California is leading the clean energy revolution by requiring that all new homes include solar energy. The 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards require new homes to use either rooftop solar, community shared solar or community shared battery storage to qualify. But so far, no community shared solar or storage options have been approved by the California Energy Commission.

Now, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is proposing the state’s first off-roof program for compliance. But SMUD’s plan could end up blocking the addition of new community solar or storage to the local grid, setting a damaging precedent for other utilities and energy providers throughout the state. The California Energy Commission should remember the goals it articulated when it adopted this forward-thinking rule, and ensure that it is implemented in a way that advances the best interests of all Californians.

SMUD's unimaginative proposal

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District is the local electric utility for most of Sacramento County, covering 900 square miles and serving 1.5 million customers. While the utility has a history of innovative programs to increase renewable energy in its service territory, its recent proposal to meet the state’s zero net energy building standards is unimaginative at best.

SMUD is proposing to allocate portions of projects that the utility has already built or is building for compliance with California’s renewable energy requirement as a way of enabling homebuilders to comply with the 2019 Building Standards. SMUD may technically be able to avoid double counting, but these large projects would almost certainly be completed regardless of whether or not the projects are able to count towards meeting the Building Standards. 

Not only does the Sacramento utility’s proposal lack innovation, it fails to meet a key goal of the Building Standards, increasing local solar and storage resources for California homeowners. SMUD’s proposal does not provide any of the envisioned local benefits that a genuine community solar project would provide, including minimizing the need for costly upgrades to distribution and transmission system wires, providing other grid services like local voltage stability, and cost-effectively integrating new demand from electric vehicle charging and other new sources of demand. 

The root of the dilemma that the Commission finds itself in is that the Building Standards do not precisely define “community shared electric generation system” or “community shared battery storage system.” The Commission, understandably, wanted to encourage community solar programs and not be overly prescriptive on how they were to be implemented. However, that desire for flexibility in compliance has created a loophole that could completely eviscerate the goals of the updated Building Standards in promoting zero net energy buildings.   

If the Sacramento utility’s request is approved, it is likely that other utilities and energy providers will propose similar ways to avoid promoting local solar and storage, and instead support less flexible, utility-scale solar solutions. If the Commission had simply wanted new buildings to use utility-scale solar then it certainly would not have gone through the detailed deliberations that resulted in the zero net energy requirement for new buildings.

Defining community shared solar, storage, hybrids

Instead, the Commission should use SMUD’s utility-scale solar proposal as an opportunity to open up a dialogue with all stakeholders on how more precise definitions of community shared solar, community shared battery storage and combined hybrid systems can advance the Commission’s laudable goals.  

Utilities like Sacramento’s know that customers are eager to adopt clean technologies like electric vehicles, electric water heaters and heat pumps that can be used productively to integrate increasing quantities of renewable energy into the grid affordably and efficiently. In fact, SMUD was one of the first utilities in the country to integrate multiple technologies into a zero net energy community pilot project in midtown Sacramento almost five years ago. 

That SMUD pilot can be an innovation model for a more visionary, precedent setting program that would expand access to clean energy resources for new homes and homeowners in California. A broadly shared vision of community solar and storage can be beneficial for consumers, homebuilders, local communities, the solar and storage industries as well as for local economic development. California does not want to miss this opportunity, and in fact it cannot afford to, so let’s ensure we do this right from the beginning.

This article originally appeared on Utility Dive.

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