Amy Butte / Climate Action Santa Monica

The future of rooftop solar is at a crux with a proposed decision issued by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). California has over 9 gigawatts of rooftop solar out of a total 23 gigawatts of solar. We will need 3-4 times this amount to achieve 100% renewable power by 2045 per SB100. Santa Monica’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 aspires to 10x our current installed megawatts, partly by cracking the market in multifamily buildings. This will be impossible with the proposed policy, which would require single- or multi-family homes with rooftop solar to pay huge fees to the utility while earning much smaller credits for delivering extra power to the grid.

To displace gas currently burned for half of California’s electricity, solar power must be stored. In 2021, 89% of new, large-scale solar projects included storage, while that number is 15% and growing for rooftop solar. Santa Monicans installed 30 systems with batteries in the last 2 years despite supply shortages. Importantly, three million electric cars using half their battery capacity could replace all evening fossil generation. “Vehicle-to-grid” is currently being piloted in Torrance and elsewhere.

The CPUC intended for its proposed “net billing” policy to incentivize storage, but it deals a blow to rooftop solar so severe that, with batteries or without, the industry and its 60,000 jobs are at risk. With the highest monthly solar fees in the country, the payback period for rooftop solar would rise to over 18 years, making it an uneconomic investment. For low-income customers, payback periods will lengthen slightly and then dramatically over four years as subsidies decline. Solar sent to the grid earns “Avoided Costs” credits based on wholesale power values that fail to account for costs of adding new transmission lines and disregard other benefits that local generation provides.

When the Clean Power Alliance, the community choice electricity supplier for Santa Monica and 31 other cities, imports cheap solar power from the desert, we pay the costs of transmitting it to Southern California Edison. A recent study estimated that maximizing rooftop and community solar would save Californians 2.3 cents per kWh or a total of $120 billion through 2050. Extreme heat, droughts of hydroelectricity from the Pacific Northwest, and wildfires caused by climate change multiply the need for distributed systems that are more resilient. In a heatwave last July, a wildfire near a transmission line in Oregon nearly took down the California power system.

People are motivated to take responsibility for their carbon emissions and electricity reliability by participating in the shift to sustainable energy. The utilities and CPUC claim that rooftop solar shifts costs to everyone else, because power from remote solar farms is cheap at times when rooftop solar sites export to the grid. However, twelve percent of California solar adopters in 2019 had incomes below $50,000, and an additional 29% had incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 — up from 9% and 24% a decade earlier. Financing, such as solar loans, leases, and power purchase agreements, is highly accessible and requires no money down. If utilities will be provided guaranteed returns for building transmission while rooftop solar investors have their returns eliminated, we are squandering resources needed to reach our climate goals.

Rooftop solar doesn’t impact wildlife or native, public and formerly protected lands like remote solar farms do. The Camp fire that burned the town of Paradise was caused by a breakage of a line on a high-voltage transmission tower. Recent studies have shown that deaths of migratory waterfowl at large solar farms increase during the fall migration because they get mistaken for lakes.

Electrification is essential for decarbonization. California requires rooftop solar on all new buildings and all new car sales to be electric in 2035. Santa Monica has incentives for all-electric buildings and to expand EV charging. Changes in electrical usage will come with buildings going electric and buying electric cars that people plan to charge with their own solar power. Giving up on the solar market as it becomes mainstream and begins to reach apartment dwellers will leave us all holding the bag of an outdated utility system less likely to decarbonize. The CPUC needs to propose a new, less narrow-minded plan to achieve an equitable and sustainable power system.

Climate Action Santa Monica (CASM) is a community-based, environmental organization dedicated to local climate action and adaptation. We have joined the 600+ organization coalition to Save California Solar, take easy actions to Gov. Newsom and the CPUC. Amy Butte manages CASM’s Climate Corps program for youth and has a background in the renewable power business.