Postcard from California: Regulators bowing to scheme to cripple rooftop solar

Once again, California is poised to sabotage its own climate goals.

After almost a year of heated public debate, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has unveiled its latest proposal for changes to the state’s rooftop solar program. The so-called reforms could cripple what is by far the most successful solar initiative in the U.S.

More than 1.5 million California households, schools and small businesses have installed solar panels. For 2019, the latest estimate available, the state said rooftop solar kept 6 million metric tons of planet-heating carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere – equal to taking 1.3 million cars off the road. That’s a big boost to the state’s goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045.

But California’s “Big Three” utilities – Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. – hate rooftop solar.

Under a program known as net metering, solar customers are freed from having to buy electricity from the utilities, whose rates are some of the highest in the country. Instead, solar panel owners generate much of their own power. If they generate more than they draw from the utility-owned grid, the excess flows back into the system, and the utilities must pay them for it.

Last year the Big Three pushed the PUC to deeply slash the rebates to solar customers and tack on a steep monthly surcharge just for connecting to the grid. In February, the PUC bowed to the lobbying and issued a proposal that could have slowed rooftop solar growth by half or more.

Public outcry forced the PUC to pull the first proposal back for revision. A new proposal in May still amounted to what outraged consumers, solar companies and environmental advocates called “a tax on the sun,” so the commission pulled it back again.

But round three, released Nov. 10, remains a severe blow to the future of rooftop solar. It scraps the connection surcharge, but still cuts the rebate for energy returned to the grid by about 75%, decimating one of the strongest incentives for consumers to go solar.