Don't let solar burn the poor

The rooftop solar energy bandwagon continues to roll, but let’s fix the squeaky wheels before it gets too far down the road.

One of the wheels that’s due for a major tune-up?  Net metering rules in many states, which are driving up costs for all electricity customers while only benefitting a small few.  This month’s Council of State Governments (CSG) National 2014 Annual Conference took place in Anchorage and was a great opportunity to continue the dialogue on how to improve net metering.  The bottom line is that state officials – policymakers from the East, West, North and South – should cautiously approach the topic and work to ensure their constituents can fairly participate in the solar boom by refreshing net metering policies.

ADVERTISEMENT
Clean, renewable energy produced by rooftop solar panels is surely a good thing.  But not when it’s subsidized by minority and low-income populations, which is precisely what is happening due to net metering rules that need to be changed.  Put simply, net metering rules require the local electricity company to pay rooftop solar customers an inflated amount for the excess electricity they sell back to the grid.  This results in rooftop solar customers avoiding paying their share of the costs for the extensive electric grid that is necessary for the delivery of power to all customers.  So wealthy suburban homeowners with six figure incomes and high credit scores – the only ones who can afford rooftop solar – are propped up by everyone else without rooftop solar, who cover those costs through increased electricity bills.

Of course, this is not the first time that the rapid deployment of technology has created inequality in our society.  New, exciting innovations are bound to lead to unequal gains because these innovations are usually only able to be accessed by higher income individuals, especially in early days.  This is especially true today where wages are stagnate for low-income and minority families, including Hispanics.  It’s no coincidence that some of the biggest proponents of rooftop solar also happen to be some of our country’s wealthiest, including investment bankers from Wall Street who profit from the way rooftop solar leasing companies are structured.  It’s easy for them to support when they’re the ones that are able to take advantage of it. 

Make no mistake, if you haven’t heard about the ongoing net metering debate taking place in states across the country, it will be coming to a state capital near you.  So what are policymakers to do?  They should look to certain states, for example, Arizona, that have adopted a balanced approach to net metering and are beginning to address the unfair cost shift.  And, while we’re on the topic – for a sense of the worst case scenario, look no further than Germany, where excessive renewable energy subsidies have led to electricity prices that are three times what they are here.

I am confident that it is possible for people from all walks of life, and from all over the country, to participate in and benefit from the clean energy movement.  They just need the right infrastructure in place to do it.  What they don’t need are regressive policies that transfer the content of their wallets to the rich.  State policymakers have an important role to play in ushering along a clean energy future that benefits us all; they should pay attention to net metering’s consequences and fix the problem now.  Let’s make the solar bandwagon a ride that everyone can get on.     

Avilla is the city treasurer for Carson, California and the past president for Hispanic Elected Local Officials (HELO).