A radiant bright spot is shining through the sea of gloomy economic news in California. The clean energy industry is supplying the state with more than 35,000 high-paying jobs and positioning California at the front of the line for private investment dollars.
California's trademark sunshine and spirit of innovation are sparking a solar power explosion within the clean energy sector, and forward-thinking state policies are making our state's solar industry a global leader. At least $10 billion in private investment has helped turn clean energy into one of the few thriving areas in California's economy, with our state's solar market growing at a pace of up to 40 percent annually.
The cornerstone policy of this solar boom is called net energy metering. Commonly known as the program that lets a customer's electric meter "spin backward," net metering is a simple billing arrangement to ensure that solar customers receive fair credit for the electricity their systems generate. Net metering operates like rollover minutes on a cellphone. When customers don't use all the power their solar panels produce, the extra energy is sent to neighbors, and the owners get credits on their electric bills.
When my colleagues and I authored California's original net metering law, we set out to break down the barriers that prevented and discouraged members of the public from generating clean energy on their rooftops and property.
Since the law took effect in 1996, we have watched our goal become reality. Businesses, school districts and homeowners all benefit from net metering. Taxpayers, too. California schools, water districts, local governments and nonprofits will save $2.5 billion in electricity costs over the next 30 years of operations of net metered systems. Schools will save $1.5 billion.
Even though 43 states have followed California's lead with net metering policies, investor-owned utilities in our state are seeking to unravel net metering. Last year, San Diego Gas & Electric attempted to impose a "network access charge" on solar users, in effect levying a solar tax that would cost ratepayers with solar systems millions of dollars. The California Public Utilities Commission wisely rejected SDG&E's surcharge.
The utilities now are turning to the state Legislature in a new attempt to undermine the solar economy. They are backing Assembly Bill 2514 by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, that would undercut action by the PUC to allow another 2.1 gigawatts roughly the total amount of solar-powered electricity generated in the state last year to be added onto the grid.
As it stands, our net metering law caps the amount of electricity that customers can put back on the grid at 5 percent of aggregate customer peak demand. But the original law did not specify how utilities should calculate that number. Consequently, utilities are using a more restrictive approach that halves the amount of solar power that can be net metered.
That is why I joined the state's solar industry in asking the PUC to clarify the way it calculates the amount of power being put onto the grid. Earlier this month, the PUC issued a proposed decision clarifying that utilities should use a new cap calculation process that results in more California businesses and other ratepayers having access to the energy bill saving benefits of net metering. Take it from me, that was the intent of the law as we wrote it.
Yet the utilities are now trying to short-circuit the PUC action, seeking to slip their own self-serving language into legislation and subvert the agency carefully selected to regulate the state's energy policy and protect California consumers and business.
Make no mistake, this utility-backed legislation will stymie job growth and threaten our state's clean energy leadership position. As author of our net metering law, I implore lawmakers to resist this special interest maneuver to change the law. Instead, I urge the Legislature to join with Gov. Jerry Brown, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the PUC's Division of Ratepayer Advocates, the Solar Energy Industries Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation in supporting the PUC's proposed decision on net metering and protecting Californians' ability to generate clean solar energy.