A historic decision by the California Public Utilities Commission means that net-metering, which allows rooftop solar owners to connect to the electricity grid and deliver any excess power they generate to other electric customers, has been preserved -- in a big win for solar energy in the Golden State.
This was big news because all three of California’s investor-owned utility giants – Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric – opposed the CPUC's move. They wanted to shift the burden of new rooftop solar directly to customers, prioritizing their large-scale solar (and dirty fuel) energies instead.
Why do utilities prefer large-scale solar rather than dispersed rooftop solar? Simply: control and profits. That latter is the main reason – a power-plant-centric grid allows for energy companies to make money and maintain control over electricity.
Their public arguments were that the burden of rooftop solar on non-solar households is high, and that solar households are getting a free ride by not paying to maintain the grid. No matter that study after study shows that rooftop solar is actually beneficial for the grid as it reduces capital costs and aids in environmental compliance. When profits are at risk, truth is not that important.
Rooftop solar is taking control away from the big utilities and changing California's energy paradigm. It has been the main driver in California's clean-energy revolution, and it empowers homeowners to take control of their carbon footprint. While there are issues to be resolved – chiefly the fact that low-income households are not able to access rooftop solar financing easily, meaning the benefits are collected mostly by the rich – the utilities proposal would have done little to change that.
“Utilities should be encouraging more people to go solar, not fewer,” said Bret Fanshaw, coordinator for Environment America’s solar program in a statement. “That’s why we’re delighted that California leaders didn’t bow to special interests today and instead are protecting this critical program to support rooftop solar."
The biggest part of yesterday's news is that the CPUC actually sided with consumers, a marked shift from its traditional role as a rubber-stamp for the utility companies. The evidence, of course, was on the side of solar advocates. But that was the case last fall in Nevada, and there, the PUC sided with NV Energy, leading to SolarCity withdrawing from the state.
“[Nevada's] decision to change the rules to punish existing solar customers after the state encouraged them to go solar with rebates is particularly callous and leaves Nevadans to question whether the state would ever place the financial security of regular citizens above the financial interests of NV Energy,” said Lyndon Rive, SolarCity's CEO, in a statement.
You can bet the utility companies won't end their fight to restrict rooftop solar. But today was a big victory in California's march to becoming a clean-energy leader – and it should send a message to states across the country that solar's future is now.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.