Should homeowners with solar panels pay to help maintain the electrical grid?
Homeowners face a simple calculus when deciding whether to install solar panels on their roof: Will the panels pay for themselves with savings on their electric bill?
But buried in that bill are complex variables defined by what’s known as the state’s net metering rules – the very essence of which are under debate at the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco.
Those rules must be changed or renewed by the end of the year. As the deadline nears, the clash over whether solar panel users should be forced to pay to support a grid from which they seek to disconnect is getting fiercer. Utilities want to slap fees on solar users, while the solar industry wants them left largely untouched.
Since 1996, California’s net metering rules have allowed homeowners with solar panels to effectively spin their electric meters backwards when their panels are generating more power than their homes are using. That helped pave the way for the state to lead the nation by installing 11,500 megawatts of solar capacity and building an industry that employs 54,700 people.
Whether the new rules will bolster that industry even more or prick its balloon will likely be decided in the next two months.
Over the past 15 months, the solar industry, environmentalists and utilities have sparred over the new rules, filing dozens of comment papers and briefs outlining their proposals, while tearing down each other’s.
The solar industry says threats to net metering threaten the state’s renewable energy goals and that society benefits from the pollution-free energy source.
“The future of California’s rooftop solar industry is at stake, and it’s at stake because customer choice is at stake,” said Sanjay Ranchod, the vice president of policy and electric markets at SolarCity, the country’s largest solar provider. “If a customer can’t save money by going solar, there’s no value proposition for the customer.”