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Are California’s Utilities Undermining Rooftop Solar Installations?

California now has one million solar roofs, representing about 14% of all renewable power generated in the state. But solar advocates “said the milestone has come despite escalating efforts by utilities to undermine rooftop solar installations,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“They said those attacks include everything from hefty fees on ratepayers to calling for dramatic cuts to the credits residents receive for generating energy from the sun.”

“We will seek sensible solutions that continue to encourage solar power but don’t adversely affect working families who can’t afford solar systems,” said SDG&E spokesman Wes Jones. Advocates have said that utilities are exaggerating the challenges that rooftop solar creates and downplaying the value it adds to the overall system. “They trot out this cost-shifting argument that looks on the face of it like they care about equity, but really the opposite is true,” said Dave Rosenfeld, executive director of the Solar Rights Alliance, a new consumer rights group funded by ratepayers and rooftop solar companies. “If you do the numbers right, solar is contributing to a reduction in the cost of operating the electricity grid now and in the future…”

Power providers specifically argued that homeowners with solar panels weren’t paying their fair share of the costs associated with building, maintaining and operating the state’s extensive energy grid as well as fees associated with state-mandated energy efficiency and other programs. Over the last century, the price tag of expanding the state’s electrical infrastructure to service remote communities and hook up to new power plants has largely been socialized, spread evenly over the customer base through rate increases approved by the utilities commission. All of those costs get baked into electric bills, but because the net metering program credits rooftop solar at the retail rate, rather than the wholesale rate, utilities say folks with solar panels have been getting something of a free ride. Utility officials have said that as a result they have had to shift those costs onto customers without solar. “Through the existing net energy metering policy, rooftop solar customers are subsidized by customers without solar rooftops,” said Ari Vanrenen, spokesman for PG&E….

Advocates of rooftop solar strongly disagreed with this assessment. They said the technology, especially when paired with batteries, will eventually bring down the cost of electricity for everyone — specifically by reducing the need for costly upgrades to the power grid. They argued that investor-owned utilities oppose rooftop solar because it will eventually curb the growth model that companies have long used to reward shareholders and pay out large salaries. SDG&E and others have an incentive to build solar out in the desert because it requires building long power lines, which are then used to justify rate hikes, said Bill Powers, a prominent electrical engineering consultant and consumer advocate.

The article also points out that some California utilities have raised their minimum bill — with one specifically saying they were doing it to target solar customers, and another launching a new $65-a-month fee on any customer who installs solar panels.

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