Californians have sent nearly 60,000 messages asking the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to ensure continued access to the state's net metering program. That's pretty impressive for a wonky policy that rarely sees the light of day outside of regulatory proceedings and hearing rooms.
So why is the spotlight on net metering?
Commonly known for its ability to send meters spinning backwards and reduce utility bills, net metering gives solar energy customers fair credit for the valuable peak electricity they put on the grid when and where it’s needed most. California caps the amount of net metering that its investor-owned utilities must make available at “5 percent of aggregate customer peak demand,” but it does not specify how utilities should calculate that number.
As a result, utilities are using a more restrictive methodology that results in almost 50 percent less net metered solar and renewable energy than would otherwise be allowed. And with rooftop solar adoption hitting a tipping point — especially in low- and middle-income communities — parts of the state are on track to hit that barrier next year.
The 60,000 messages of net metering support come as the CPUC considers taking action to clarify cap calculation methodology and allow more Californians to participate. Chairman Peevey has issued a proposed decision supporting the pro-access position, and the full Commission could make a final decision on the issue as soon as the May 24 public hearing.
“When we crafted California’s original net metering law, the goal was maximize the amount of clean distributed energy on the grid,” said former Assemblyman Fred Keeley, author of California’s net metering law. “By proposing this methodology, the CPUC is complying with the original legislative intent and helping California lead the way toward a clean energy economy.”
And as we’ve seen, Californians are on board. "With electricity bills constantly rising, it's no surprise that Californians are responding strongly to this call to preserve access to a cheaper, safer, cleaner energy option. It's past time for utilities to ditch dirty, out-dated fossil fuels that burden their customers with asthma and other deadly health problems and embrace clean, cost-effective rooftop solar," said Evan Gillespie, campaign director for Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign.
California’s program has allowed over 100,000 homes, businesses, schools, and public agencies to go solar and lower their energy costs. This in turn supports thousands of jobs statewide and reduces the need for expensive, polluting fossil-based power plants.
“California's solar industry employs more than 25,000 Californians and has driven $10 billion of privateinvestment — and net metering is central to that success,” said Sara Birmingham, director of western policy for the Solar Energy Industries Association.
So who doesn’t support the proposal? The state’s investor-owned utilities. The crux of their argument is that they're looking out for their customers — the average ratepayer who doesn't receive the bill-saving benefits of net-metered solar. Not only is that an awfully myopic view of the benefits of distributed solar, it’s also hard to buy the argument that the major utilities are motivated to lobby quite this hard simply for the good of their customers.
The CPUC’s own Department of Ratepayer Advocates has an opinion, "the utility argument that there is a 'cost-shift' is red herring and an overly simplistic statement. They do notsubstantiate their claims and don’t consider all of the benefits to net metering," said Joe Como, DRA’s Acting Director.
He continued, “[Net metering] is a way of leveraging private money for the public benefit. Most importantly it helps stabilize energy costs in the long term, adds reliability to the grid, and also creates jobs and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Those are all good things for California ratepayers."
Jamie Henn, Communications Director for the climate campaign 350.org and one of the partners on the net metering public action put it best: ”Utilities should be facilitating the public's desire for more clean energy, not thwarting it."
The past month since Chairman Peevey’s proposal has made it clear that people care deeply about this issue. In fact, a recent poll conducted for Vote Solar showed that an overwhelming majority (86 percent) of California voters support making net metering more widely available. They want California to continue to go solar, and they agree that Californians should get fair credit for doing so.
Here’s hoping that state policymakers will listen to their constituents and ensure continued access to this energy bill-saving, job-creating backbone of California's growing solar economy.
Image: Salajean via Shutterstock