On February 10, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will meet to deliberate (and possibly approve) proposals by former CPUC Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves. It shifts incentive costs of solar power from the utility to the solar customer. Three important points of the proposal that are drawing the most fire from the industry and its customers are:
A. Reducing the rooftop net metering (NEM) credits that the solar home owner is paid for unused energy produced by their home system; hence, defraying costs.
B. Charging a monthly use tax based on the system’s output costing the homeowner anywhere from $50 to $100 per month.
C. Shortening the promised NEM payback period from 20 to 15 years, the post-installation time period in which solar users get favorable NEM rates.
All of these proposals will make a residential solar purchase more out of reach for the average homeowner and more expensive for early adopters who have existing systems. If the point of our state’s solar policy is to put as much solar as possible on rooftops, this will produce the opposite result. The fact is that Southern California, and Los Angeles in particular, is a vast, partly built photovoltaic (PV) panel waiting to happen. With our abundant sunlight and thousands of residential buildings sitting on flat land, we have an opportunity to generate up to 40% of our electricity using a giant electric grid that sits on our homes, businesses and public buildings, without the substantial cost of transmission infrastructure. Of course, creating micro grids and/or generally localizing electric generation will require a utility to design and maintain a new kind of “smart” grid. New technologies have greatly eased the difficulties of incorporating a lot more distributed (from many sources) power into our lives than we have now.
Keep in mind that our grid system was basically designed about 125 years ago but we now have the capacity to reinvent and improve it in fundamental ways that will serve all of us.
“If Alexander Graham Bell returned to Earth today, the progress in telecommunications over the last 125 years would be mystifying. If Thomas Edison came back today, not only would he recognize our electricity system, he could probably fix it,” said Robert Catell, chairman of the New York State Smart Grid Consortium in 2010.
As hyperbolic as this statement may be, therein lies the problem. The electric utilities that serve us today are operating in a system that is supremely outdated to handle smart technologies and solve new problems. Spurred on by climate change, we are in a radical growth phase that demands serious public investment and visionary leadership. Presently, we have partially solved the investment problem with recent federal infrastructure funding and our state’s huge budget surplus. But the vision is still stuck in a past where General Electric brought the first large scale power grid online in Buffalo, NY. The year was 1896.
The CPUC and investor owned utilities must not keep us yoked to history but keep pushing forward for the sake of our city, our state, indeed, our planet.
Peter Donald is a Santa Monica resident