Solar power vs. SDG&E

Utilities commission soon to rule on measure to end net metering

There are indications that SDG&E doesn't give a rat's behind about advancing solar-power use.
  • There are indications that SDG&E doesn't give a rat's behind about advancing solar-power use.

A statewide panel convened by the Sierra Club on Wednesday (September 30) took aim at efforts by San Diego Gas & Electric and other utilities statewide that could limit the spread of private solar installations across California. The group also pushed for a bill that would expand solar use in low-income neighborhoods.

Rooftop Revolution

"California is in the midst of a rooftop solar revolution," says Susannah Churchill, West Coast regional director with Vote Solar, a nonprofit solar advocacy group. She notes that the cost of installing a private system has dropped by half since 2009. "Even though a successful rebate program has been largely shut down already, we're still seeing double-digit growth rates even without those incentives."

Erica Johnson of San Diego–based Sullivan Solar added that nearly 54,000 workers across the state currently hold jobs in solar and green energy–related fields.

Much of the growth, Churchill says, is in lower- and middle-income households, for whom solar access was previously unaffordable. Still, barriers remain that prevent everyone who would like to go solar from doing so.

Left on the Sidelines

"We're seeing a 'green divide' between communities that can access solar and those that cannot," says California Environmental Justice Alliance co-coordinator Strela Cervas.

Cervas pointed out a handful of problems associated with expanding solar use in lower-income communities, including a lack of education, outreach, and language barriers.

Larger, though, are the initial startup costs, which pose a problem to working-class individuals without credit ratings sufficient to qualify for solar leases.

There's also the issue that many of these consumers live in rented housing, and thus have no incentive to invest in a landlord's property. California's Assembly Bill 693, which has passed both legislative bodies in the state house, aims to boost solar use in rental properties.

"AB 693 will create a 300-megawatt program to put solar on multi-family affordable housing," says Cervas. "It will invest up to $100 million per year over the next ten years — if signed, it will be the largest investment in solar for the environmental justice community to date."

Preserving Net Metering

"This great solar success story here in California is now at risk," Churchill warns, "because regulators at the CPUC [are] looking to make a decision that could change one of the most important policies that empower people to go solar, called ‘net metering.’

"There are times during the day that a solar system produces more energy than a customer needs at that moment, and it gets sent back into the grid to meet the needs of other customers nearby," explains Churchill. "They then receive a credit on their utility bills for that locally produced clean power that's fed into the grid that the utility sells to other customers."

Churchill says net metering has been "essential for making rooftop solar accessible." But under a proposal being considered by the California Public Utilities Commission, the system could be going away.

Legislation requires the commission, by the end of 2015, to consider changing net-metering rules once a cap of 5 percent of the state's total energy generation is met. That cap is expected to be hit in the first quarter of 2016 by SDG&E’s customers, the fastest of the three investor-owned utility regions in the state.

"The reality is that utilities see solar power as a threat to their way of doing business," Churchill asserts. "They're monopolies that make money building big, expensive power plants and transporting it — having customers harness free sunshine directly threatens that business model.

"In August, all three big utilities proposed changes to the rule. The basics are the same — get rid of net metering, credit customers far less for clean energy they feed back into the grid, and to add fees for customers who want to go solar on top of that."

If the changes are approved, activists fear, it would "slam the brakes on consumer solar investment."

The utilities commission has not announced a date by which it intends to rule on any of the specific proposals.

(corrected 10/2, 11:40 a.m.)

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In the future, the only thing the utilities will be in business for is transporting power, and controlling power flow. Rooftop solar combined with local energy storage and a smart grid will make this happen.

If the utilities overreach, then what we will have is a lot of people going off-grid and cutting the utilities out of the picture. If they play this correctly, then they will serve a purpose in the future.

In my opinion, the investor-owned Utility companies have a conflict of interest. They need to deliver a profit to their shareholders (and this is viewed as the only reason they are allowed to exist), yet they are responsible for a lot of the things we take for granted in a modern society. Maybe we should convert the utility companies from a 'C' corporation to a 'B' or benefit corporation so that profit is not the only motive.

SDG&E, MTS ...these companies don't care about you at all! THEY WANT YOUR MONEY! MTS fires their nonwhite employees right before retirement! NO DARK-skinned people get to retire from MTS!! SDG&E are DOUBLE BILLING elderly customers and charging late fees monthly. They are REPTILES!

If you read this comment, and you are a "low income household" which can mean your family income is less than $35,000 a year... you can qualify for a free solar installation on your home. Sometimes it may not be completely free, say it might cost $10 a month or so.. but it may also be free depending on the program you qualify for.

Contact GRID Alternatives. They are a non-profit solar installer that work to bring solar to low income families. They reduce their costs by using volunteers, public grants, donations from community businesses and other resources.

Before you call SolarCity, Sullivan, Vivant, SunPower or any of the other "for profit" concerns, I urge you to contact GRID Alternatives to see if you qualify for a low-cost or free solar installation.


As far as my response to this story goes... I have a few comments. Of course the utilities are scared. They have good reason to be because the cost of solar power hardware will continue to drop, and even if the utilities reduce incentives, the momentum is there. But the utility does have some truth in their gripes, because when the weather is cloudy they still have to be the provider of power. At nighttime, they have to furnish power. So although they may not have to expand too much of their power generating infrastructure due to the increase in solar generation from rooftops, they still have to have the capacity to power households from 4 or 5 p.m. daily to about 8 or 9 a.m. That grid still have to be there when the sun isn't shining on your panels.

The bogus side of the utility argument is how the solar power from rooftops affects the grid. The electrons you generate from your home get sucked up by the neighborhood, those who do not have solar generation. However, if or when the whole neighborhood is generating electrons to the grid, then there is an impact of the grid management. At some point in time, if there are enough rooftop solar generating homes in a community, the electrons will travel further to find a load. That is what the utility company's are anticipating. If at some time there are not enough loads to absorb the excess power, what should the utility do? Pay for power not used? Start investing in storage systems? This is not a simple subject, there are complicated answers to questions not yet posed.

Isaac Sandoval - thanks for your comments. Utilities have a vested interest in building power plants because they are guaranteed a level of profit to be derived from each new plant built. While there may be profit in reselling the cheaply-purchased solar excess from rooftop customers, it's likely at some point in the future (if not already) that this will be a less-profitable endeavor than selling plant-generated electricity.

Ponzi - the exploration into energy storage, both locally for consumers and on a utility scale has already begun - but it's about a decade behind the current state of the art as far as generation goes. Southern California Edison, the majority stakeholder at now-defunct San Onofre, has made several splashes in recent months with regard to investment in large-scale energy storage.

YES — What about Residential Solar Tax Credits?

Utilities don't deserve all the Solar Tax Credits from the Gov't. Because the taxpayers are paying for them. Utilities are already charging all of us to maintain the Grid, so residential and small businesses should be able to also get Solar Tax Credits so that they can install their own Solar Energy.

All customers deserve Energy Equality with the Utilities that serve them.

Big Utilities should not be able to accept residential/small business/non-Utility Solar energy without paying the same amount they pay themselves for the Solar Energy they produce at the time that energy is put into the Grid., anything less is ripping non-Utility customer off.

Parts already posted: http://www.energybiz.com/article/15/09/utility-scale-solar-slides-5-cents-kw-record-low#comment-15097

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