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California Solar Dodges A Bullet

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In December, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) decided to keep strong net metering in California for years to come. The decision, made over the objections of the state’s biggest utilities, is a testament to the popularity of solar power, and will allow California to ramp up its solar economy while reducing global warming emissions and driving down the price of solar panels.

Net metering, which allows solar panel owners to sell electricity back to the grid at a fair and easily-understandable price, is critical for the success of solar energy. In California, a suite of strong solar policies – including strong net metering, and a recently passed requirement for 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030 – has driven the state to become home to nearly half the nation’s solar capacity. 

California is home to almost half the nation’s solar capacity (source: EIA)

These solar installations are already generating enough electricity to negate the need for about five large natural gas plants.[1] This is a big deal, since natural gas (which still is used to generate the bulk of California’s electricity) is probably just as bad for global warming as coal.

This wasn’t the first utility attack on solar in California. In March 2014, the CPUC rejected utility proposals to shorten the time period that existing solar customers were guaranteed their original net metering rates. This time around, California’s big investor owned utilities – PG&E, SCE, and SDG&E – all submitted net metering proposals that would have crippled the financial viability of rooftop solar. The proposals included provisions to slash the rate paid for solar electricity, add new monthly charges for solar customers, add discouraging new costs for connecting solar energy systems to the grid, and to add new layers of complexity for solar customers.

So how does solar energy keep surviving attacks by one of California’s most powerful industries? It has a lot to do with solar’s enormous popularity. 80 percent of Californians disapproved of the utility proposals, and state solar advocates delivered 130,000 signatures from state electricity users asking the CPUC to extend California’s strong net metering standard. That same popularity holds true across the country.

In California, and all over the United States, solar energy is booming, and capacity is growing. Utility attacks against solar power still have the potential to do great damage (as occurred in Nevada). But for now, Americans’ desire for a clean energy future is blunting the effectiveness of well-funded utility attacks.


      

[1] Based on the average generation of California’s 10 biggest natural gas plants. Data is available in EIA-923 Monthly Generation and Fuel Consumption Time Series File, 2014 Final Release, available here. Solar capacity was converted to generation using capacity factor based on NREL’s  U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis.