Editorial: The new plan to slash rooftop solar incentives is better — but still too extreme by half
In California, the public utility is the final authority on what rates should be paid by its customers. While it generally follows the orders of the state Public Utilities Commission, on occasion it has the last word. In the past, this power has been abused by a few political leaders to do in ratepayers what they want — a practice that has caused an epidemic of ratepayer-funded political campaigns.
Two recent examples should serve to remind us of the pitfalls of this unfortunate situation. In January 2017, a state Public Utilities Commission staff counsel filed a motion opposing the $4 per month installation fee for residential rooftop solar systems. While the argument in favor of the fee was that ratepayers had “a strong interest” in the system, the motion did not recognize that the fee was too high. Instead, the Commission agreed with the utility that it would “benefit both ratepayers and ratepayers’ neighbors by maintaining” the high prices that solar customers were paying.
What is most troubling about this debacle is that it was entirely caused by the agency’s own staff — with the support of the utility. The utility’s arguments against the charge, including that customers would be able to install solar at no cost, were all made in support of the commission’s request that the utility’s proposed rate increase be approved. The staff counsel’s objections were based on an erroneous interpretation of state law.
The other example is equally troubling. In 2017, in response to California’s aggressive push to cut electricity rates, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1645 into law. The bill cut retail electricity rates by up to 13 percent by lowering the amounts of money customers could earn by selling excess electricity under a variety of circumstances. Because it was enacted after the solar system installation fees had been reduced to $10 per month, the bill was seen as a major victory for rooftop solar. But a state Public Utilities Commission staff attorney has argued that this bill was unnecessary and that customers may now be overcharged under the current tariff. This move by the agency — which was supported by the state’s largest investor