It is a story as old as this country: a new technology is developed, programs and policies are offered to help consumers to adopt the technology and bring down the costs over time, and just when people in Black and brown communities are beginning to be able to afford the technology and benefit from it – the programs and policies are often taken away.
Although this narrative is repeated time and again, it is wrong and harmful to our communities. We must stand up and oppose any proposal that will make it more expensive for people in our community to access solar. Rooftop solar panels can dramatically reduce energy bills and prevent blackouts.
Nothing reminds us more about the need for rooftop solar than getting our utility bills during these hot summer months – especially during a heat wave when warnings for both energy flexing and rolling blackouts are a constant threat. For our seniors, those with chronic medical conditions, and anyone who cannot afford to get out of town to cooler weather, a reprieve from both the heat and high electricity bills can be challenging.
To help Californians with this exact issue, as well as to help take pressure off our sensitive power grid, the state devised Net Energy Metering (NEM). Essentially, when extra electricity generated by customer-owned solar panels is transferred to the electric grid to be utilized by others in the community, the customer who produced that electricity is paid for the electricity they share with their neighbors. In sharing this clean energy with neighbors, pressure is being taken off our maxed-out power grid and saving folks’ money on their electricity bills.
How it works is that the owner that houses these solar panels, usually a residence or community building like a church or school, is then credited an amount similar to what consumers would otherwise pay for the amount of excess electricity they produced. This credit is the financial incentive that allows low- and middle-income Californians the ability to afford and install rooftop solar.
Today, nearly half of all new rooftop solar is going into working and middle-income neighborhoods. The NEM program has been working and is the reason solar is more affordable and accessible than ever before.
And, like we’ve seen happen time and again, now that more and more homes and buildings in our communities are able to access rooftop solar, you have to ask, why do utilities want to take that away?
In their plan proposed to the California Public Utilities Commission, which is reviewing the NEM program right now, the utilities propose charging new solar users, which includes low- to middle-income users, up to $90 more per month in energy bills. In addition, they propose increasing energy bills for new churches, schools or non-profit solar customers up to $3,400 more PER MONTH.
Furthermore, through slashing the current solar credit by 77%, the utility companies are creating barriers for residents to send surplus electricity back to the grid for their neighbors to use, which in turn only exposes the electric grid to greater impacts from wildfires and excessive heat waves.
They do not mention that these same utilities charged customers nearly $20 billion in transmission line projects between 2010 and 2019 and collected more than $20 billion in profits over a similar time period according to the California Public Utilities Commission. Yet the utility companies’ proposal will not help to alleviate these ongoing costs or curb their profits. Are we to believe that our electricity bills will decrease if the utility companies carry out their plan?
If the utilities get their way, only people like Elon Musk will be able to afford rooftop solar. The momentum that is growing to install more and more rooftop solar in our communities will end.
It’s appropriate to review and modify the solar program to make sure that people in our community have better access to solar so that we all can save. The state can make adjustments to expand access even more, and we should all advocate for these types of changes.
However, the plan being put forward by the utilities will not benefit us. If we use history as our guide – the utilities have long lobbied against many major proposals that would have helped our communities adopt solar and battery storage, including affordable housing solar incentives, community solar, and microgrids.
Just as we are starting to see the benefits of rooftop solar in our communities, why should we believe the utilities are now focused on helping us, while they are actively lobbying to take away the benefits that have made solar accessible in our state?
We need to be vigilant and hold utilities and their supporters accountable when they attempt to tell us their plan will help our communities. Their idea of a cost shift is shifting the costs away from them, so all of us pay more.
Pastor William D. Smart, Jr., President and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California