Those shiny solar panels you've seen blossom on your neighbors' houses throughout California? If the state's investor-owned utilities get their way, you'll be seeing a lot less rooftop black silicon in the future.
That's because big utilities are petitioning to radically alter the rules about net metering, the system by which homeowners, schools and businesses that generate excess electrical capacity on a sunny day sell their unused power back to the grid, the same as the utility companies sell it to the rest of us.
Our big power suppliers have the same right to operate under a fair business model as the small homeowner who makes an investment in solar. Few of the latter, except isolated cabin owners and the like, are ever really "off the grid" entirely. They make use of electricity sold to them by Southern California Electric, PG&E and the state's other large private firms as well, or buy it from the city-owned utilities in cities such as Los Angeles, Pasadena, Burbank and others that operate municipal, taxpayer-owned nonprofit power companies. It's the big utilities that have to operate the grid — the complex system of power lines, from the big ones coming down from Tehachapi wind farms, Utah coal plants, dams with hydro plants and the like to the small wires that come into your own homes.
But even though those big firms still control 97 percent of the electrical power market in California, they are worried about the tiny but growing group of homeowners and businesses in the state that have chosen to generate some of their own power. So they have a proposal before the California Public Utilities Commission targeting net metering by making it more than twice as expensive for the little guy through fees and smaller payments.
Those electrons are sold back to the rest of us at the same rate as electricity made by the utilities. So even though it's true all of us have an interest in maintaining the grid, the proposals are not only not fair — the solar-panel installation industry says it would deeply harm their own business model. And this is not just about staying in business. As U.S. negotiators prepare to head to the Paris talks on climate change next month, all of us have an interest in creating a country with fewer carbon emissions that lead to global warming.
When a similar measure to the one before the PUC was approved in Arizona recently, the solar industry said it saw an immediate 95 percent decline in its business. Homeowners said that it no longer penciled out for them to invest the $15,000 or so it costs to go solar and recoup their investment through energy savings over 10 or so years. Hawaii just passed an anti-solar bill after intense lobbying by that state's largest utility, and big condos that were on the verge of going solar dropped their plans. Two of the sunniest places in the nation are now seeing dramatic drops in individuals going solar.
The good news is that two other states, New Mexico and Wisconsin, recently prevented their utility commissions from siding with the big utilities by making small solar power less economical.
About 130,000 Californians signed petitions to the PUC asking it to protect net metering, and big wheelbarrows of the petitions were delivered last Thursday. In the future, the formula may need tinkering with to protect the grid. But the time to change the model, just as solar is taking off, is not now.