State panel must reject utility attacks on clean energy

A SolarCity employee works on a home in Camarillo in June 2014.
A SolarCity employee works on a home in Camarillo in June 2014. New York Times file

A year ago, I argued for Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint a clean-energy visionary to lead and clean up the ethically challenged California Public Utilities Commission.

Today, PUC president Michael Picker presides over a commission poised to either usher in a 21st-century clean energy economy – or protect the monopoly utilities’ 110-year-old stranglehold.

The commission must respond to two fierce utility attacks on decentralized clean energy.

The first, on the commission’s agenda Thursday, concerns an unscrupulous, little-known fee that PG&E imposes on customers who want to take their business to Community Choice energy programs.

Community Choice programs, like Marin Clean Energy, are not-for-profit public agencies that provide alternative electricity service to residents and businesses. PG&E collects an exit fee from these customers every month, indefinitely, on the grounds that the utility signed long-term electricity contracts on the assumption that its ratepayers would remain.

PG&E has already milked more than $50 million in exit fees, including from low-income households. Now, PG&E is seeking PUC approval to double these charges next year – and incredibly the commission has issued a tentative decision in favor.

With a dozen more Community Choice programs likely to launch in the next few years, the monopoly utilities stand to rake in billions in exit fees. This will severely undermine the ability of Community Choice programs to compete – which, of course, is the entire point.

The second hot issue is net metering, and is expected to be resolved by the commission in January. PG&E wants to slap new charges on customers who have rooftop solar, arguing that solar customers aren’t paying their fair share toward maintaining the power grid. Not so. The PUC conducted a cost-benefit analysis and found that solar ratepayers add net value to the grid. Rooftop solar supplies electricity during peak demand and enables utilities to avoid the cost of building new transmission lines.

Moreover, under the new 2015 residential rate structure, solar ratepayers already pay a minimum of $10 a month – a subsidy to utilities. And now the PUC is considering even heftier home solar penalties?

If the net metering changes proposed by the private utilities are approved, it will put the kibosh on the rooftop revolution, which is precisely the outcome they seek. In 2012, utility executives devised a strategy to raise the cost of going solar. Killing net metering came straight out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry lobbying group funded by industrialists Charles and David Koch.

When they failed to get democratically elected legislators to play ball, the utilities turned to state public utility commissions whose members are appointed. After scoring a key anti-solar victory in Arizona, they set their sights on sunny California, and here we are in 2015, facing a potential threat to California’s leadership in global clean energy.

Wednesday, the PUC issued a tentative decision on net metering touted as a compromise between the private utilities and solar customers. But the hour is late.

The PUC is at a crossroads, as is our planet. We can either continue down the crony corporate monopoly path that has brought us to the precipice of climate catastrophe, or we can smack down the utilities’ efforts to undermine decentralized solar energy. Our clean energy future will only come when communities wrest control of energy from the monopoly utilities.

Erica Etelson is a founding member of the California Alliance for Community Energy. She can be contacted at