Opinion: CPUC’s proposal to change rooftop solar policy hurts middle class people

Clean energy solutions must be accessible and grid innovation costs must be fair

By Esperanza Vielma

Special to The Examiner

When solar panels first hit the market 20 years ago, wealthy people who cared about the environment were the most likely solar consumers. That’s because the market was not yet big enough to bring down costs.

But because of a policy called net energy metering, or NEM, California’s solar market has seen nothing short of a revolution. NEM compensates rooftop solar customers at a retail rate for the excess power their solar panels create, and everyday people use and love the program.

Today, working families and the middle class make up nearly 50% of solar customers. Those numbers could well be in the mid-60 percentile in just a few years, if we do things right.

The trick to advancing true solar equity is to do things right. At the moment, because of a public relations-driven and cynical lobbying campaign by California’s investor-owned utilities (IOUs), California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is doing all the wrong things.

The commission is proposing a tax on rooftop solar customers, slashing the NEM credit that solar customers get and imposing a 57-71% overall reduction in the residential solar savings rate. The commission argues this change will prevent California’s investor-owned utilities, or IOUs, from passing grid maintenance costs off to poor people. The IOUs call this argument a “cost shift.”

I lead the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. I am co-founder of the Coalition for Environmental Equity and Economics. Along with Green the Church and the Council of Mexican Federations in North America, we represent frontline environmental justice communities, California’s Latino immigrant communities and the faith-based green movement. Advocating for these communities is our sole concern. So, it is disconcerting to hear the CPUC argue that it has the environmental justice communities’ best interest at heart in constructing the NEM 3.0 proposed decision.

The truth is California’s solar revolution is great news for our state and frontline communities, and rolling back the growth of rooftop solar would be really bad. That’s because the expansion of rooftop solar has helped clean California’s air by lowering fossil fuel emissions. For frontline communities who live in areas with California’s worst air quality, reduced emissions also decrease the health-related issues caused by that pollution.

California’s solar revolution is the best way for California to lower the cost of people’s electricity bills. Because the sun is a free and sustainable resource, the price to harness its energy is substantially cleaner and substantially cheaper than fossil fuels. This is particularly true when energy production is on the roof of a building or home. We need rooftop solar to be even more accessible, not less.

So what are all the arguments over the “cost shift” about and who actually benefits? A closer look tells a story that has little to do with equity. The cost shift’s most prominent public policy proponent is the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC. ALEC is an ultra-conservative lobbying group known for protecting the coal industry, restricting voting rights in states, promoting private prisons and hailing virtues of payday lending for poor people. So not a progressive bunch in our book. And hardly the kind of institution that would promote equity unless, of course, the argument benefited a profit-driven monopoly like an investor-owned utility, the largest of which is PG&E.

There’s a saying that many in the Latino community use to judge human motives: “Dime con quien andas, te dire quien eres,” which means “tell me who you’re with, and I’ll tell you who you are.” The association of the ALEC “cost shift” argument with the CPUC’s NEM 3.0 proposed decision is disturbing but not surprising. Every environmental justice activist in California has dealt with PG&E, Southern California Edison (SCE) or San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) at some point. Our experience has not been good: IOU-caused wildfires, blackouts, energy shutdowns and constant rate hikes. So in this case, we can say we know who they are because we know they are with ALEC.

So how do we create solar equity for the frontline communities we represent? The answer to that is too long for this op-ed. However, I am sure of one thing: the NEM 3.0 proposed decision is the exact opposite of a cost shift. It’s stealing the economic and health benefits of successful rooftop solar from the poor and middle class and giving those profits back to the monopoly IOUs.

Esperanza Vielma is executive director of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.

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