Community solar decision delayed at California Energy Commission

On Tuesday, dozens of solar homeowners, environmentalists, and solar advocates asked the California Energy Commission to reject the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD)’s SolarShares proposal. SolarShares is the first shared solar proposal being considered under the 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards that require most new California homes to include solar energy starting in 2020. After nearly three hours of testimony, the vast majority opposing the proposal, the Commission unanimously voted to table the proposal for further discussion.

This is a provisional but important victory for local solar and customer choice, and an important signal to SMUD and other utilities considering submitting community solar proposals to more carefully craft their applications. We commend the Commissioners for listening to the public’s concerns about the numerous problems with the SMUD proposal, and for choosing to deliberate more on how to keep standards high for community solar that can qualify under the policy.

The Building Standards allow for community solar and battery systems to fulfill the requirement; however, SMUD’s plan would have allowed builders to choose to assign homeowners to subscribe to solar power from large scale, existing and previously planned projects, with a projected average yearly bill savings of only $20/year, which would be less than 5% of the average annual bill savings if the solar was placed on new home rooftops instead. SMUD’s proposed program is clearly not the vision for net zero homes intended in the update of the Building Standards.

At the hearing, I spoke on behalf of Vote Solar, urging the Commission to support new, local solar projects that grow the industry and provide additional grid services including reliability and resilience. Here’s what I said:

Good morning Commissioners, my name is Susannah Churchill and I’m California Director at Vote Solar, a nonprofit advocacy group that works in states around the country to make solar more affordable and accessible for more Americans. I’m here to urge you to reject SMUD’s application for Solar Shares to count toward the new homes mandate. This is a moment where you must use the discretion the Commission has to reject a proposal that does not meet the spirit of community solar under the law you that worked so hard to craft.

The decision you make today is crucial because it will set precedent for many other utilities around the state. If you allow builders in SMUD territory to take large scale solar projects that provide only a small customer savings, and call that community solar for the purposes of the new homes mandate, then many other utilities will seek the same treatment. Instead of serving Californians with local solar and storage that will give them real bill savings as well as avoided costs for all customers, the CEC will simply be driving more large scale, remote solar development. Large scale solar can’t provide the avoided transmission and distribution costs to all customers, nor the grid services at the community scale like ancillary services and voltage support, that distributed solar and storage can. While we certainly need both kinds of solar to solve the climate crisis and Vote Solar is a proponent of both, it is clear that building more large scale solar, and providing customers with only $20 in savings per year, is not what you had in mind when you created this policy.

Commissioners, if I can speak from the heart for a minute. Because you are California policymakers, you truly have the opportunity to change the world for the better. But making real change requires both a vision, and the determination to follow through on making that vision a reality. You already made good on the first part when you laid out a vision that has inspired people everywhere, of a near future California where rooftop solar is simply built in to our homes. Where people can get their power from the sun and be more self sufficient, more resilient to climate change, whether they are rich or poor, and without even having to think about it, because it’s built right in to their new home. But now, to make that vision more than just a mirage, you’re being called to defend it with determination, and to reject a profit-driven proposal that will prevent your vision from becoming real. You have the discretion to say that this option is not the community solar that Californians deserve in this context. The profit motives of a utility and some homebuilding companies should not be the driving force behind how the new homes solar mandate is implemented. I urge you to stay true to your vision for changing the world, and to take the time to do this right.

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