Go Solar California

California PUC considering the future of rooftop solar

The California Public Utilities Commission received dozens of proposals from the state’s publicly-traded utility companies Monday night offering a glimpse into the future of rooftop solar in the state.

State legislation passed in late 2013 tasked the commission with revamping utility regulations regarding residential utility bills and solar tariffs. The legislation dictates that the PUC prioritize continued rooftop solar industry growth while aligning solar costs and benefits.

The PUC has been studying rooftop solar and its impact on utilities since then, and had a hard deadline for utilities to submit their proposed changes Monday night. Most utilities waited until that deadline to deliver their proposals.

While each plan is different. They all share some common themes, according to recent media coverage.

All of the proposals aim to shrink savings for solar customers.

While most of the proposed plans, many of which haven’t been evaluated yet, suggest a reduced net metering payment, solar advocates argue the PUC should delay any major tariff reductions until 2019. That will give the industry time to work through the expiration of the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar systems in 2016. If that credit expires at the same time the state diminishes net metering benefits, it will be a double whammy for the industry. Brad Heavner, director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the commission’s computer modeling and research support the associations argument to hold off on major net metering changes.

“The modeling does not suggest a need for changes in the first few years of the successor tariff,” Heavner said. “If things change and costs do not line up any more, there will be a chance for the commission to revisit it.”

Currently, solar customers in California are credited at the retail rate for power they feed back onto the grid, which enables solar customers to turn the meter back to zero.

San Diego Gas & Electric was allowed to implement a new minimum charge of $10 per month, which will begin in November. Beyond that, the utility proposes some big changes going forward.

The company offered two potential new billing solutions. In one, the utility would buy all rooftop solar from customers at the wholesale rate of 11 cents per kilowatt hour and sell the power back to the customers at the retail rate of 23 cents per kilowatt hour. In the other scenario, the utility would allow solar customers to use their onsite generation, but would only credit them 4 cents per kilowatt hour for excess power they feed back onto the grid.

PG&E, California’s largest utility, has a fourth of the nation’s rooftop solar customers on its grid. Even with an impressive statistic like that, the utility is only getting about 3.3 percent of its power from distributed solar generation.

The company currently credits solar customers 17 cents per kilowatt hour for excess power they feed back onto the grid. The company proposes reducing that tariff to 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

The utility said in a press release that the average solar customer on its grid currently realizes a 60 percent savings. The change would reduce the saving to 50 percent.

The PUC in California will be weighing proposals and researching solutions over the next several months. The direction California’s utility regulators choose could direct rooftop solar policy nationally.