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California Governor Signs Controversial Solar Bill, Among Others

Jerry Brown | Photo: ohad/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a controversial bill Monday that would change how the state regulates rooftop solar owners' agreements with utilities, but he encouraged the state agency responsible for crafting the new rules to protect the interests of current solar owners.

Assembly Bill 327, Authored by Fresno-area Democratic Assembly member Henry Perea, would allow utilities to recoup what they claim are costs unfairly incurred in providing rooftop solar customers backup power during times when their solar panels aren't producing power. The bill would allow California utilities to charge a monthly fee of up to $10 for California to cover those costs, though it's up to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to decide how to structure that fee.

The bill was controversial even within rooftop solar advocacy circles, with some organizations cautiously supporting the measure, while others took to the streets to protest.

Among its other provisions AB 327 also removes the state's net metering cap, which had previously been set at 5 percent of each utility's average peak power demand. With the signing and a statement by Brown, prospective net metering customers who sign up with their local utility by July 2017 should be able to sell power to the utilities at favorable rates for the lifespan of their solar panels.

The bill also explicitly states that the Renewable Portfolio Standard goals set by the state are a minimum allowable level rather than a target. Those goals mandate that utilities derive at least a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

Under net metering arrangements (also called Net Energy Metering, or NEM), rooftop solar owners can run their electric meters backward when their solar panels are feeding excess energy into the grid. Many California utilities claim that this arrangement allows solar customers to use the grid for power at night and during cloudy days without paying their fair share of the costs of keeping that grid running. As you might expect, that's a claim that's hotly contested by many solar advocates. That includes a coalition of the Sierra Club, Presente.org, and The Other 98 Percent, which released a protest video earlier this year accusing utilities of "buying off Latino politicians" to advance an anti-solar agenda.

Other solar groups have been more equivocal in their stance on the bill. "California is once again making history and setting a new bar for solar power," said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA). "With this law, Governor Brown paving the way for truly capturing the vast potential of solar power in California." CALSEIA had expressed reservations about the bill earlier this year.

Some solar customers who'd already shelled out for rooftop arrays had been concerned that the CPUC, in crafting new net metering regs for new net metering customers who signed on before their utilities reached the previous five percent cap, might make it less profitable to sell solar power to the utilities. Vague language in the bill about "grandfathering" existing contracts didn't reassure many solar owners. But Brown may have laid some of those concerns to rest. In signing the bill, one of nine energy and conservation-related bills he signed Monday, the Governor took the somewhat unusual step of adding a signing message, which read, in part,

As the CPUC considers rules regarding grandfathering of net metering customers, I expect the Commission to ensure that customers who took service under net metering prior to reaching the statutory net metering cap on or before July 1, 2017, are protected under those rules for the expected life of their systems.

Utilities had maintained that more affluent rooftop solar owners were escaping their share of costs for grid upkeep, shifting that burden onto the state's less affluent ratepayers. But another bill the Governor signed Monday, Assembly Member Steven Bradford's AB 217, might well offer a solution to the issue from a different direction. That bill extends two programs designed to help lower-income Californians go solar: the Single-Family Affordable Solar Housing (SASH) and Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) programs. MASH and SASH, which channel 10 percent of the California Solar Initiative's funding toward helping California's poorest residents go solar. The programs were set to run out of funds in 2016: Bradford's bill extends that for another five years.

"The benefits of solar energy have not been widely spread," Bradford said in a press statement. "While more affluent communities have been able to reduce their utility bills and power their homes with clean energy, low-income families have been left in the dark."

Under the programs, very low income households can get solarized with a subsidy paying all the costs. A sliding scale reduces the subsidy for people with more resources.

Another energy bill authored by Bradford received the Governor's signature today, and that one is likely to be warmly received by some of the state's most affluent districts. AB 1274 bars utilities from providing private data from smart meters on individual ratepayers' energy consumption habits without advance approval from the ratepayer in question.

"As technology advances and provides customers access to real-time energy data, we must also ensure that privacy safeguards are in place," Bradford said. "We need to ensure that utility customers' private information is protected from those who might wish to cause harm."

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