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Controversial Rooftop Solar Bill Passes State Senate

The Capitol in Sacramento | Photo: Franco Folini/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A bill to revamp the state's laws regulating how utilities treat rooftop solar that had been a target of pointed criticism by pro-solar groups passed a voice vote on the Senate Floor Monday. Its amendments have some solar advocates singing cautious praise.

Fresno-area Assemblyperson Henry Perea's Assembly Bill 327, which has attracted criticism for its enabling of a fixed monthly service fee payable to utilities, passed a State Senate floor vote by 27-6 Monday afternoon. (Six Senators had not yet voted at press time, so the final tally may change.)

Among amendments added to the bill since its last reading on Friday was the removal of a ceiling on the amount of solar energy that utilities are obligated to buy from their solar customers. By removing that ceiling, the bill would almost literally make the sky the limit for rooftop solar in California.

Under existing state law, utilities have a cap on the amount of solar energy they're obligated to buy from their customers with solar panels. That cap is set at 5 percent of each utility's maximum power demand. By removing that cap, the bill removes a significant looming obstacle to greater adoption of solar power in Calfornia..

"California is once again on the brink of making history and setting a new bar for solar power," said Bernadette Del Chiaro of the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA). "With this bill, Governor Brown is saying he wants a future in which solar power is effectively unlimited and able to grow to help meet the state's climate goals."

That's quite a departure from environmentalist interpretation about earliier versions of the bill. Groups such as the Sierra Club and Presente.org had slammed earlier drafts as being part of a utility company stealth attack on rooftop solar.

The bill, whose Senate version now difers substantially from its Assembly counterpart, goes to the Assembly for approval. If the Assembly approves the amendments in a concurrence vote, which seems likely, the bill then goes to Governor Brown's desk for signing.

The controversial monthly grid access charge that has attracted the ire of solar and civil rights groups remains in the version of the bill approved by the Senate. Utilities have maintained that such a fee would correct an imbalance in rate structures that allow rooftop solar panel customers to use the grid as backup without paying their fair share of the costs of upkeep of that grid. That's a contention that solar advocates hotly dispute.

At press time, ReWire was unable to determine whether a second controversial measure in the bill -- which would give the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) authority to unilaterally renegotiate net metering contracts across the state -- also remained in the bill.

Though Del Chiaro expressed reservations to ReWire about the fixed charge for utiility customers, she was sanguine about its inclusion in the final Senate version of the bill. "The bill doesn't order the CPUC to set that charge," said Del Chiaro. "It merely authorizes them to do so, and gives the Commission a lot of leeway in implementing the charge should they decide to do so." Del Chiaro added that the CPUC could set a minimum bill rather than an additional, across-the board charge to answer utilities' concerns about ratepayer fairness.

The amended bill is likely to see an Assembly floor vote this week.

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