CEC Workshop Aims to Increase Solar Adoption Among Low-Income Californians

Last week, I joined state policymakers and other clean energy advocates in a conversation about an important and timely issue: how to expand solar access to more low-income Californians. Solar costs keep coming down and distributed solar is moving ever more into the mainstream – but there’s so much more that California can (and should) do to unlock opportunities for disadvantaged ratepayers to go solar.

california solar panels

The California Energy Commission held a workshop to solicit input on both barriers to clean energy access for these communities and concrete solutions to remove those barriers. The agency will include that input in the SB 350 Barriers Study that they’ll release later this year.

I focused my remarks on one main issue: why we need an affordable community shared solar option for low-income Californians.

Right now, the low-income solar programs run by California’s three big investor-owned utilities focus solely on making solar cheaper for Californians who live in deed-restricted affordable housing (i.e. the SASH program for single-family affordable housing and the MASH program for multi-family affordable housing). Those programs are important, and we should expand their size and ensure they are designed effectively and have dedicated, ongoing funding. (In fact, we’re in the process of commenting on the design of the AB 693 program at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which will build on the success of MASH to incentivize rooftop solar on multifamily affordable housing.)

But here’s the thing: we also need to expand options for those who live outside designated affordable housing, because the fact is that most low-income Californians live in market-rate housing. What’s more, we need options for renters who can’t put solar on their roof. A 2015 CPUC white paper estimated that while 45% of Californians rent their homes, a full two-thirds of low-income California households are renters.

Community shared solar works for renters because it allows customers to subscribe to an offsite solar project and reap economic benefits in the form of utility bill savings. (And that’s why it’s one of the policy options listed in Vote Solar’s recent Low-Income Solar Policy Guide.)

Solar costs have dropped low enough to make mid-size projects in disadvantaged areas around the state more affordable than ever before. We can create jobs where they are most needed and unlock the bill-saving benefits of 100% clean community solar power generation for low-income customers. And if we get the financing structures right, we could also ensure those customers don’t have to pay an upfront cost to subscribe.

Unfortunately, the CPUC recently approved community solar programs for customers of PG&E, SCE and SDG&E that are unaffordable for low-income customers. PG&E and SCE, for example, currently charge customers an extra 3.5 cents per kWh to subscribe to the program, known as Green Tariff Shared Renewables (GTSR)—that’s a whopping 33% increase in energy costs for a low-income customer who, as a lower energy user, is charged the Tier 1 CARE rate of 11 cents/kWh.

Low-income customers need to save money starting the first day they subscribe to a community solar program. Unless the CPUC radically revises the GTSR’s pricing structure, the program is simply not going to work for those customers.

We’re in favor of developing an alternative community solar program that is affordable and accessible for California’s low-income customers. Vote Solar and our friends at SEIA submitted a proposal to CPUC last year to do just that, and later this year the agency plans to resume the conversation on this topic in the net metering Phase 2 proceeding.

CPUC Energy Division staff is also interested in low-income community solar, and we’re excited to work with them and other stakeholders to get the details right.

California has a long, proud history of leading the way on innovative clean energy policy, and we think the time is ripe for a groundbreaking new low-income community solar program. We’ll keep you posted as we make progress on this important front!

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