Well-thought out legislation to create midsized solar energy systems at the community level faces intense opposition from two of California's behemoths, PG&E and Southern California Edison.
Senate Bill 843 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, has backing from several cities and school districts including Davis and its schools, environmental groups, numerous green energy producers and the U.S. Department of Defense, which is under an Obama administration mandate to increase its use of alternative fuels.
But the bill languishes as the legislative session comes to its conclusion this week. The question for the Legislature is straightforward: Does it want to make solar energy available to all residents of the state at reasonable prices, or does it want to side with the utilities, which worry about more change to their business model?
As it stands, many residents do install rooftop panels for good reason. People who don't directly participate include renters, apartment house owners, homeowners who have large trees that block the sun, and individuals who don't have adequate credit needed to qualify for the financing.
Under the community solar concept, those residents would be able to contract for power from companies operating midsize arrays. They'd get something of a price break, and help the state wean itself from traditional sources of power.
Utilities view residential rooftop solar panels as less than efficient, arguing that ratepayers who don't use solar subsidize ratepayers who do. Now, PG&E and Southern California Edison are making similar arguments against community solar, though, importantly, San Diego Gas & Electric is supporting Wolk's bill.
Wolk has made an important concession, agreeing to permit the California Public Utilities Commission to sort out details if SB 843 becomes law. That means PG&E and Edison could make their case to commissioners who know about electricity. If the PUC determines that the program is not working as anticipated, the commission could alter it.
PG&E and Edison are lobbying powerhouses and major players in campaigns in California.
On its own, PG&E handed out $1.2 million to California candidates and political parties in the first half of 2012, and spent an eye-popping $108 million on California campaigns since 2000.
The lines in this fight are clear. Will the Democratically controlled Legislature side with the Obama administration's Defense Department, environmentalists, local governments and many consumer advocates, or will the Democrats side with the utilities?