effective solutions is a hallmark of California’s innovation economy and key to meeting our goals for clean energy, climate, and resilience,” McAllister said.

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