If a recent cease and desist letter that Southern California Edison (SCE) sent to rooftop solar activists was intended to make them go away, it seems to be having the opposite effect. A group of protesters demonstrated outside the utility's headquarters in Rosemead on Wednesday, calling for California's utilities to stop pushing for new fees and restrictions on rooftop solar.
The My Generation Campaign has been working with the Latino political activist group Presente.org and the economic justice group The Other 98% to combat what they see as targeted lobbying of the state's Latino politicians in a classic "Astroturfing" campaign to pass laws that will help utilities keep the upper hand over decentralized solar. Their campaign includes a website called Save Rooftop Solar and a recent satirical video mocking SCE's involvement in that campaign, as what the groups called a "proxy" for California investor-owned utilities in general.
"Edison can't claim to be a leader in the use of green and renewable energy if they are opposing California's expanding rooftop solar economy" said Allen Hernandez, Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club's My Generation clean energy campaign. "The latest measure being considered in the legislature is just the latest example in a long string of attacks on rooftop solar from the utility lobby. Enough is enough."
SCE sent a cease and desist letter to the groups demanding the video be removed from the internet. Wednesday's demonstration was a response to that letter.
"We know that Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric are heavily lobbying our representatives in the state legislature to block the growth of solar panel initiatives," said Presente.org's Miguel Perla.
At issue are California utilities' efforts to try to defend their old business plans in which they acted as de facto monopolies in supplying power to ratepayers. Plummeting costs of small-scale solar have brought the technology within reach of millions, and that is widely seen as a threat to utilities' long-term survival.
As a result, utilities in California have tried to stem the solar tide, most prominently by alleging that solar customers who use the grid only for nighttime power are costing their non-solar neighbors money. The idea is that when solar customers zero out their electric bills by providing the grid with solar power, they're using the grid at night without paying for the privilege, shifting the costs of that grid to ratepayers who don't have solar.
It's an odd argument. Imagine you had a backyard garden that grew more food than your household could eat and you arranged to sell your surplus to a neighborhood produce market. Now imagine the owner of that market yelled when you tried to use some of the proceeds of that sale to buy a pound of coffee, telling you that because you still came out ahead, you weren't paying your fair share of the costs of the distribution network that brought the coffee from Colombia to his store.
If that shop owner followed the utilities' lead in advancing his argument, he might try to charge you a monthly "food distribution network access fee" in order to shop at his store. Which would certainly be a disincentive to your hopes to contribute fresh food to the local economy.
As it happens, the utilities' claims of costs being transferred unfairly to non-solar customers have been pretty thoroughly refuted: solar customers may not pay much for grid upkeep and maintenance, but they also save their non-solar neighbors from having to foot the bill for new transmission and power plants.
The pro-solar group Vote Solar has also accused utilities of "cooking the books," presumably not in one of these. Vote Solar accuses California utilities of inflating the amount of rooftop solar power exported to the grid by as much as 80 percent, and similarly exaggerating actual bill credits for rooftop solar by up too 40 percent.
Nonetheless the campaign continues, and California's utilities are reportedly playing the social media angle to generate spurious class resentment toward people whose electric bills are lower, whether due to rooftop solar or just plain old conservation.
As part of that campaign, allege the groups involved in Save Rooftop Solar, the utilities have gotten Fresno-area Assembly Member Henry Perea to author AB 327, which would add a monthly grid access fee of $10 to most California households' electric bills. That fee could not be reduced or avoided by adding solar or cutting down on energy use.
It's an awkward week for SCE to have its arguments about unfair costs to ratepayers brought out into the light of day, given that the company just sprung for a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times announcing its intention to try to recoup some of the billions of dollars it wasted in the disastrous retrofitting of its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (The Times' Michael Hiltzik ably took that campaign apart on Tuesday.)
It's sad and unnecessary. Utilities will still be needed in the new solar age: the grid won't run itself. Utilities, private or public, that embrace new ways of doing business? They will likely survive. Those that try to order the tide to recede will fail. Even if they use their lawyers to issue the orders.