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CPUC approval for net energy meeting boosts solar industry and its customers for a few more years

Employees of Solar Forward install solar electric panels on a residential rooftop on February 27, 2009 in Santa Monica, California.
Employees of Solar Forward install solar electric panels on a residential rooftop on February 27, 2009 in Santa Monica, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

A few years ago, when I was first covering solar leasing, net metering was a big deal. “Look! The meter is spinning backwards,” the solar company dude said proudly. “That’s money in the homeowner’s pocket right there.”

The California Public Utilities Commission continues to share the solar industry’s enthusiasm for net energy metering. Today the PUC expanded a subsidy for this kind of arrangement by clarifying the language under which the subsidy is offered. According to the PUC, “doubles the amount of solar systems that can benefit from NEM, providing the benefits of solar energy to many more customers.”

Investor owned utilities must participate in the program, which requires them to pay customers for the full market value of the electricity they generate. Houses and businesses with qualified energy systems smaller than 1 MW can zero out their expenses for electricity. Without the clarification, northern and central California investor owned utility PG&E could fill up the program really soon. The effect of the clarification is to buy the solar industry more time to contribute to the state’s economy.

Utilities aren’t crazy about today’s decision. They argue that more net metering means fewer people buying power the old fashioned way, collectively sharing grid costs. So, they say, people who spin their meters back and forth with the sun’s rays and the wind aren’t paying for their fair share of grid.

The Wall Street Journal reports that utilities sound ominous about the consequences:

Since solar customers don't pay fees that other customers pay to cover the utilities' costs of building and maintaining transmission lines, citywide electricity systems, low-income customer assistance and other expenses, other customers end up paying more, which isn't fair, said Dan Skopec, a vice president at SDG&E.

"If we want rooftop solar to be sustainable and grow throughout the country, we have to have a system where they pay their fair share of the cost of the grid," Mr. Skopec said.

PG&E supports the program but is "concerned about the cost shifts from solar customers to customers who either cannot afford to or do not choose to go solar," said Lynsey Paulo, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Utilities aren’t the only ones worried that net metering prevents all Californians from equal access to economic benefits from renewable energy. The Greenlining Institute has raised concerns about disproportionate benefits for some parts of the population. That kind of pressure has kept net energy metering a short term project in California. Nobody new will be able to sign up after 2015. But the PUC’s clarification today ensures that the industry and the homeowners to which it sells will be able to squeeze more benefits out of the program until then.