Equilibrium & Sustainability

California utilities contributed $1.7M to coalition aiming to squash solar subsidies

Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli

California’s three biggest investor-owned utilities (IOUs) collectively contributed about $1.7 million in 2020 to groups that support slashing the state’s rooftop solar subsidies, according to public records.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE) are all major contributors to the Affordable Clean Energy for All coalition, which is seeking to reform California’s Net Energy Metering (NEM) program by reducing paybacks to residential solar customers, according to documents the utilities filed with the state.

While public, these documents were first identified by the Protect Our Communities Foundation, which is against the proposed reforms. 

The changes are part of a controversial proposal unveiled in December by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), as previously reported by The Hill. That proposal — which the CPUC has now postponed “until further notice” — would reduce the incentives that Californian homeowners receive for producing their own solar power, while also charging them for connecting to the electricity grid. 

The CPUC has said the proposed reforms are necessary because the paybacks granted to residential solar producers are not linked to how much the electricity is really worth, while the connection fee would “capture residential adopters’ fair share of costs to maintain the grid.” Similarly, Affordable Clean Energy for All members argue that lower-income Californians are bearing the burden of escalating electricity costs to pay for the solar subsidies of well-off residents.

But CPUC’s proposal has faced an onslaught of pushback from celebrities — like Elon Musk, Mark Ruffalo and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) — and from about 600 environmental and community groups involved in the Save California Solar campaign. These opponents have expressed fears that the changes would stymie California’s clean energy transition, while accusing the commission of catering to the state’s big three utilities.

The groups deem the proposed decision a “plot to hobble the solar program,” according to a joint statement from the Environmental Working Group and the Protect Our Communities Foundation — the group that compiled the utility contributions. 

“PG&E and its utility cohorts have falsely claimed the current solar program disadvantages working class communities and communities of color,” the statement contended. 

Bill Powers, a board member and adviser to the Protect Our Communities Foundation, described Affordable Clean Energy for All as an “AstroTurf equity coalition paid for by the California investor-owned utilities,” highlighting what he sees as a “cynical attempt to play the equity card to sink all rooftop solar boats, not raise them.” 

Powers’s organization surfaced the contributions from public documents filed by the utilities to the CPUC under California’s General Order No. 77-M, which mandates that each public utility disclose salaries, donations and other fees paid each year. 

Seventy-one of the Affordable Clean Energy for All coalition’s roughly 120 members received contributions from the utilities in 2020: $438,625 from PG&E, $1,035,188 from SCE and $196,858 from SDGE, for a total of $1,670,671, as first reported on Tuesday by Inside Climate News.

These calculations came from adding up individual donations in the 2020 77-M filings from PG&E, SCE and SDGE, Powers explained. 

“If there is one thing PG&E and the other big utilities do well, it is to buy influence and political cover,” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement. “This front group, masked as some grassroots coalition, has provided that cover as utilities try to quash rooftop solar.”

In 2020, PG&E made a total of $17.5 million in charitable donations — which includes $7.5 million from the utility itself and $10 million from its foundation, PG&E Corporation — while SDGE made $13.7 million in charitable donations, according to the 77-M filings.

SCE’s filing includes a total of $38.8 million for “dues, donations, subscriptions and contributions,” but does not break down the totals of each of these subcategories. In Edison International’s 2020 Community Impact Report, however, a community investment snapshot indicates that the total philanthropic contributions from shareholders amounted to $22 million. 

In response to the allegations from the reform opponents, Ron Gale, a spokesperson for SCE, said in a statement that “Edison International provides philanthropic support to more than a thousand community-based organizations each year across Southern California Edison’s service area.”

“These organizations take on the day-to-day challenges of strengthening communities from the grass roots level upward,” he said.

Gale stressed that just a few dozen of these groups are members of Affordable Clean Energy for All and that they chose to join the coalition based on the constituencies they serve. Edison International also donates to community-based organizations that oppose the proposed NEM reform, he added.

“To imply that member organizations of the ACEA coalition base their support on philanthropic relationships is repugnant and a disservice to those organizations, the people who work for them, and the constituents they serve,” Gale said. 

The Hill reached out to both PG&E and SDGE about their contributions, but did not receive a direct response to these queries. 

However, Kathy Fairbanks, a spokesperson for Affordable Clean Energy for All, said in a statement that she would be responding on behalf of both the coalition and the utilities. 

“Just as the publicly-traded solar corporations have community outreach budgets, so, too, do the state’s three IOUs,” Fairbanks said, referring to the investor-owned utilities: PG&E, SCE and SDGE.

Fairbanks likewise noted that the utilities provide contributions to hundreds of organizations that are not coalition members.

“We’ve never hidden the IOU’s participation — the IOUs have been listed as members on our coalition website since Day 1,” she continued.

The coalition, Fairbanks explained, is fighting to ensure that NEM subsidies “reflect the value rooftop solar provides and that those subsidies don’t fall disproportionally on Californians least able to pay.” While costs for rooftop solar have dropped 70 percent since the program was launched 25 years ago, subsidies have continued to increase, she added.

Fairbanks also described Powers’s characterization of Affordable Clean Energy for All as an “AstroTurf” group as “ridiculous.” She countered that the Solar Rights Alliance — a nonprofit association of California solar users that supports the Save California Solar campaign — fails to disclose “the funding they receive from the financially vested solar industry” on their website.

Linking to January 2022 state lobbyist employer filings for the California Solar & Storage Association (CalSSA), Fairbanks pointed out that CalSSA gave Solar Rights Alliance a cumulative total of $465,218 for 2021.

Dave Rosenfeld, the executive director of the Solar Rights Alliance, confirmed in a statement that his group does “seek and accept donations from the solar industry.”

“Solar users expect that from us, and also expect their solar companies to support efforts to elevate their voices,” he said, noting that the alliance has received grassroots donations from thousands of individuals — about $150,000 since they launched a campaign to save net metering last year.

“In this fight, in which the utilities are attacking consumers and trying to block everyday people from making energy from the sun, we are doing everything we can to fight for current solar users and the millions more who want solar,” Rosenfeld said. “We are leaving nothing on the table, from organizing to fundraising.”

Like Rosenfeld, other opponents to the solar rooftop reforms maintain that an approval of the proposed CUPC decision “would institute a hefty monthly tax on ratepayers” and “crush California’s popular rooftop solar program,” in the joint statement issued by the Protect our Communities Foundation and the Environmental Working Group.

“In contrast to the utility-heavy coalition in favor of the plan, the groups that oppose the effort are as diverse as the state, including advocates for environmental justice, affordable housing, renewable power, labor unions, communities of faith, and others,” the statement added.

— Updated at 6:04 p.m.

Tags California Public Utilities Commission clean energy Elon Musk puublic utilities rooftop solar

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