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California might reduce financial benefits of rooftop solar systems

Business at the small East Bay solar company owned by Ben Giustino’s family has been booming lately, buoyed by strong local demand for rooftop panels that use sunshine to generate electricity.

The Berkeley company, A1 Sun Inc., has been growing steadily since Giustino’s father launched it in 2007, and the past year has been its most successful ever, as measured by the number of installations the 16-employee firm completed.

But Giustino, project manager at A1 Sun, fears the tide may turn decisively in the other direction if California regulators next year overhaul a key program that has fueled the growth of the rooftop solar industry since the mid-1990s.

Known as net energy metering, the program compensates homeowners for the extra power their solar panels share with the electric grid. The California Public Utilities Commission has been contemplating changes, and it’s expected to release a proposal in the coming weeks ahead of a vote early next year by the agency’s governing body.

Specific changes being considered by regulators vary, but they include possible reductions in monthly bill credits and a new fee that’s intended to make up for electric grid costs, for which utilities and other groups say solar-powered homes are not paying their fair share.

Giustino and other advocates for rooftop solar say such steps, if taken too far, could stifle the industry’s growth — and spell financial trouble for companies like A1 Sun.

“As a business, we have to pivot really hard as soon as this comes out to be able to adapt to whatever the changes are,” Giustino said. “(But) it’s quite possible that we’d have to lay off employees and potentially shut our doors if it’s really bad.”

Edward Stewart with A1 Sun Inc. works on an installation at a commercial space in Oakland.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

The CPUC’s impending action comes several months after the failure of a state bill, AB1139, that would have imposed new charges and lower credits for solar energy that homeowners share with the grid. That legislation failed in the state Assembly in June, but CPUC officials were already considering their own changes and have continued to do so.

Advocates for rooftop solar have been sounding the alarm consistently this year, warning that the CPUC’s action threatens to wreak havoc on the industry and impede the state’s ability to meet its goals for fighting climate change. At stake, they say, are not only numerous jobs — including Giustino’s employees — but also a crucial tool the state needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rooftop solar industry leaders warn that the CPUC’s proceeding could make the state too reliant on massive solar farms that will be slower to build and costlier than clean energy distributed across neighborhoods.

“Our message has always been, we’ve got a good thing, let’s make it even better,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association. “What the other guys who are against us are saying is, let’s obliterate it. Let’s put all our eggs in the utility-scale basket.”

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2021-11-24 06:03:13

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