One constant in the solar industry is attempts by utilities to either kill rooftop solar outright or at least claw back revenue from their customers who adopt solar. And from our work in covering this subject, we’ve seen it apply to publicly owned utilities as well as those owned by investors.
And while utilities are largely moving towards more indirect, subtle routes like higher fixed charges, from time to time they still do attempt to impose discriminatory charges on PV systems, which are hard to justify as anything but an attempt to stop rooftop solar dead in its tracks.
This was the route which was recently pursued by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which had proposed a per-kilowatt monthly charge on its customers who had the audacity to install rooftop PV under net metering.
And it was not a small charge either; as estimated by California Solar and Storage Association (CALSSA), SMUD’s Grid Access Charge would have added $44 – $77 each month to the utility bill for the typical residential customer with solar.
However, yesterday SMUD abruptly withdrew the charge, and says that it will now go through a stakeholder process and develop additional studies and analysis in 2019, including an effort to “further engage” with solar customers.
In an addendum explaining the change, SMUD alludes to receiving “public input and feedback on this item”, which is the utility’s way of delicately saying that this proposal angered and mobilized large numbers of their customers.
According to Solar Rights Alliance (SRA), which organizes consumers who own solar, want to go solar or simply support the right of residents to install and generate their own electricity, more than 1,200 SMUD customers sent emails in to protest the charge over a five-day period.
SRA mobilized its members, and Executive Director Dave Rosenfeld says that once word got out the movement spread on its own. “They started spreading the word next door, and then we had people who went door to door to solar homes with fliers,” Rosenfeld told pv magazine. “This was being discussed at the kitchen table, and on various online forums.”
This culminated in an estimated 30 SMUD customers showing up to a workshop that the utility held today, even after the Grid Access Charge had been cancelled.
Not out of the woods yet
But while SMUD has withdrawn the Grid Access Charge, its language suggests that it will still attempt to impose charges on its customers who go solar, as the utility is claiming $30 million in “cross subsidies” between its customers who adopt solar and other customers.
However, it is not clear that this number has been generated using a robust analysis of actual costs and benefits of distributed generation. Instead, CALSSA Executive Director Bernadette Del Chiaro describes a “simplistic” analysis that went into justifying the proposal, based on multiplying the expected output of PV systems by retail rates, under the bizarre logic that every electron generated by rooftop solar is a burden and not an asset to other ratepayers.
It is unclear how much SMUD will modify its approach through the resulting stakeholder process, however the utility’s leaders have a motivation for reaching consensus that the executives and boards of investor-owned utilities do not: the potential of being voted out if they anger their customers.
“It’s the only utility in California that is truly democratically elected,” Del Chiaro told pv magazine. She contrasts the election of SMUD board members with that of other public utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), whose board is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
Solar bill of rights
Utility proposals to impose discriminatory charges on their customers would be illegal if SB288, dubbed the Solar Bill of Rights, passes the state’s legislature. The bill passed the Senate Energy Committee two weeks ago, and will now go to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which should be its last stop before the Senate floor.
SMUD argued against the legislation in the committee hearing, however it may have unwittingly built support for the bill by its attempt to impose the Grid Access Charge. “It underscores why we absolutely need the solar bill of rights – that a utility could get away with a discriminatory fee like this,” stated SRA’s Rosenfeld.
Rosenfeld says that not only does this attempt at a fee strengthen SRA’s case, but that it has alerted many SMUD customers to this issue, and the danger that they could be subject to discriminatory charges if the bill is not passed.
He notes that the large majority of the 52 people who attended the Solar Bill of Rights hearing in Sacramento were utility customers and solar workers, some of whom were from SMUD’s territory. And he says that this is just the beginning.
“We will see lawmakers hearing a lot more from citizens in the next weeks and months,” predicts Rosenfeld.