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California is about to stumble in the climate fight

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Until recently, when it came to fighting climate change, my home state of California was the undisputed leader among the states.

Since 2006, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to reach a goal of 1 million homes powered by rooftop solar, California has set a standard in the battle to reduce climate-altering pollution. Surpassing that goal in 2019, combined with the state’s landmark commitment to 100 percent clean and renewable energy, helped elevate California to global climate star status.

What California does matters on both the national and international stages

Among many initiatives, one particular incentive helped the state reach and then surpass Schwarzenegger’s goal — and that incentive is about to be taken away.

A little-known but powerful state agency, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), recently issued new rules for the future of rooftop solar and batteries in California. Simply put, if their proposal is adopted, it would jack up electricity bills for rooftop solar owners to double or triple what they are now. In addition to cutting the “net metering” credit that solar users get paid when they sell their power back to the grid, the CPUC is also proposing a $57 monthly fee for people who install solar.

We’re in the middle of a climate emergency. The last thing we need to do is make rooftop solar more expensive.

California is a climate leader not only by inclination, but also by necessity; the state is a real-time example of the consequences of climate change. Wildfires, heat waves, catastrophic mudslides, blackouts, and drought in the state dominate global headlines; it can be scary to live here. As the federal government has stumbled in recent years on its carbon reduction priorities and global commitments, the Golden State has achieved remarkable progress toward a clean energy future, in part through strong policy support for rooftop solar and batteries.

But the investor-owned utilities have objected for years to the state’s net metering provisions, which allow customers who install rooftop solar systems to sell excess electricity back to the grid at a reasonable rate. Now they are calling for people who install solar to be punished — not only with a precipitous drop in the net metering rate, but also with the highest fees in the entire United States. And we know that in locations where net metering rates are cut, solar installations grind to a halt. In just one example, when Nevada went this route, the solar adoption rate dropped by 47 percent. When strong policy was reinstated, the rate came back up.

Utilities say building new solar farms is a better option — but think for a minute about where those will be built. New farms are already planned for just south of Joshua Tree National Park. The utilities’ preferred route is to declare open season on California’s open spaces.

Yes, we’re going to need utility-scale solar too, to meet our clean energy goals. But the only way to minimize the damage and disruption to California’s expanses and sensitive species is to maximize rooftop solar. Gutting the policies that support it will not achieve that end.

Until now, California has demonstrated the kind of momentum to address the climate emergency that others aspire to mirror. Why would any state with such momentum decide to just stop?

Instead of putting the brakes on the transition to renewable energy, California should be taking on the next frontier, setting goals and incentives for installed battery storage to complement the growth in distributed solar.

The world is watching, California.

Policymakers, business leaders and energy consumers across the political spectrum acknowledge the climate emergency and are taking action. But Washington, D.C., has not yet found a way to deliver action sufficient to the task, so states have got to keep the pedal to the metal.

Meanwhile, investor-owned utilities in other states are quietly plotting their own attacks on distributed solar power. If California withdraws its support for rooftop solar, it risks becoming the worst kind of example — a wrong one.

Wendy Wendlandt is president of Environment America, a national network of 29 state environmental groups working together for clean air, clean water, clean energy, wildlife and open spaces, and a livable climate.

Tags California California Public Utilities Commission Climate change climate fight net metering Photovoltaics Renewable energy economy Renewable energy policy Rooftop solar power Solar power

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